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Writing a Brief for a Website

By Peter Mason
Marcus Pennell

Advice to help you think about the real purpose of your website, and prepare a simple plan before talking to a web designer.

Introduction

Commissioning a website does not start and end with the appointment of a web designer. It starts with you and your team thinking about the purpose of the website: what is it for? What can it deliver for our organisation/community/network? Working through this simple list of key issues will help you better prepared – and will help your web designer exactly what you need.

Much of the groundwork of developing a website should be done before you bring in a web designer. Begin by brainstorming within your own organisation. Invite input from all sides if you wish but designate a smaller team to manage the project and delegate one person to act as point of contact with the designer. If it’s a design team you are working with, establish a single point of contact there too and make sure all communication goes through these two people.

Preparing a brief means you can build a picture of what you want to achieve, and the more complete your design specification is, the fewer changes there will have to be as the project progresses. Changes cost more money and cause delays. This doesn’t have to be a long document – keep it simple and aim for three or four pages of A4 at most, perhaps with Appendices of important information which explains your work in more detail.

Develop an Overview

Develop an Overview which explains your current situation. This should include:

  • What your organisation does, and who for
  • How you already communicate with the outside world
  • Your current website arrangements, if any; is this a complete overhaul or just a cosmetic makeover. Bear in mind that a makeover on a complex website, developed over the years with different design methods, could be harder to achieve than a complete rewrite
  • The timescale
  • The budget

Aims and Objectives

Write your Aims and Objectives. How is the website going to help you meet your goals? Is the site a shop window on your organisation, or is it an online resource, or both? Be clear on how you will measure if the website is successful. For instance, including a way of knowing how many visitors you have had to satisfy existing monitoring requirements.

Define your Audience

Define your Audience. You may be working with people who are new to using computers so don't over complicate your website. Ask yourselves:

  • Who are the main audiences for your organisation? And for the website?
  • What do you want them to do when they come to the website?
  • Can they already get this information elsewhere online?

Create a design specification

Create a Design Specification. This is how you want the website to appear and will cover everything from layout to colour. Collect examples of other websites to show the designer, and get as much printed material from your organisation as you can. Points to consider include:

  • Do you have a house style? What elements do you want included in the design?
  • Will the design appeal to your target audience, for instance younger children or older people?
  • Do you have a logo? If not treat this as a separate prerequisite

List the main Content elements that you want included, for example:

  • Organisation background
  • News and press releases
  • Client list
  • Project portfolio
  • Existing resources
  • Contact details including location map, enquiry form, etc.
  • Think about how often you will want to update the content, and will you want to do this in-house? Points for consideration include:
  • Where is the content for the pages going to come from?
  • Who will be responsible for it in your organisation?
  • Who will respond to enquiries from the website?

Functionality Specification

A Functionality Specification covers how your website will work.

Think about:

  • The navigation - how the website is structured. You should aim for a level of consistent navigation across the website
  • The functions - what the visitors will do when they get to your home page.
    This could include interactive elements such as filling in a form or visiting a guestbook

The functionality specification includes information about the way people will navigate through your pages and the actions performed by any buttons or effects you want to include on the website.

You can draw a simple website structure as part of this section. You can do this as a basic flow-chart with boxes for pages and lines representing the links between them. The simpler you make this diagram, the easier the website will be to understand, manage and use.

There will be a number of specific functions you may require. For example:

  • A "Print this page" button
  • A search facility for the website (if you have more than a few pages)
  • A sitemap  
  • An "Email this Page to a Friend" button
  • A message board
  • A members-only area
  • An "Add me to your email newsletter" form  

Technical Specification

A Technical Specification details any special requirements, for instance if you  require a particular version of HTML. In particular you should specify:

  • Stylesheets (or "CSS") should be used to separate content (the text) from style and layout (how it appears)
  • That an (X)HTML standard should be used (it's more important that one is specified and used consistently than which one it is)
  • That open source software is used if programming or databases are employed. Check that you don't have to pay any ongoing license costs on top of the hosting
  • That the website is easy to move to a new host

Search Engine Optimisation

Search Engine Optimisation ensures your website can be found easily through Google etc. Bear in mind that whatever questions you ask at this point this is a fast-moving area of expertise and you should ask your web designer for evidence that they understand it and have current knowledge which they can demonstrate on existing client sites.

You can submit the website to the search engines, or wait for them to find you. It’s as much about your design as it is telling the search engines you are there. Use of CSS really helps here as it creates less ‘clutter’ for search engines to get through to extract the essence of your message. Include any key words that people might use to find you on your welcome page.

Compile a list of websites you would ideally like to link to your website. Find out if they will do it, perhaps on a reciprocal basis. This will help your search engine ratings. Then ask the designer what they can do with this information to make sure you are visible in search engines.

Accessibility and Usability

Make the website easy to use by the widest possible audience - for instance the visually impaired. An Accessibility Specification should state that the website meets at least Level 2 of the W3C WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative). The website should be tested for accessibility by a tool such as W3C, Cynthia, or NetMechanic however these automated tools have their limitations. If your budget allows, specify that you will get the site tested independently. For more on commissioning accessible websites see the ICT Hub Publication How To Commission and Design Accessible Websites (1.69 Mb PDF document. Requires Adobe Reader if you don't already have already have this, download it from Adobe).

Usability Testing is a less formal way of seeing if the website works for visitors. A design feature whose purpose seems obvious to you might not mean anything to visitors. Ask friends to review the draft website. Can they find some specific information on it, such as your opening hours? Again, if your budget allows, specify usability testing as one of the deliverables for the project.

It is important that accessibility and usability testing is carried out at different points during the design and development process not just left till the end. 

Deliverables

The Deliverables for a project specify exactly what the designer must provide by the end of the contract period. These will usually include:

  • The website itself - usually a series of HTML pages
  • Documentation - a list of the pages along with a map of how they fit together
  • Clear information on how your organisation will manage the website once the contract has ended
  • Information about how the website is hosted, along with usernames and passwords
  • A statement that the website has passed accessibility requirements – if the budget is large enough you can also commission independent reports on accessibility which ensure that you have a third opinion

Budget

Set a realistic Budget and be aware that some elements in the website will cost more to create and maintain. Ask the designer to provide a breakdown of costs as one small feature could constitute an unreasonable amount of the bill. Be aware of any ongoing or licensing costs, or the cost of buying new software.

If possible, try to keep some money for ongoing development. Allow an element for things like accessibility and usability testing, as well as training someone in your organisation to keep the content updated, if necessary.

Timescale

Agree a Timetable with the designer. Provide them with clear milestones for delivery within the project, including dates for initial concepts, completion of functionality and sign-off of design. Make sure phased payments are tied to these milestones.

Ownership

Your design brief must include a clear statement on the ownership of Copyright over the pages, code, content, and images created or used in developing the website. In particular, you should ensure that rights over the coding of the pages remain with you. Resolving this from the outset will greatly reduce the potential for disagreement later in the project.

Terms and Conditions

Finally, the Terms and Conditions should lay out in detail exactly what is expected of the designer in terms of service provision, and should include the following:

  • Will they be working on or off-site?
  • Will payment be made in phases, in advance or on completion?
  • The expected level of consultation between designers and the organisation
  • An agreed process for resolving conflict or disagreement (preferably through a third party)

More information

Use Google to search for ‘how to brief a web designer’.

Here's an example of what you might find.

Several useful articles on the OUT-LAW.com website including:


About the authors

Peter Mason
SCIP

Marcus Pennell
SCIP

Glossary

Adobe Reader, CSS, Hosting, HTML, Hub, ICT, Network, Open Source Software, PDF, Search Engine, Software, W3C, WAI, Website

Related articles

Published: 28th November 2006

Copyright © 2006 Peter Mason
Marcus Pennell

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abamaison
29th June 2007More useful guidance on website agreements / contracts here http://www.weblaw.co.uk/articles_archived.php

abamaison
24th March 2010From a US-based design and software company, some more useful resources on writing a brief for a website (or what they call an RFP - request for proposal in the US):

6 steps to writing a better RFP - http://bit.ly/8XMEZV

9 tips for running a more considerate RFP process - http://bit.ly/cZMyyj

How to select the right web design and web development firm http://bit.ly/aCUdGX