Your Starter For Ten: 10 things never to leave out of a web design brief

Writing a web design brief that is genuinely useful is extremely hard. In this post Andy Wickes takes you through the process to ensure your web designer is as informed as possible.

Brief writing really is a tricky skill to master.

Some agencies like to receive a brief that gives a steer as to the feeling, tone and style of a creative project. Others are far more concerned with the minutiae. And some prefer to write their own briefs based on a consultation with the client.

There is no right and wrong way to draw up a brief, save for the fact that good briefs will provide clear and detailed guidance to an agency, and in doing so produce good results. Bad briefs will do the reverse, wasting time and money and no doubt fraying nerves and tempers to varying degrees.

Web projects in particular have peculiarities all of their own, and in my experience this is for two reasons.

  • Firstly they are a hybrid of pure design and technology. Most project managers will be well versed at briefing in creative projects such as print, but not all will have had experience in web projects.
  • Secondly, it is often hard to know what level of detail to provide a web development agency when it comes to your technical requirements. Should all the guidance come from the agency? How do you know what you want when you have never been in this position before?

The simple answer is you can’t. But you can still write a detailed brief by following these simple steps, and vitally by knowing your own business. Whether you have managed a web project before or not, you will always know a lot more about what you do and don’t want than you might think. Crucially, don’t focus on the technical detail at the expense of the obvious. The list below might form the basis of your briefing document, with all the detail specific to your project tacked on as additional points.

In no particular order, here are ten ‘ignore them at your peril’ tips that any relative novice to a web project ought never to exclude from a brief.

As ever, we’d love to hear yours, so be sure to add them to the comments at the bottom of the page.

1. Budget

There really is no benefit in withholding something as crucial as this, and yet very often that is the case. If you don’t have a fixed budget then perhaps specify a price bracket that you are comfortable with – “between £10,000 – £15,000.” The real reason an agency will want to see a budget is so they can better tailor their recommendation to your expectations. It may be that the best solution to your problem is a site with online ordering, or perhaps a community forum, but if this is not within budget it is therefore discounted. With this, as with every other element of a briefing document, it makes so much sense to be open and honest. It will save you a lot of time in the long run.

Image of Monopoly Board

2. What do your users want?

It might sound like a simplistic statement, but it is rare brief indeed that is written from the perspective of the users. More often a website is built based on what the client wants the public to see of them and their services, rather than thinking of how the site might better aid their customers or prospects. Again, this is a simple wrong that you can right just by knowing your business. Speak to your customers and get them involved in the briefing process. Ask them how your new website might improve your working relationship? Could it offer functionality to make processes easier? Ask as many of your customers as you are able and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised as to how keen they generally are to be consulted in such a process. When you put this down in writing to your agency, think about creating a pen portrait of your typical customer. Typically what are they like, what do they do with their spare time and their spare money. Bring them to life a little.

Image of girl with sign that says I want to...

3. What do your staff want?

Again, very often overlooked. If you work in a medium to large sized organisation, I would put money on it that you will have numerous processes that could be made easier or even automated by the clever use of a website or an online application. And all you have to do is take the time to consult your staff and bring them into the project planning process. Perhaps you have staff who spend time posting details to customers – this could be handled online with a support section or with downloadable documents. For companies of 50 staff and over I’d strongly suggest consulting all team leaders or managers as to how a website could free up their staff’s time, allowing them to focus on other more vital tasks. You need to ensure that by the time you consult an agency to design and build your site you have considered every way in which that site can streamline back office functions.

Image of company HQ

4. What Sites You Like

And not just a page of links please. Do some structured online research of what websites might be useful to present to the agencies. This should not be seen solely as a beauty contest where you just present designs that you like. Try to find sites that meet some pre-determined criteria. For instance:

  • Links to your competitors’ sites
  • Which of these have clever functionality (which, what, and why is it of interest?)
  • What sites have design features that I like (any sites, what features do you like and why)
  • What sites have a photographic style that you like?
  • Any sites that have a typographic style / tone of voice that appeals

In all cases be as specific as you can as to what it is that appeals to you about the sites you list, being mindful at all times as to how these design features or functions will benefit your users, rather than letting your own preferences get the better of you. If your marketing team have a style guide detailing how your branding must be used then that will clearly need to be sent to your agency before they put together designs.

BBC homepage

5. How Do You Update Your Site?

Copywriting book

It’s a given that a site that is regularly updated with useful and interesting content will attract attention and drive brand allegiance. This much we know. So with that in mind you need to think practically about how you and your business plan to produce this content. As Paul Boag has pointed out, as a project manager your role needs to be one of a ‘brand evangelist,’ encouraging people at your organisation to get behind the website and to produce content and ideas that keep it fresh and engaging. Being clear about what content you are able to produce, what content you need to produce, and specifically who will be doing it, will be invaluable when you scope out what Content Management System you require. It will also help you put in place a web editor or editorial team within your organisation that is already gathering material ready for launch, while the site is still in production.

Do you have any provision in house to resize graphics? Can you source and edit photography if you need to update images? If not then you will need to be mindful that your agency doesn’t produce a design that relies on retouched photography that you can’t maintain. All this detail is, as I hope you can see, crucial.

6. Content Management Systems

Now it’s quite possible that you have either never even heard of branded Content Management Systems, or if you have your experience of using them might be limited. And that’s fine. Being realistic about exactly what level of control you require over a site is fundamental to ensuring that you (a) get the system that is right for you and (b) save money by not developing unnecessary features. So often I hear that question asked ‘What level of control do you want over your sites contents?’ to which the reply is always the same – ‘total control.’ The questions ought to be ‘what level of control do you really need over your sites’ content?’ Hopefully you now know exactly what content you will be producing in which case you will know what level of CMS edibility you must have, and any further functionality you can afford is a bonus. This level of detail is essential for an agency to accurately price, and there is little point in them spending weeks (as they may do) constructing a CMS where only a small percentage of its capabilities are actually used.

Here more than anywhere the devil is in the detail. Think about exactly what control you need. Is it just over text? Do you need to update images? If so, on what pages? Do you need to add files for download, create links, create pages, restructure pages, display news or content from third party sites or provide a facility for customers to comment or get in touch? Don’t assume that any of the above comes as ‘standard’ with any website. Granted they are common requests, but if you are to give clear instructions to an agency, and vitally get value for money, think about exactly what you want well in advance.

7. Timings

OK, another obvious one. And one that is common to any endeavour right? Building a website, producing a brochure or building a shed. You need to know what is involved and when it’s needed. But websites still often catch people out. More so than any other project they tend to invite opinions from all corners. Some advice to help you on your way with this one; be clear from the beginning who makes up the website project team at your organisation, what the process of approval is, and who is sourcing content. Note the last point. Who is sourcing content? Possibly the greatest cause of delays in web projects come from an under-appreciation of just how much time it takes to source images, text and quotes for the site. Bear in mind that this goes on alongside your day job. Ensure you allow time for sourcing the material and getting approval from your management team. You may also wish to show any new designs to customers to source some opinions from those people who matter most. Presenting accurate timings to an agency will result in a far smoother project. Agencies can anticipate work better, and therefore allocate the best resource to the project.


8. Measure your Success

Has it worked? How will we know? Has it addressed the problem we had before, or do we have the same problem only with new pictures and copy? Put simply, this part of the brief will encourage you to distil precisely what the problem is that you are addressing with a new site. Then you need to address directly how you will judge whether the new site has been a success. That might be an increase in enquiries, newsletter signup, sales, visits or a drop in telesales calls as people rely on online ordering. Either way, be clear about this so you can put in place a method to record this data. It might be an analytics package that does this, or it might be training for telesales to encourage them to ask how a customer learnt of a promotion. Either way, this needs to be thought about in advance and communicated to the agency so they fully understand all factors they need to consider to achieve your goal, and then provide clear evidence of that.

Bar Chart

9. The Future

How do you see the site progressing in the years to come? This is another reason why it is so crucial to have a website working party within your organisation, and for you to encourage people to take part in the sourcing and publishing of new information. If you have a vision for the future of the site then communicate this to your agency, as they can not only make recommendations as to how this might be achieved, but they can also factor this in to their initial designs. Have you scheduled any surround activity that will promote the launch of the site? Perhaps you have PR launching, radio, advertising or e-marketing all set to coincide with the live date of the site. For goodness sake don’t keep this a secret as all of this will be crucial for you web agency to know.

Crystal Ball

10. What exactly is it that you do?!

Never assume that your agency will simply understand what it is that your business or product does! And never assume that they don’t need to know what you do because they are simply building a site from copy and images supplied. Take time to give a short(ish) description of what your business does. Explain what sets you apart from your competitors, and what is special about your approach to your work. Agencies will work with a lot of customers who each offer a variety of services, and once they understand exactly how your business operates you can benefit from their experience in servicing similar operations online.

Pile of smarties with one odd one

More advice

Writing a good brief is just one of the challenges faced by website owners. For more advice on everything from hiring a web designer to planning the long term future of your website, buy the Website Owners Manual by Paul.

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  • John Brown

    I’m SO fed up of these list posts

    • Nice comment John – really constructive!

      Andy – I liked it. Really useful for both clients and agencies.

      Good work!

  • Good post, everyone should make sure they are doing these things to avoid confusion and problems down the road. Designers need to make sure they are on the same page as their clients to be able to deliver a site that accomplishes the clients goals online.

  • Great list. I have a web design questionnaire on my site that is a bit more extensive and has saved my ass in the past. I always have new clients fill it out before we start on quotes.

    Check it out and use it if you’d like.

    • Lucija

      Big thanks to Andy and Glenn. I have a set of new-client/project questions scribbled in a notebook and thought I’d search around look for inspiration before hitting the keyboard. You’ve both just saved me from having to type all of my questions–now I just get to add a few of my own.

    • Nice article…

      @Jay: Your questionaire is very usefull, having something like this will really help me determine the needs of my clients :)

  • Fantastic list. I seem to cover all of those automatically, but never really thought about them as a whole before. I’ll have to make sure I don;t leave any out in future projects.

  • What’s wrong with the lists? I think this was a great post. Mind you – the longer you’re in the industry – the more these become a “duh” but they’re great to help add to what we already know and have to teach to our clients.

  • Great informative post – however I think a lot of these points relate more to project scoping than to a ‘design’ brief. Timing, budget and a few other points listed aren’t really design considerations but rather project requirements/guidelines.

    Perhaps its the generic use of the term ‘web design’ for web projects that has me confused, however I think its important to note the difference between a creative/design brief and a project proposal.

  • Great and useful article. It’s always great to refresh all the pointers when staring a web project. Thanks for sharing, it comes just so handy.

  • Thanks, this is a nice simple list that I can show a client to explain why their three sentence proposal for a website wasn’t enough for me to quote on.

  • Great article! Really encouraged me to take a good look at our intake-checklist.

  • Thank you for this post. It is always difficult for me to stay grounded when speaking with a new client because I get so excited about starting that I overlook some of the necessary questions. I will most certainly use this as a guideline for the future.

  • I want to learn professional PHP to create some excellent websites. Is there any free tutorial for the same ? Is there any website that provides the source code of the entire website ? Any help be appreciated.

  • a Questionnaire is a MUST for any web design company. It’s much easier to let your possible clients to tell you many details before starting any project.

  • Excellent post, one of the few articles I’ve read today that said something unique! One new subscriber here :)

  • hi Andy i know i’m a little late but your post was too good to be left without a comment! nice tips man, if i would start  new website know i’d definitely what to start with! again thanks

    • kiran gill

      i am a uni student. i need a planning paper for design a religious charity website. can you help me please to write down something how it should be? thanks

    • kiran gill

      i am a uni student. i need a planning paper for design a religious charity website. can you help me please to write down something how it should be? thanks

  • Brian

    Nothing wrong with the piece, but why does these things always have to be written in a list format, like you were at the supermarket? Lists are dull and, in this context, patronising.

    • There seems a lot of snobbery against this format. The truth is it is massively popular for one simple reason, it is easy for users to digest. They don’t need to read the whole article but can skip down headings.

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