Before you start! How to nail down a proper brief

by Joe Gillespie — Aug 1, 2000

Before you even think about designing a Web page, whether it is for yourself or for a client, there are some important questions that must first be addressed. I have always believed that, where design is concerned, getting the brief right is half the battle. You can't possibly solve problems when you don't know what they are! And when you have that blank sheet of paper or Photoshop window in front of you and are looking for inspiration to get started, knowing where you are heading is a great help.

Many clients are incapable of giving a proper brief. They have a rough idea of what they want, maybe they've seen something on another site and want something similar. Maybe they have no idea what they want and are looking for suggestions. In the majority of cases, I find that I have to write the brief myself and say, "Is this what you have in mind?" It usually is, or it's pretty darned close. Then we all know where we are heading, and it's down on paper and agreed.

Professional designers should have a doctor/patient relationship with their clients. If a patient goes into a doctor's surgery complaining of chest pains, the doctor knows what causes pains in the chest from training and experience and takes an appropriate course of action. If the patient offers a diagnosis, as they often do, the doctor ignores it and starts asking questions to find out what the problem really is.

Like patients, very few clients are experts when it comes to Web design. They may have a goal in mind but they are hiring you, the designer, to keep them straight and achieve that end. If you find that the client knows more about Web design than you do, you have big problems. If they think that they know more about Web design than you do, and you can't convince them otherwise in the first few minutes, you still have problems and this particular client is probably not right for you.

One of the worst situations in any design project is where the client, or the designer, has preconceived ideas of what the site should look like. This is like giving a prognosis without even knowing the symptoms and inevitably leads to a bad design solution. Clear all preconceptions from your mind. If you have already decided that because you have just learned to use Flash that you are going to use Flash, that is the wrong reason.

Step back.

First consider the problem, then decide the best way to solve it! Your doctor doesn't prescribe the latest designer drug without establishing what exactly is wrong with you and considering all the other options for treatment first.

That's professionalism!

Every design problem has its own set of peculiarities and requirements. Not only do you need to establish what these are but you have to prioritise them too. To hit the target, you can use a precision rifle or a scattergun - one spot-on solution or a number of solutions that are slightly differently focussed. Even doctors don't always know the exact way to treat an ailment, they may have to try a few alternatives - there's nothing wrong with that. But, some doctors are general practitioners and some are specialists. Their options and charges vary accordingly.

There is no magic formula for constructing a brief. As I said, every problem is uniquely different and needs to be treated as such, but here are a few basic guidelines to get you up and running.

The Objective

Establish the purpose of the site which may focus on one, or include several of the following requirements:-

To inform

To provide information where the end result is not directly sales related.

Educational and scientific sites.

News sites.

Public or special interest sites.

To entertain

Sites that entertain or amuse without selling anything.

To advertise or promote

To provide information about companies, products and services that are sold through conventional channels.

To generate direct sales

Mail order - Where the products or services are not exclusively sold off the page.

e-commerce - The products are primarily sold off the page.

The Target Audience

Identify the audience profile and surfing environment.

Lowest common denominator

Sites that people can access with any computer, monitor or browser.

You can’t assume any particular screen size, color depth or plug-ins.

The majority market

Sites that don’t pander to the lowest common denominator, excluding the minority ‘bottom end’

Assume at least 800 x 600 at 16-bits, sound and the most common plug-ins and technologies - JavaScript, Flash, etc.

Specific groups

People who have fairly predictable browsing environments. e.g.

On an intranet - Known and controllable surfing environments - networked PCs.

Graphic/Web designers - Large, high resolution and color-depth monitors. Powerful machines. High proportion of Macs. Some Unix.

General business users - PCs with 800 x 600 monitors, low colour depths, no sound. Not easily reconfigurable by the user.

Education and Scientific - Spans all computer types PCs, Mac, Unix.

Home surfers - Similar to general business but more likely to be higher (or lower) specs.

Mobile phone (WAP) and PDA users - Limited to small amounts of text and minimal (if any) graphics.

The Scope

Establishing the designer’s responsibilities for the project.

Mechanical

Assembling a Web page from supplied elements using basic HTML/JavaScript.

Providing basic page layout and navigation.

Uploading files and managing the server space.

Site maintenance/updating.

Creative

Conceptual design.

Overall site concepts and architecture.

Graphic design:-

Illustration, photography, animation, logo design etc.

Typography using Cascading Style Sheets.

Copywriting:-

Words, foreign translations, proof reading.

Client side programming:-

DHTML, JavaScript, Java etc.

Server side programming:-

CGI, Active Server Technologies, database back-ends.

Integrating shopping carts/e-commerce solutions:-

Using off-the-shelf solutions.

Security and encryption:-

Credit card facilities.

Del.icio.us Digg Technorati Blinklist Furl reddit Design Float