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Creating a new website: writing the brief

8 minute read

Unless you’re skilled in web design, development, and project management, chances are you’re going to need to commission others to help create your vision of a new website. Writing a detailed brief of exactly what you’re looking for and hope to achieve will ensure that you not only get that, but you also get the right people to do it. In this article, we’ll explore why the brief is important, what you’ll need to write it, sections to include, how to submit it, and what to do next.

Why a brief is important

This should be fairly obvious, but with a project of this scale, you’re going into partnership with people who you don’t necessarily know, and for the lifespan of the website. Making the wrong decision can cause increased costs, headaches, and a generally unsatisfactory product. By first gathering our thoughts, wants, requirements, and business objectives into a single resource, we not only help give the web designers what they need in order to quote and plan for the project, we also help them to spot the gaps in thinking and where more research and discussion needs to take place prior to starting.

Planning your brief

Before actually writing the brief, it’s useful to gather information that will be of use. This way, when you do come to write it, it hopefully won’t be so stop/start in writing it, and will read more consistently. Firstly, and possibly most importantly, is setting out your budget. You might already have a figure you’d like to spend on a new website, but even still, it’s worth doing some research into general prices for the sort of thing you’re looking for, as you might be showing you’ve got lots to spend for a little task (although most / honest web designers will still give you a fair price), or you might not be able to achieve what you want on that type of money, which will just mean you won’t get many responses. Speak to other businesses with similar sized sites and ask them what they spent. Some might not want to offer this information up, but you’d be surprised by how many companies, even competitors, will want to help. They might also be able to put you in the direction of the web designer they used.

The other main focus in your brief planning should be the core functionality of the website. This will hopefully be up for discussion at project kick-off, but for a web designer to evaluate whether a) they can do the work you need, and b) how much it will cost, they’ll need to have a good idea of what you’re after. Not all web designers will offer e-commerce websites, and even if they do, not on all the platforms, and some might be able to work with you but just be too busy or out of budget.

Start to think about the functionality of your new website. You’ll also want to have an idea of what content and pages you want on the site, such as text, image, and video, and possibly even the platform you might want it to run on, such as WordPress or Shopify. When you speak to other businesses or website owners, ask them if they wouldn’t mind telling you what platform the site is on and how they rate it. Web designers will be able to recommend platforms based on what you need, but it’s always good to have an idea of what’s good and fits the bill.

Lastly, think about your deadlines and timescales. In our fast paced world, ideally everything would be completed as quickly as humanly possible, but you’ll want to bear in mind that websites take time to plan, design, build, test, and deploy. Think about when it will be of most use from around two months’ time onwards. Look at that time in between. Will you be available for meetings, reviewing work, and the content population of the new site? You’ll have work to do during this time too. Be realistic in your deadline, as setting a hard deadline too soon might mean the perfect web designer for you doesn’t have the availability.

Writing the brief

Once you’ve got a more detailed idea of your ideal new website, you’ll want to start putting this into a brief for the web designers to review. This will help them to come back to you saying if they can help, how long it might take them and ballpark figures. This document doesn’t have to be massively formal, or follow any set template, but just a digestible (so not too long) Word, PDF or online document which highlights the key information.

Some useful sections to include would be:

  • Give a bit of background to your business; what you do and why you need/want a new website; what the main driver for your business is; and what some goals of the business going forward are.
  • Mention the type of customers you currently have and ones you’d like to attract. Are you business to business or business to customer? Or both? Give some examples of how you expect the site to be used. It will seem obvious to you as it’s your industry and business, but it will give the web designer food for thought in terms of their response and some initial research to conduct.
  • Provide some examples of sites you like the look of, or you think are doing something particularly successful. Give notes on what you think works well for them. Also include a list of competitors’ websites, as this is useful for seeing what the level is to beat.
  • Talk about look, feel, and your brand. Do you have a brand, or just a logo? Do you have any other design or marketing in use you’d like to stay close to? Or can the creative net be wide? Again, always be open to hearing about new approaches to visually presenting your business. Part of what you’re paying for is the creativity, so you might as well utilise it.
  • Offer the date you’d like to have the new website launched and if that is a hard deadline or could be moved. Remember, be realistic about this. The more attainable this is for a web designer, the more likely they are to want to quote for the work and not add a premium because they’ll be having to move other work.
  • Give an idea of your budget and what you’d ideally like to spend. With your planning, you should have an idea of your spend. Don’t worry about including this, as you’ll have done your research by now so you won’t be giving a high figure for a small scale project.
  • Talk about functionality of the site and whether it is a required component (e.g. have pages of content and images showing services) or a nice to have (e.g. a blog or newsfeed). Include here your preferred platform (if you have one), but always be open to having a demo of alternatives.
  • Lastly, detail any back-office systems you might need or want to hook into, such as accounting systems if you’re selling online, or mailshot services for newsletter signups. This point can really add costs, so what can seem like a simple ‘one speaking to another’ setup can take a long time from a skilled programmer, so again mention whether these are nice to have or required.

Submitting the brief

It’s now just a case of contacting the selected few and arranging a meeting to chat. I’d recommend calling them up first and saying that you’d like to submit a brief for a website. Get the contact details of the best person to send that to, as sometimes just emailing a [email protected] or [email protected] can get lost in the mix. The best ones will put you straight through to the relevant person.

Generally, the brief should now have a good amount of information in it for the web designer to pick it up and take the reins with regard to next steps and what you’ll need. That said, asking some initial questions as you send it means the turnaround time can be quicker and you’ll have some responses to directly compare.

Consider asking the following questions:

  • “What is your turnaround time for a response and ball park estimate?”
    This is good to know as it gives you an idea of when you’ll expect to have all the responses in and can plan from that.
  • “What is your availability for a meeting should I wish to go further?”
    Good web designers will likely be booked at least a month in advance, so knowing dates they are available from will help you plan.
  • “What are the next steps should I wish to proceed?”
    You’ll get a sense of their process and how much they value planning in terms of the project here. If they say the first step is doing mock-up visuals this should be a red flag. Responses that talk about a kick-off, specification document, research and discovery and wireframes are the ones to go for.
  • “Would any of the work included be sent on to a third party or contractor to complete?”
    Sometimes this happens and it’s fine, but it’s good to know going into it. I myself often do design work on behalf of other agencies when they haven’t got the capacity to do it. Be wary of ones where a lot of the technical work is being farmed out, as this can sometimes get messy.
  • “What do you offer in terms of support once the website is live?”
    When a website is first deployed there is always a bedding-in period where things can break or be spotted for the first time. Ideally you’ll want to have a warranty period of three to six months, then if they offer some form of support contract afterwards, it’s worth exploring that. Costs can vary depending on the level of support, so find out exactly what the contract will cover.

Collating the responses

They will all probably come back to you with some questions in order to get a more solid estimate, so be wary of the ones that just give a flat fee from your brief, as it means they probably don’t understand it, or if they do, they are planning on using a template and you won’t get anything too bespoke or creative.

The ones that are keen to know more about your business are potentially the ones to shortlist, as what they are trying to do is understand everything they can about your business so they can create a website to support it, rather than simply looking nice. They won’t necessarily come back straight away with these questions, probably favouring to speak face to face to open the discussion.

Some initial questions they might reply with (and therefore worth having some thoughts ready) are:

  • “We can meet anytime, when is best for you?”
    Unless they are based around the corner from you, you’ll probably want to set aside at least three hours including travel time. Have a few dates available, as it’s always advisable at least meeting with two for comparison, and seeing more than one on the same day will just make them blur into each other.
  • “Do you have any contingency budget for new features should the need arise?”
    Part of a good process is exploration, so there might be some great functionality or add-ons yet to be discovered. If you do, great, say roughly what you could additionally spend for the right feature. If not, it’s good for them to know, as they won’t then get your hopes up on showing you components which aren’t within the current budget.
  • “Do you currently have a domain, hosting and technical setup in place?”
    If this is your first website, you won’t have these, which may in fact be preferred by the web designer, as they can suggest and work with a setup within their current workflow. If you do, have the details of the company that handles it to hand. This way, they’ll be able to go to them directly with all the information they need in terms of server access and deployment.

There will be other questions I’m sure, but these will be completely dependent on the project. There will also be questions you don’t know the answer to. Don’t feel you suddenly have to turn into a wizard digital project manager, as the web designer will be able to work with you to find the answer if you don’t know.

Going forward

Go to meet the web designers who respond well so you can speak with them face to face and get a sense of who they are as people, how passionate they are, and how much they want to know about you and your business.

Websites, even the small ones, take time to create and have a certain lifecycle, so you’re really entering into a partnership with this person or people. Creating a thorough brief with all the relevant information means you can work out who is a good fit and who isn’t.

Getting it right can be a magical thing for all parties, and I’m lucky enough to work with a client base which is largely made up of that stock. We collaborate, experiment, give honest feedback, and help each other out when we need. Our businesses have both strengthened as a result, and we’ve made some pretty amazing websites.

With over a decade of industry experience, Jon Dodd has worked with a range of clients, from government bodies to luxury brands, in the UK, United States and Australia, to create user-centred, accessible and end-to-end web experiences. Formerly Creative Director at the award winning digital agency Un.titled, he is Design Partner at the design studio Alloneword, specialising in creative direction, visual identity and web experience.

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