C'mon people. Where's your brief?

A "Brief" is a written specification. Sometimes called a Project Doc, Client Specification, New Site Brief, et al. What it's called doesn't really matter. What matters is that you have one...

...before you contact a developer.

Very frequently emails like the following come through my inbox. (Names and links have been withheld to protect the guilty.)

"...we are looking to build a Joomla based ecommerce website. We have had one previously that didn't really do what we wanted it to... ...At the end of the day we want to have a website that looks right...  ...I'm not sure that we will need a lot of design as we want something simple but effective... ...Are you able to offer some similar examples of your work and an idea of costs involved?"

It was obvious that this client had not sat down and put together a brief for their site. Let's look at what information was provided here.

  • They already had a site that didn't do what they wanted, they now want something that "looks right". So, did the old site not do what they want or just not look right?
  • They are "not sure" they need a lot of design, they want something "simple but effective". The result of truly great design if you ask me.
  • They want to see "some similar examples". Similar to what?
  • And they want an "idea of costs involved". Hmmmm.

They don't sound very inspired by their online business. I did however spend 45 minutes on the phone discussing this project. It was a fairly productive discussion which ended with my suggestion that they put together a detailed specification for me to base my proposal on. I'm still waiting.

A brief is important for 2 reasons. First, it helps clarify to your developer whats required for this to be a successful project. Secondly and most importantly, it helps you to understand what you want. You wouldn't approach a home builder and say you want a new house that "looks right" and don't do "a lot of design", just build us something "simple and effective". No. You tell them what you want based on why you want it?

There's an old post on Graphic Design Blog about this issue - Why is a good design brief so important? "Trying to produce a good design solution, from a bad brief is like trying to choose a present for someone you have never met before. They end up with a generic box of chocolates, then it turns out they hate chocolate."

It all starts with Goals.

Every website has a goal or purpose. (Apparently Facebook and Twitter do too but I'm still struggling with those concepts). The first part of your brief needs to determine the goals of your project and everything from there on needs to contribute to the achievement of those goals. The definition of the project goals is broken into 4 parts. The first 3 are the most important.

  1. Your business goals.
  2. The goals of your website in relation to your business goals.
  3. The goals of your site visitors.
  4. The project goals

Here is a real world example from a recent client.

Company Goals
ABCXYZ Organisation (inc.) is a not-for-profit body that represents and promotes the interests of ABCXYZ professionals in the community.

Website Goals

The goal of this site is to;

  • Sell ABCXYZ Organisation (inc.) memberships online.
  • Provide a platform to promote members and the activities of the organisation.
  • Provide a method for visitors to locate members that match their needs and become potential clients.

Visitors Goals
Visitors will be accessing the site either;

  • As an ABCXYZ with the goal of expanding their contacts and network.
  • As a potential client looking for the services of an ABCXYZ.

Project Goals
The goal of this project is to;

  • Redesign and modernise the existing website.
  • Implement a searchable directory of ABCXYZ professionals giving members an avenue to promote their services.
  • Setup on online payment gateway and automate the sign up process.
  • Provide other community based website features to encourage user interaction and the sale of memberships.

If you are a web developer reading these goals, your head is already swimming with ideas and possibilities for the new site. You are probably thinking of suggesting a newsletter for registered members, a members forum, member blogs perhaps limited to "premium" or "Gold Level" members, advertising banners, based on the demographic you probably already have design ideas, etc, etc.

On the other hand, if you are the client and this is your site, the definition of goals will help you to keep your ideas on track. You might decide that you want a flashy image slideshow on the homepage. OK. Sure. It will look nice but will it contribute to the Website Goals and your Business Goals?  Or is it just expensive eye candy that gets in the way of your visitors?

Lets go back to the original email quoted at the top of this article. We could say sure, we'll build you a new site that "looks right" and is "simple but effective". But would it be a successful site? Would it achieve their goals? We don't know what they are so how could it? In actual fact, if a developer was to take on a project like this it would end just like their intial project. A site that didn't really do what they wanted it to do because nobody, including the owner, has clearly defined what that is.

You want to be taken seriously, right?

All good projects start with a good brief. If you put a few hours into writting a brief for your web project you can be sure that developers like myself will be more than happy to invest a few hours of our time to discuss your project, help define the scope and submit an accurate proposal.

john-pitchers-avatar smAbout John Pitchers

John Pitchers is co-founder and lead developer at Joomstore where his primary role is the design and development of Joomla websites. He is also the developer of the FocalPoint maps extension for Joomla. John has been building CMS based web sites since 2004, originally working with Mambo before it forked into Joomla. When not writing PHP, Javascript or CSS you'll find John carving up the hills around Baldivis on his longboard (long before Walter Mitty made it famous).

Find out more about John on his About.me page and . Follow John on Twitter.

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