The Perfect Website Brief
So what makes a perfect website brief? Over the years we’ve seen and responded to a lot of briefs for prospective projects, from the good to the bad and the ugly. There’s been a lot of pitches we’ve won, ones we’ve lost and ones we’ve decided not to submit anything for. It is a necessary part of what we do but it doesn’t help it occasionally being a very dispiriting process – whether it be pouring heart and soul into planning for a project you never get to do or the anxiety and stress of turning around an elaborate proposal in a matter of days.
I’ve never envied the writers of the briefs which have come our way. Co-ordinating and negotiating with colleagues, distilling complex and disparate thinking and carrying the can if it all goes belly ups stressful at best. I have, however, on occasion wished I was able to step back in time and suggest some subtle editing of a brief sent to us. For example, briefs which don’t convey the key details of a project can make it hard for an agency to suggest the correct solution for the project. Alternatively if too much of the proposal is left open for agencies to suggest solutions it can lead to an unhelpfully diverse set of responses that are hard to compare.
We’ve seen a fair few where people have copied and pasted briefs from other sectors, reams of corporate information and hoops to jump with ending with a request for a single day’s worth of work. Sometimes it’s felt like the information requested doesn’t match what it arguably the most important aim of the brief – to secure an individual or agency which can do the job, get along with the company, be reliable and deliver on time for the budget allocated. Many of the other things can be worked on once the right agency has been found.
Probably no two designers would agree on what the perfect brief would include but I thought I’d throw in some ideas.
State a budget
Okay, so I thought it best to get this one out of the way first. It’s probably the most controversial item in my list. ‘How do we know you’re not just going to make the cost meet our budget and over charge?’ Well, in many ways you can’t but, when sending out a proposal to a list of new companies, how can you tell you’re sending the brief to the right people? A budget makes it clear immediately if project and agency are a suitable match and hopefully makes sure no one wastes their time. Immediately an agency can evaluate the project and raise concerns if they have any. The worst case scenario? The agencies that receive the brief say it’s not possible and from then a really helpful dialogue might well occur – ‘we can’t do this but we can do that’ ‘why don’t you try this agency, they do that kind of thing’. And the organisation finds out really early on if there’s an issue, not on the day when they receive all the pitches and find none of them fit the bill.
There is also a second benefit, an agency knows from the start what options to explore and what technology can be used. The proposal they submit should then be a realistic plan to build a site within budget. We frequently have budgets where we have to squeeze in a lot of work and features into a modest budget or we are sometimes presented with a cost which gives us scope to push the envelope and suggest ambitious avenues we could explore. It’s also great once in a blue moon to say ‘Yes, we can do all that and these things too but it doesn’t need to cost you anyway near your budget’. It’s great – we hopefully get some good will and everyone’s happy.
A barrier to outlining a budget for the work is if the organisation really has no idea what the work might cost. My advice would be to ask, whether that be friends and colleagues in partner organisations. You can ask the designers to speculate. All before the formal pitch process. Many a time web clients have come to us because they’ve seen a website we’ve done that matches what they want. Ask the agency how much something like that might cost. Get a feel of the market. After all, there are websites out there which cost £600 to ones which cost 1/4 million – it’s good to know where you want to fit into that spectrum.
Include a timeline or deadline
I think it’s really helpful for a brief to include an idea of when the project needs delivering. Being upfront will mean not wasting time with agencies who, for whatever reason, can’t meet your deadline. It’s also worth deciding if the timeline or deadline is set in stone, or if there’s room for compromise. The worst case scenario is that all the companies approached turn down the opportunity to pitch but it’s probably better to find that out early on. It could also lead to a dialogue with the agencies to possible compromises or alternative ways to deliver a successful project.
Purpose and aims
It’s nice to be able to understand the motivations and ambitions of the client. Knowing the aims of a website helps us know what we should spend time focusing on, what’s important and gives us an idea of what will make the website be deemed as a success. Furthermore it gives the agency a chance to feedback on any fixed objectives – highlight any they feel are problematic or unattainable. You may find out a lot about the agency just be their response to your targets which will help you make a choice as to who is the best fit.
Defining your audience will most probably make no difference to the costs for the project but it helps build a picture of what the website needs to be. The better understanding of the project the agencies have, the more likely the proposal you get back will be relevant and accurate.
Having a preference as to how you want the website to be built might could be a deal breaker for a lot of web developers so ruling out those who can’t is fairly essential. It could also be a guide to the companies pitching, ‘Our current site is built in ‘X’ and we really like it / really hate it / would love to use the same again’. It’s also a helpful place for agencies to evaluate how experienced you are in certain systems and may well tailor some of the costs accordingly. It can effect the work needed for transition from old to new site and save time at the end of the process if people are already familiar with the content management system that’s being used.
Features, sections and pages
This can be a list of the bare minimum which needs to be included on the site. There’s always room for blue sky thinking (and it’s always nice to leave space for agencies to suggest ideas for what the site could be) but it’s very hard to compare different pitches if they don’t all include a similar set of features and functions. Is there a need for an on-line shop? an events calendar? a secure area for members?
It’s also helpful to have a guide of the sections and/or pages on the site. This can be a ‘starter for 10’, a rough idea of that’s wanted but can quickly identify areas of the site which developers may want to pay special attention to. It can often lead to questions from the ‘pitchers’ and ideas for features on the new site. It can also guard against omissions within the pitches. One issue we sometimes encounter is when pitches are based on a brief of ‘like the old site but better’ where complex features are buried deep within the older, sometimes badly structured site. Without flagging those features they can be missed until a lot later in the project where back pedalling could cost time and money to both parties.
It’s sometimes easier to see the vision you have for a new website by seeing the kind of site you aspire to having. Whether that be examples of the competition you want to look better than or listing specific parts of a website which incorporate features you’d love to see on your site, it’s great to know what you’ve seen and are inspired by and gives us a feel of the kind of site we’re being asked to deliver.
Unless any of the agencies pitching already have a working relationship with you, they won’t really know how your organisation ticks and how you like to work. Some organisations may prefer weekly face to face meetings, presentations to board members, a series of focus groups to decide upon designs or to road test prototype versions of the site. When articulated it becomes clear to the agency how much, if any, additional time is needed above and beyond the practicalities of building a website. And again it can identify what you’re asking of an agency. A company in Edinburgh may not want to commission an agency based in Bristol if they’re hoping for twice weekly progress meetings at their offices (or the agency may not want to submit a proposal if the costs do not allow for that time). Being upfront with issues like this will mean you won’t choose an agency which on being commissioned refuse to go the extra mile because of the impact it will have on the time spent on the project.
Are there any other requirements worth mentioning at this point? Does the agency need to help with the website performing well on search engines, how much training is required, does the agency need to create a new visual identity to use on the website, do you need new imagery or a copywriter to help with writing the content? Sometime the added extras will help choose the agency that’s needed to do the work as will depend on their experience beyond building websites.
It’s clear from writing this list that many of the points don’t just apply to briefs for website work and could apply to the other work we do on branding, marketing campaigns and nearly everything else. It might well lead me to do a bit of copying and pasting to do a similar post in the future. In the meantime we’ll hopefully still keep getting sent briefs, create pitches and win the work that we love to do.