Putting together a website brief? Tips from an agency

Writing a website brief - tips from an agency

If you are looking to get your website redesigned or some extensive functionality added to your site, and you are not from the web or tech industry, you may well be unsure of some of the information that you need to include in your website brief. In this article, I’ll share with you some dos and donts from years of experience of reading and responding to client website briefs.

Firstly I would start your project brief with key general help information about your company:

 

Information about your business:

  1. What does your company do? (& perhaps a brief background)
  2. What products & services does it offer?
  3. An idea of your target audience(s) for these products/services
  4. Details about the markets within which you operate & how that has changed/is changing
  5. Summary information about your existing brand & brand assets (e.g. do have a formalised logo?)

Next, let’s discuss key information about the project itself.

 

Information about this project:

  1. A simple, clear definition of what you want from this project
    Try to focus on the WHAT you want to get done, rather than the HOW.
  2. An idea of your budget range
    This is a biggie, there is a whole section on this later in this article.
  3. Timescales
    If you have any set timescales you are looking to work to, please lay those out and, importantly, explain how they’ve been arrived at. E.g. if the go-live is the 1st of Sept, why is that? Is there a radio campaign already booked etc?
  4. If you have an existing website, can you discuss its successes & failures
  5. An idea of what you are hoping to get out of the project
    How do you imagine the future? How will it be different?
  6. Information about your supplier selection process
    I.e. how will you evaluate these proposals? And when?

Oh, and after you’ve sent the brief out to agencies, and a potential supplier asks a clarifying question, it’s useful if that question & answer is sent out to all the prospective partners.

 

Specific website & WordPress points:

We specialise in WordPress sites so these questions are relevant to those projects:

  1. Copywriting
    Will you be providing any new content? Or do you have a copywriter? Or are you looking to hire that service?
    If you need help with writing copy, perhaps provide some idea of the number of pages you’ll need help with – it’s ok not to know an exact number.
  2. Who will be entering the copy on the new website?
    At some point, someone will need to do some heavy lifting and input your new/amended content and copy onto a new version of your website. This process can be very time-consuming so it’s important to give s steer on who you are expecting to be doing this.Some of our clients have very hands-on WordPress admin teams who are itching to get started on this – we provide the design system & the training, and away they go.You may prefer the other end of the scale where you are very hands-off and the agency does everything – that fine, there is no right or wrong answer here, but it does have a big impact on the resource required (and therefore level of investment required).
  3. Off-the-shelf theme or custom design?
    This is a big, impactful decision – and we wrote a whole blog post on it.
  4. Are you looking for (or open to) changing your website hosting?
    (If so, please give an indication of your current traffic levels etc)
  5. Are you looking to have ongoing support after the website is live?
    If so, perhaps give a steer on how much attention you’ll be requiring as, for example, there is a different level of investment required for just making sure your plugins are up to date every month, to the agency being like a coiled spring ready to react to any of your requirements or issues on your website.
  6. FunctionalityThe ethos of WordPress is that if you ask for non-trivial functionality like an events calendar or e-commerce, then there are pre-built, off-the-shelf functionality out there called ‘plugins‘ which can help (e.g. Events Calendar Pro, WooCommerce).The benefit of using plugins means that the agency does not have to do costly bespoke coding.However, that swings both ways, if you are looking to realise the significant time & cost savings of using off-the-shelf plugins, then you need to align your requirements to what the plugins offer & how they work. If you are not able to compromise, then WordPress & plugins may not be the route for your requirements and a bespoke project may be a better fit.

 

Information we do NOT necessarily need to see:

  1. Don’t feel the need to supply a sitemap
    Unless there is a specific point you are trying to get across, a professional agency will lead you through this stage anyway as part of their design process.
  2. Don’t feel the need to supply wireframes, designs, or sites you like.
    If you have looked at the agency’s portfolio, and are comfortable with what you see, then the above points will all be handled in the design process.
  3. List of competitors
    Unless there is a particular, crucial point which needs to be made at this brief stage, we don’t need to know this yet as we’ll get to that later.
  4. Responsive / mobile-friendly
    All websites are made to be mobile / tablet friendly so this typically does not need to be stated with a professional agency unless you have a specific point to make. However, if you want to be belt & braces, feel free to mention it.

Key points

In this next section, I want to drill into some more detail on some of the key points:

Be open to Research

You may feel that you need to know all the answers to get a consistent brief.

No.

This is not your field, you are looking to hire experts. Do not be ashamed or embarrassed because of your lack of knowledge in the area – we take great pride in explaining all options to clients in crystal clear, no jargon language (this educational mindset underpins our brand).

Aside from the most trivial of briefs, website briefs can be interpreted in many different ways, based on many different assumptions. You want to work with a supplier who has a problem solving, questioning mindset – who will take your requirements, and then map them onto what is feasible, whilst at the same time introducing you to other ideas (after all, they are the subject expert). This is another reason why you simply cannot compare received quotes by price, as it’s often like comparing apples with oranges.

Put another way, if a client asks for a very specific set of items, we’ll do our best to answer that but, as the same time, we’ll explain that when the project begins, we’ll start with some form of ‘discovery‘ phase where all these assumptions are revisited. After all, a decent web development agency exists to pilot you through the choppy waters, and serves you best when there is scope to advise, guide, discover, and recommend.

 

Budget Range

If we don’t see a budget in a proposal then we will typically soon ask you about it to make sure that we are on the same page here. E.g. if you are looking for an all-singing, all-dancing, bespoke designed, & was fully managed eCommerce site but expect that figure to come in at £2,500 rather then £25K then we need to know that early so that we know the range of options that are applicable to your projected level of investment.

E.g. if you are looking for such an e-commerce solution, then perhaps as an initial project we can help get you set up on a managed e-commerce solution such as Shopify. Which may well provide you with a much better use of your money, as well as a minimum viable product for you to work within the next 12 months. After that, when your business has taken off, you can invest further to develop and enhance your online offering.

Some companies, for whatever reason, are uncomfortable with putting exact budgets in briefs, that’s fine, but perhaps then put an indicative budget range. Feel free to play poker with that figure (i.e. set it lower than you are prepared to go up to) but also be aware that high-quality agencies will be aware of how much companies of your size should be investing in quality digital projects, and how much value & ROI such successful projects can bring (which typically dwarves the investment cost).

 

Fixating on Cost

In my experience, buyers default to making decisions on cost when they have no other comparable attributes they can understand. Simply going for the cheapest supplier might seem the lowest risk but these tend to be the same clients who say “we’ve had no end of bad luck with our web designers!“.

A quality redesign project can turn a website from one that repels (yes repels!) potential new customers, to one that is constantly helping leads & prospects convert into paying customers who add to your bottom line. Do the maths yourself – how many new customers does the website need to attract to pay for itself? And bear in mind that happy customers recommend your services to other paying customers – so there is a multiplying effect here. By all means, have an initial budget figure in your head, but at the same time be aware that by using professional, reputable web agencies, you are investing in your online business here – this is not an expense.

 

Accessibility

Accessibility is all about making websites easy to use for people of varying degrees of ability.

Most modern websites, by default, are much friendlier in terms of accessibility than used to be the case. However, if you have specific accessibility needs, then please state them. Be mindful of quoting levels of accessibility support you want as the reality is that simply chasing accessibility compliance is not the same as having an accessible website.

If advanced accessibility is critical for your website, then be prepared to pay for additional services like those provided by the Digital Accessibility Centre in Neath, Wales (we worked alongside this amazing team when redesigning a Council website a few years ago).

 

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

Nobody wants to pay a company to redesign their website only for it to harm its SEO rankings. And, in fairness, this simply will not happen with the vast majority of skilled web development agencies.

If this is an area which specifically concerns you, then don’t be surprised if the agency asks for your empirical data on how your existing website ranks for your chosen keywords e.g. which pages on your site rank for what keywords and how has that changed over time? If you have no data for this then you have two choices:

  1. Additionally, commission the agency (or someone) to perform this ‘before‘ SEO baselining.
  2. Or, if that challenges your budget, resolve yourself to the reality that you cannot judge the website ‘after‘ if there is no ‘before‘ data.

Cookie Banners etc

Do not underestimate the legal requirements of getting checked, privacy documents, terms and conditions etc. Also, be mindful that most agencies will not give you anything which could be deemed legal advice when it comes to questions such as “Should I show a cookie banner?” as the reality here is that question throws a broader net of questions involving GDPR and, further afield, California’s CCPA etc – which need legal input to fully solve.

Unless the agency is huge and has a trained legal department who are qualified to answer, and happy to take the responsibility of for giving legal advice – then do not expect the agency to advise you. E.g. we make it clear to clients:

  • We can point you to specialist legal advice (if required)
  • We can list out the cookies the site emits and explain that in the language of a cookie policy
  • We can implement a cookie banner if you explain the scenarios within which it needs to work
  • We can point you to privacy policy templates etc

 

What to expect back from the supplier

Some agencies think the more words and pages they can pack into their proposal document, and send back to the potential client, the more grown-up and professional the quote looks.

We don’t subscribe to that school of thought.

Our proposals typically come in under 3 pages. And they offer you options about how to proceed (perhaps even with a small scale, paid Discovery session to get the ball rolling & flesh out the requirements more fully).

 

Design mockups

Do not expect a design mockup of your new website from the supplier (in fairness, most clients don’t).

It’s not so much that this requires a solid chunk of work here, it’s more that designing at this stage is very much like throwing paint around in the dark and hoping to come up with a work of significance: we simply do not know enough at this stage to make a good fist of it. Worse still, a preemptive design can lead us down the wrong path and precondition thinking in the wrong direction, which is then more difficult to unpick later on.

If you are satisfied with the quality of bespoke design work that the supplier has previously done, then their ability to design should not be the issue – it should be more about the supplier’s attitude to approaching the project.

 

Final Thoughts

I hope this helps as I genuinely want you to not waste time with your briefs and, instead, state only the key information.

I would also hope that you would reach out to your trusted circle of advisors asking who they trust in terms of websites. And if they recommend someone, and you like their work, then why not pick up the phone and have a chat to them – it may well save you a lengthy ‘beauty parade’ selection process of random suppliers.

Finally, please bear in mind that most decent, thriving agencies are weighing you up in this process as much as you are weighing them up. From a brief, and form initial interactions with a prospect, I am gauging them in terms of someone who is open to ideas and who I will enjoy working closely with for the next 6 months.

Hope that helps – if you need help with writing your brief, please get in touch.

 

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