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Briefs and Specifications - Essential Ingredients to Web Site Redesign Success

So you've decided that your Web site needs an overhaul. Before you start work, however, you and your Web design firm need to do a bit of planning. Going off building a web site half-cocked is a sure fire recipe for disaster. This up-front planning takes the form of "briefs." The briefs, once approved, get fleshed out, and turned into "specifications," the blueprints for the functionality, layout, and programming of your Web site.

First, we'll start with the briefs. There are a number of briefs that then must be drawn up before moving forward on the site development.

  • The strategic brief outlines the strategic direction for the site. It includes a mission statement, marketing goals, competitive analysis, user requirements, branding strategy, and the metrics that you will use to measure your success.
  • The technical brief describes the visitors' equipment, including their monitor size, connection speed, computer processor speed, amount of RAM, color depth, installed plug-ins, etc.
  • The functional brief delineates what the site should do for visitors, both now and in the future. Be careful to separate the functionality from the execution, keep the technical constraints of the typical user's PC in mind, and avoid "feature creep" (enlarged project scope due to poor planning in the initial stages), if at all possible.
  • The creative brief lays out the proposed visual design directions to explore, the objectives of the upcoming creative exploration, the audience, the "story" the site should tell, the tone and imagery that the site should take on.
  • Finally, the content plan, although not a brief, is just as essential and delineates who is responsible for what content and when. The columns of the content plan should include: description of the deliverable, content provider, writer/editor, due date, date submitted, and priority.

The strategic brief is completed first, and it involves both your Internet team and your Web development firm. The creative, technical, and functional briefs then follow, and these primarily involve your Web development firm.

After the briefs come a number of specifications that will need to be developed then maintained through the course of the project. These specifications - or "specs" - include the technical spec, engineering spec, creative spec, markup and layout spec, and functional spec.

  • The technical spec describes the basic approach and technologies that will be used in the markup and layout of the site, but not the functionality. This spec will address issues such as whether the site will be database-driven, have cascading style sheets, require plug-ins, or be optimized for a particular color depth, screen resolution, platform, or browser.
  • The functional spec is a continuation of the functional brief and describes, in non-technical terms, the actions (functionalities) of the site but not how those actions are to be accomplished.
  • The engineering spec explains how the desired site functionality will be achieved. This document helps determine what functionality will be included in the site, weighing costs with benefits.
  • The creative spec is an extension of the creative brief, and it fleshes out the site structure, navigation, and several mock-ups (storyboards) of the home page and a secondary page. Choose the winning mock-up using a "criteria matrix" (see for an example).
  • Finally, the markup and layout spec describes how the mocked up pages are to be implemented in HTML, including dimensions, font faces and sizes, and use of animation (animated GIFs, Flash).

The good news is that it's primarily the responsibility of your Web development firm to author the specifications for your Web site. However, it is still your responsibility as the client to make sure that you are happy with those specs.

Further reading: Secrets of Successful Web Sites by David Siegel, ISBN 1568303823.

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