The brief, the scope and the dance

—— essay —— 8 mins

Frustrating, ugly websites that don't live up to their promise are the result of a misunderstood brief and a lack of real scope. How can makers and clients work together to ensure better solutions? By reframing brief and scope as communication tools for collaboratively dealing with project realities as they unfold.

Recently I started work on a new website with a new client. To kick-off the project, I met them in person and spent a day facilitating a series of branding and website design exercises with them. In a concentrated day of focus, we were able to dive deep into their problems, understand what they hoped to achieve and also uncover a surprising amount of new insights. These exercises helped both parties to clarify the problem, set boundaries for executing the solution, and to get to know each other.

While I usually attempt to begin every new project like this, not all clients are open to doing so. The design research process can be seen as a waste of time when "we already know what we want". I certainly empathise. Websites are a quarter-century young, and while they've been commodotised to a degree, strategically creating web systems that fulfill customer expectations always requires customisation. And customisation can be messy.

From a client point-of-view, it can seem easy to reduce this uncertainty by being very specific about the project brief in order to limit the scope of work. Unfortunately, understanding why customers choose you over your competitors is a matter of psychology. If you want to create a community of happy, paying customers, you'll need to be serious about discovering what their true needs are, what job they expect from you and define buildable solutions for what you find.

The best starting point for doing this is to reframe The Brief and The Scope. Instead of being perceived as static, isolated templates, the brief and it's resulting scope of work can be used as collaboration tools that enhance expectation, prioritise focus, and allow better decisions during the project.

The Brief is a mandate

For many years before I ran my own business, I would be given a brief at my desk under fluorescent lights from a Client Account Manager. The brief was a folder with some paper in it. It was my job to take that brief and deliver a result, based on some expectation of getting the job done within a time limit and a quality standard. It was mostly a game of Chinese Whispers and Counting Hours. This was part of the Creative Agency Structure of my experiences, and it worked whereby the Agency made a profit and I got paid. There are lots of disappointing caveats to this process, suffice to say that I no longer sit under fluorescent lights while being handed The Brief.

These days, working as myself directly with clients, I don't work from The Brief. At least not that kinds of "brief" that consists of printed Word docs with pre-filled agenda items and copy-pasted description fluff. Instead I work directly with clients. And part of that work is to help them to define a brief that we both think will build their business by using the skills and knowledge I offer. That's the gist of the thing. Rather than the meaningless briefs that used to be handed to me, the brief I now agree with my clients is more like a mandate. We define overarching goals, set our expectations and, in the process, we understand each other, ready to begin the doing part. And in the doing part, we design the scope together by finding, choosing and then executing solutions that fit paying customers.

The work that gets made is, first and foremost, the result of the quality of the mandate I have with my client.

The Scope is interconnected with The Brief

Once we have a brief, we can define scope. But both brief and scope inform each other, so they're usually drafted once, twice, three times in various stages of continual understanding, discovery and, in the early stages, trust formation. This is a good thing, not missed optimisation, because it leads to a better definition of the problem. Every time two humans raise a point, listen to each other and clarify their understanding and intent, the scope gets a little more real.

So, the brief is a dance between our mutual expectations of what's possible. At this point, being open and curious have huge upsides. It should be a mandate for communication and collaboration rather than a list of static objectives. And the scope is a dance between our mutual understanding of the realities of what may happen. So we want to avoid our own biases and be as real as possible in order to define a deliverable within it's truest cost.

Objectives defined in the brief are quantifiable. But constraints, which are defined in the scope, are not. Constraints change, and opportunities are created when that happens. If you're looking to enhance your market, the brief and the scope must be reframed as tools of continually communicating expectations and reality. They can't be isolated, static documents, they need to be interconnected, evolving processes.

The Scope maps beliefs to reality

A project's scope of work is the process of determining the specific requirements and deliverables of a project within the constraints of what we know has happened before and anticipate may happen again, merged with the constraints of time and monetary costs.

We logically understand that the least surprising thing about scope is that what is documented as The Scope is not what will actually happen. Like a map, the scope is a proxy for reality. To try to keep up with reality, the scope needs to be able to update itself. In this way, the scope is like a river, and as the map of the Mississippi above shows, rivers change. Anytime a project doesn't expect the scope to change, it is unrealistic.

The impact of a scope based on unrealistic expectations is beautifully illustrated in a story about perfecting handstands from Amazon's letter to it's shareholders last year:

A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. […] She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.”

He finishes with this gem of a summary:

Unrealistic beliefs on scope—often hidden and undiscussed—kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be.

Note the word "communicate". Because the scope is dynamic, it's effectiveness is bound by our mutual ability to discover and communicate the realities of the project process as it unfolds, and to reset expectations for the next future.

The brief and it's scope are communication tools

Going back to my (excellent and responsive) new clients and the workshop day I spent with them, I remember that in the week preceding my visit they queried my agenda for the workshop. They were worried that my approach may have been too "B2C" rather than the "B2B" they thought they were (and indeed, mostly they are). But given that I had my mandate—and I'd earned their trust in doing so—this issue wasn't a problem. I replied that we should avoid any premature categorisations so that we could focus on simply understanding who their target audiences are as people, and what their incentives and expectations might be.

I asked them to trust the process. And because we'd already worked through the brief and scope in an initial form, my comments were trusted. If I were to change tack, google "B2B websites checklist" and execute on it without recourse to actually understanding the client's business and customers, I guarantee that result would not fulfil the mandate I have with client. That map would not match their reality. The result would be a website that looks "websitey" but in fact would create little to no value for their business.

Creating value is a matter of being honest with reality

The brief and the scope are interconnected communication tools between client and maker. A good brief is a contract to clarify the problem, and a good scope is a contract to deliver solution given dynamic considerations. When applied consistently throughout the project, they allow mutual and candid understanding of project realities as they continually unfold so that you can manage the inevitable complexity and take advantage of the opportunities it will uncover. This isn't easy, but it creates a far greater chance of creating a community of happy, paying customers from your website.

When you find another frustrating, ugly website that doesn't live up to it's promises, you’ll know that the brief wasn’t based on trust, which meant they weren't comfortable spending the time to obtain a real scope of work. As Jeff Bezos says, a scope that isn’t based on reality is the number one cause of the death of quality.