Tuesday, 28 February 2012

In Brief

Actually, this isn't brief at all... So, more analogy riddled design analysis.*

This time, I’m going to chat a bit about the importance of a good brief in product design. The brief should be the starting point for any product design program. At TMS work covered prior to this generally sits around feasibility and overarching marketing campaigns – not areas typically covered in product design, but a specialty which sometimes calls for product designers to dip into other areas, which is fun.

The brief is the starting point for any design work. It is a written document analyzing what properties a successful product would contain. This is possible to specify even without knowledge of what the product is. Imagine walking into a sushi restaurant - You’ve never eaten sushi before. The chef asks what kind of sushi you like, but obviously you have no idea. He will always make good sushi, but he wants to make good sushi for you in particular, so he asks you a series of questions: do you like spicy food? Do you have any allergies? What’re you looking to spend? – These questions are the verbal brief for the chef. In the agency world there are several “customers” who need to satisfied. The client, the licensor, and internal marketing peeps. Our account teams write the brief and need to accurately summarise the needs of these groups into one concise document.

The brief allows product designers to do exactly what the project desires, even when the people involved do not specifically know what they want, or how have the skills to execute it. This starting point, for me, is at the very core of product design – creativity within constraints. The skill of a product designer lies not in finding an acceptable solution to a brief, but an inspired solution.

But briefs are a difficult thing to write. They need to be short (as implied by the name) and accurate as to the desires of the parties involved. An incorrect or vague brief can have disastrous effects upon a design project.

An incorrect brief is pretty inexcusable, and leads to misdirection of the project. At the early stage of the design process crucial decisions are made. If the criteria for success are wrong, then the decisions will be wrong. This point is fairly obvious – it would be like saying “I love spicy food”, and not liking spicy food. Our sushi chef wouldn’t really be to blame for making a disappointing Maki.

A vague or badly written brief can be a lot harder to spot. Briefs can look wordy and juicy, but lack important descriptive information. “I’d like the most deliciously scrumptious fishy sushi in the world”… Here’re some examples:

“An exciting new marketing campaign” - why would designers produce a boring old marketing campaign? All work should be considered from a fresh perspective for each project anyway.
“It should be really fun to play with” – In this case “fun” is an entirely subjective term, and is of no use in terms of design criteria.
“Pushing boundaries” and “innovation” – These are both important parts of product design, but the scope of innovation is laid out by the boundaries of the brief. The place to push boundaries is in the brief - That will allow the creative result to be surprising and new.

The kind of information needed in a brief should be descriptive and concise. “A fun toy for kids” could be anything from “a scientific educational toy for 5-6 year old boys” to “a creativity based fashion doll for 2-4 year old girls”. In fact, by defining in the brief what is really wanted we can reduce the amount of time spent designing, or produce more relevant designs in the same space of time.

Gah! That was a lot of writing again!

*from the Mark Cunningham Agency/Restaurant analogy. More on that later…

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