How to create a website design brief – common mistakes to avoid

Design / 17.10.14
Mike Vine

Creating a website design brief is a vital part of any web project.  By focusing on the aims of the project and who your target audience is, you make sure you stay on track and get an end product that provides a much bigger return on investment (ROI).


We’ve seen several common mistakes made during the project brief stage that you should be careful to avoid.  True, some of these border on the comical – but some of them are very easy traps to fall into.  By avoiding them, you’ll dodge making a costly mistake.

1. Designing for yourself, not your customers

This is the most common mistake of all.  I’ve lost count of the number of times a prospective client presents a brief (or is talking about it) and says something like “I really like the – choose one from Aston Martin/Rolex/Apple – website.  Ours should look something like that”, forgetting for a moment that their own customers are the polar opposites of these brands’ target markets.

Don’t design your website for your Managing Director.  Design it for your customer.

In the worst cases, this can turn into little more than an ego-trip – something for the MD to show off to his friends at the golf club.  AVOID AT ALL COSTS.

You must be brave.  You must put your own personal tastes to one side and put yourself in your customer’s shoes.  What will they expect/want to see?  What will reinforce your brand values and get your message across?   How can the design encourage them to buy from you?

My own difficult experience

I can speak from first hand experience about how hard this can be.  When I was first shown the concept for the Tomango brand identity, we encountered a potential flashpoint about colours.  The fact is – for childish reasons relating to the football team I support – I HATE RED.  Always have, probably always will.  My initial reaction to the colours being put forward for Tomango was one of complete revulsion, but I quickly realise that this was, frankly, pathetic.  The logic and rationale for using these colours was completely sound and I decided to put my personal feelings to one side and put faith in the design.  It was what our customers would want to see – my tastes didn’t matter.  Because I managed to get over myself and put our customers first, we got a much better end result.  The same applies to the design of your website.

2. Trying to be like Amazon/Facebook/Google

At some point back in 2010, I met an interesting lady called Pam (not her real name) who wanted to discuss some “ideas for websites”.  Mentally quietening the alarm bells that started ringing in my head, we had a civilised-but-not-particularly-productive chat about some of her ideas, most of which were rubbish.  And then, just as it seemed we were nearly done…

Her: “So tell me – what would it cost to build something like Facebook?”

Me: “Erm…”

Worryingly, this isn’t the only time this has happened to me (although not specifically about Facebook).  Often I see a website design brief that will include a legend such as “Search facility required – like Google” or “Related products must be shown, like you get on Amazon”.

Concentrate on your website’s core features and make them work well.

Firstly, do you really need this level of functionality?  Unless your site deals with massive amounts of data/orders/users, you probably don’t need to go that far – especially in the early stages of the website’s life.  Concentrate on your site’s core features and do them well.  You can always add to them or develop them later, when a need has been established, and when the website is starting to become viable.

Secondly, be aware how much time, money and resources have gone into the development of these huge sites.  Years of research and analysis, millions of dollars, and teams of scores – if not hundreds – of highly talented designers and developers work on these projects.  That might just be a little out of your budget.

3. “Let’s make it different”

There is a Danish man called Jakob Nielsen who, for those of you that don’t know a great deal about the web, is THE guru on usability – i.e. making websites easy to use.  What this guy doesn’t know about web usability you could write on the back of a very tiny postage stamp.

Jakob’s Law of the Web User Experience states that “users spend most of their time on other websites.“  What he means is that your users form their expectations for your site based on what’s commonly done on most other sites and if you deviate, your site will be harder to use.

Consistency is one of the most powerful usability principles
Jakob Nielsen

You see, consistency is good.  It’s one of the most powerful usability principles; when things always behave the same, users don’t have to worry about what will happen.  This increases their confidence in using your site, which means they’ll like it more.

Recognise these conventions and stick to them.  Don’t be different for the sake of it.  Unless you want to lose as many users as possible, of course.

4. Everything must sit above the fold

Here’s a very common misconception that threatens to undermine the entire design of your website.  And it drives web designers absolutely nuts.

Above the fold – a graphic design concept that refers to the location of an important news story or a visually appealing photograph on the upper half of the front page of a newspaper.

When referring to web design, “Above the Fold” refers to the part of the page the user sees when they first land on it, without needing to scroll.

Misleading statistics

The problem usually starts with this often-cited statistic, from our erstwhile friend Jakob Nielsen, back in 2010; 80% of users spend their time above the fold, and only 20% go below the fold. Holy Moly! We’ve got to keep everything above the fold, right?  Well, hold on just a sec…

This stat’s a bit misleading because most of the time the navigation and search is at the top of a page, so when you get to a website, the first thing you most often look for is the menu, which is why the stats are so heavily skewed.

But when people get to the page they’re looking for (and if they found you from a search, this might be the first page they’ve landed on), they will scroll.  And scroll, and scroll.  Be sure of this fact: everyone knows how to scroll.

So although it’s still important to put certain things above the fold (see point 3 about conventions within web design) don’t feel you have to try and cram everything in there.  Maintaining white space, telling a story and encouraging your users to scroll down is actually more engaging and in some cases will result in more sales.

It’s not just our point of view either:

Life Below 600 pixels Why “The Fold” is a myth – and where to put your call to action

5. Opening new browser windows

Time and time again we see this on a website design brief: “All external links must open in a new browser window”.  Why?  The thinking is that by forcing a new window or tab to open, no-one actually leaves the client’s website, because it will remain open in the original window.

We’re yet to see a compelling argument to back this up, but can think of plenty of reasons why it’s actually a bad idea that you should avoid.

If you don’t trust in your own website to be interesting enough for a user to go back to, that sends out a pretty negative message, no?

Firstly, many people still don’t use tabs when browsing multiple sites.  Those that do would surely like to be the one in control of it – that’s just plain politeness.  Secondly, many users might not realise that a new window has been opened, leaving them confused by a greyed out Back button.  Thirdly, using the Back button is probably the first (or maybe second, at a push) thing that a user learns when they start using the web.  This is the way most people will normally get back to previous sites.  Finally, it’s about trust – if you don’t trust in your own website to be good enough or interesting enough for a user to go back to, that sends out a pretty negative message.

A guide to creating a website design brief

So we’ve covered some common things to avoid when putting together your website design brief, but how do you go about putting together a good one?

The key things to make sure you cover in your brief are:

1. An introduction

It’s useful for the website designer to know a bit of background.  Include a paragraph or two about your company and what you do, what you sell etc.

2. Your current site

Make sure you cover when it was built, how much traffic it gets at the moment, what’s good and bad about it and what frustrates you about using it.

3. The new website

Outline the aims of the site and how it fits in with the overall aims of the business.  Is it to attract more traffic and sales, or to communicate better with existing customers?  Is it there to support other marketing activities? Do you want to sell through the website (via ecommerce)?  Who is the target audience?  Maybe this has changed, or you’re aiming to reach a new market.

4. Reference websites

Listing some competitors’ websites can be useful – together with some notes as to what you feel is good or bad about them (remembering to look at this from your customer’s point of view – see point 1 in our Common Mistakes list above).

5. Budget

Outlining your budget is important.  You’ll get better and more accurate quotes from everyone if they’re all working to the same brief and know what the budget is.  What’s the budget for the design and development of the website?  Do you have a budget for ongoing online marketing?  What about ongoing support and maintenance?

6. Website content

Resist the urge to just copy and paste your content from your old site to the new one.  A well-planned website project should consider the entire structure of the site, including what content is going on which pages.  Who will write the content?  Do you need the web agency to do this?  Oh, and one other thing – don’t wait til the last minute to do the content – start it now.

7. Technical stuff

Do you have an existing domain name that you need to use?  Where is this managed – can the web agency have access to it to manage the go-live process?  Is your site likely to be targeting people with special needs or requirements like limited mobility or visual impairment?  What proportion of your new site’s users are likely to be using mobiles and tablets?

8. Maintenance

Who will be responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the site?  Will you be doing it in-house?  Will you need training on using a new system?  How many people might this need to include?  Would you prefer your web designer to handle updates on your behalf?

Next steps

We can help with all aspects of your website, from your early website design brief to finished product. Get in touch today to discuss more.