The approach to any project really depends on it's scope, timeframe and resources available. However, here are some of the steps that I have participated in during my years of experience.
Competitive analysis will often help in defining the goals of the business. After the business goals have been established, user research should also be done. Once those things have occurred, analysis should be done to see where business & user goals intersect or compete with one another.
If a user cannot find the information that they are looking for on a site, then the site design is unsuccessful. Information architecture establishes a logical, task-oriented grouping of information and provides a clear, intuitive navigational structure. Sitemaps, task flow diagrams and wireframes are tools that help the business quickly visualize a solution so the right discussions can occur.
When first starting a design sometimes quick sketches or wireframes can help drive out important design decisions early in the process. This includes discussions about placement of information on the page combined with very basic typography. Paying attention to things like labels and instructional content, as well as making sure the right overall message is being delivered, all have a huge impact on usability.
Once some basic layouts have been established, the next layer of design is ready to be applied. The company/product brand should be researched. All imagery, color and typography should support the brand. Not only does the "look" of the site require thought but the "feel" as well. A website is not just about visual design but about the entire user experience.
Usability testing can help determine things like, if a navigation system is working or which of multiple designs is most successful. It can also help determine if the user goals are the same as the goals of the business. I have prepared many usability prototypes and am used to adjusting my designs based off of usability test results.
“Laurie's approach to design and willingness to work with the tech team were her greatest strengths. She was willing to learn the more technical aspects of web design, which made implementing her designs much easier for the tech team, while increasing her knowledge of the medium.”— Tim Allen, Programmer at CDNOW.com