What makes ‘a good brief’ – an agency perspective
I get asked for ‘examples of good briefs’ a lot so I thought it might be useful if we did a quick rundown on what we, as an agency, think goes into a good/useful/successful brief/rfp document. I’ve been on both ends of this process having lead digital procurement at arts organisations, universities and charities, advised on the development of briefs (in the arts sector predominantly) and responded to briefs/RFPs as a freelancer and now at Substrakt.
Why are you getting a new site (or commissioning the project, whatever it may be)? Is there something wrong with the current site, if so – what? There’s nothing wrong with ‘we want to refresh things’ but inevitably there’s usually a bit more to things than that and the sooner we can get a sense of those underlying drivers, the better; has the relationship with your current agency broken down, is it the result of a new marketing or artistic director starting and wanting to make their mark, is it someone’s vanity project?
What are you looking to achieve with the new site? Sell more tickets? Improve your ecommerce offering? Provide a better platform for your education activities? Give greater insight into your collection? Bring all of your micro-sites together into one site? It’s always helpful if you can articulate what the project is trying to achieve.
Who is this project aimed at? And ‘everyone’ isn’t an especially useful answer. You know who your audience are, so tell us! Do you cater mostly to a younger audience, the majority of whom visit your site on a mobile? That’s the stuff we want to know.
When does it need to go live? If there is a specific reason that the site needs to go live on a particular day then let us know and we’ll work to that (unless it’s mad, in which case we’d tell you), otherwise it’s always helpful if this is an area for flexibility.
Most of the timelines that are communicated to us are on the ambitious side but are usually as a result of the organisation’s eagerness to get the new site live ‘as soon as possible’. Artificially shortened timelines aren’t great news for anyone, depending on the nature of the project things will take a certain time and it’s useful if you are open to being guided by the people responding to your brief about what is realistic. This is usually where prioritisation is required, breaking things down into must have/nice-to-have/ideal world can quickly help clarify what’s important.
It is also worth considering what has to be in for go-live and what can follow after that initial deadline.
Your website will not exist in isolation, it’s helpful (actually: essential) if you let us know what other systems we will be dealing with (ticketing, CRM, ecommerce, email, etc etc) and how you’d like us to deal with them. If there are things that have to happen in terms of integration then please detail that in the brief.
It is also helpful if you are able to provide read-only access to your analytics account so that any hosting recommendations can be made according to the particular requirements of your actual traffic. Just including numbers in your brief doesn’t help with this as we need to know the shape as well as the size of the traffic to the site.
Something that was discussed at Digital Works #1 was the reluctance of arts organisations to put a specific budget in their briefs. The perception was that if you put a number then inevitably all of the briefs came in at exactly that number.
Having been on both sides of this I can appreciate the arguments, however without at least some indication of the budget it’s impossible for anyone responding to let you know how much of your ambition is actually achievable. If you’re worried about everything coming in at exactly the same price then put a range in but please, please, please put something. It’s also important to consider everything that is required to deliver a website: the initial build, hosting, assets (fonts, images, etc), support beyond the initial launch et al.
Sometimes we will be involved in projects that are running alongside a rebrand so any brand-related information will be out-of-date and not applicable. But you will likely have some sense of brand, tone, look and feel, and organisational identity. The more of this you can communicate to us, the better, it’s also helpful if you provide the details about which agency may be working on the branding/rebrand.
It’s very helpful if you can point to some examples of what you consider to be particularly good (or bad) UX and UI – and a brief explanation about why you think it’s good (or bad). This ensures we’re all starting from, if not the same page, then at least the same book in terms of look and feel.
We find the best briefs are about 10-15 pages long (this may seem totally arbitrary but, for whatever reason, we find it’s usually the case). We use our Discovery sprint to really get to know the ins and outs of your organisation and how each department functions. For the purpose of the brief however, it’s much more useful to have a concise snapshot of each department’s requirements for the website. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it also serves as a snapshot to understanding your organisation’s mission and where the project fits within that.
Beyond the brief:
The most successful working relationships, in our experience, are formed when the procurement process involves something more than simply a brief or RFP being issued and then followed by a pitch after which an agency is appointed. Andy (Managing Director) has likened this to getting married after one date, which is a pretty good analogy in my opinion.
You should expect your brief to be the start of conversations, by all means be specific about how you’re going to deal with queries (North American organisations seem better at this than the Europeans) – and circulate any answers to everyone involved in the process so that no-one is at a disadvantage but please be open to this discursive element of things.
A final thought:
A website is a complicated, technical project. There’s no getting away from this, simply treating it as a design project is going to result in something that’s – most probably – not going to meet the needs of your users (regardless of how innovative or beautiful it looks).
If you feel you simply don’t have the requisite technical expertise in-house to be able to make a judgement on who can and can’t meet your requirements then there are a number of consultants who operate exclusively in the arts sector and can sit in on your procurement process to advise you.
Equally it’s worth seeking out the opinion of other suppliers with whom you already have a relationship (e.g. your ticketing system supplier) as it’s likely they will have come across agencies and will be able to offer their opinion on who to approach (and avoid).