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How to write a design brief or specification document

Writing a Design Brief

Before asking one or more graphic designers to submit designs, time should be taken to write a solid design specification, or brief. The quality of designs received is in reflective of the quality of the brief.

The art of the brief is to give enough information to inspire the designer without inadvertently planting an idea that will limit or bias the his or her creativity.

Introduction

Explain what is being designed, and possibly why. How will it be used, and by whom? Where are we starting, and what does the finish line look like?

Be as specific as possible e.g. “a logo for business cards and envelopes”, or “a home page, a content page, and a report page with charts”.

About the Client

Introduce the client and the nature of the client’s business without revealing the client. This is not for fear that the designer will contact the client but rather that he or she may encounter information that could steer the design in the wrong direction; for example seeing and old logo that the client hates.

Tell the designer about the brand, especially if one has been well established. What colours does the client’s logo contain?

Include any pertinent details about the client’s industry and even its competitors.

Constraints

List all established constraints to avoid wasted time. Stating that a design must be high-contrast for accessibility, or no wider than 960 pixels will allow the designer to focus on only what is practical.

Directions

Brief the designer on the goals and target market for this design.

Are there colours, or colour palettes to adhere to or to avoid? Or other traits, like the client likes/hates rounded corners. Again, mentioning that the client hates rounded corners will help eliminate those designs before we even start, but saying that the client likes them could result in 25 designs, each with round corners.

What values, feelings, or messages should the design convey? Are there themes to consider or avoid.

Consider using metaphors or comparisons to express intangible traits. “Like that Mac guy in the Apple ad, but less of a jerk”, “more like the Beatles than the Rolling Stones”, or “smokes dope, but doesn’t inhale.”

Inspiration

Provide sources of inspiration. This should be as varied as the expectation of diversity.

If “the Victoria’s Secret website” is the only source mentioned, you will probably receive something that resembles the Victoria’s Secret website. If five different clothing websites are specified, each having its own style, the designer will be forced to get a sense of the client’s preference without fixating on one particular style.

If possible, detail about what or why the client likes about each: the typography of one site, the mood of another, the proportions of a third. Make note of any exceptions, “love the colours but its needs way more whitespace”.

Consider

Supply any elements that each design must include. This may include a fake logo that resembles the clients logo in colours and proportions.

Supply any text that will be present such as fake phone numbers or e-mail addresses. Request that any paragraph text be greeked or direct them to http://lipsum.com

If designs will/should contain photographs or drawings, supply a collection of images that the designer is allowed to use and make it clear that other images are not allowed. This keeps the designer focused on layout instead of image selection and likewise enables the client to focus on the designs instead of the photographs.

Changing or discontinuing a service? Make sure both your clients and staff are in the know.

I have been a customer of iWeb for 5 years. I chose them because they were a Canadian hosting company that offered good value on dedicated servers, and because they supported FreeBSD. Over the years I have leased 5 servers from them concurrently. On February 5 I experienced problems during an OS update and needed help. Instead I got a rude surprise.

 

Hi there, I wanted to send some feedback, and I waited a few days to cool off a bit. :)

I chose iWeb for a few reasons. You are Canadian; you have well-reputed support staff; you support open-source by mirroring many projects; your prices for dedicated servers are affordable; and you support FreeBSD.

You can imagine how frustrated (to put it mildly) I was last week when my server went down after a routine OS patch and I contacted support only to get the answer "we don't offer anymore support for FreeBSD".

I follow iWeb on Twitter, I read the iWeb blog, and I log into the customer hub regularly. Not only had no one thought to contact customers using FreeBSD to give us warning prior to dropping support so we could make other arrangements, but as far as I can tell there was no public announcement whatsoever.

Of course this isn’t about FreeBSD. I’m disappointed that you chose to drop support and it will certainly affect my choice of provider in the future, but I acknowledge that these are usually decisions based on numbers and economics. Perhaps you found it hard to find qualified support staff; perhaps its part of your focus on your smart server product; perhaps there just isn’t enough demand. It’s about being told that you chose not to support me long before I needed your support.

I have considered your managed services in the past, but the main reason I have opted not to subscribe for added support is that anytime I have had a problem that in sysadmin terms is fixable (a broken gmirror that won’t repair, an inconsistent network connection, or in this case an OS patch that conflicted with the hardware) the only solution I am offered is a new hard drive and a reinstall. While I have 10+ years experience as a sysadmin, I look to your staff when I don’t have time, physical access, or patience to deal with a problem.

In this case, as you can see in the ticket, after I was told that the OS was no longer supported, my subsequent questions were not even properly considered. When I determined that the NIC that was installed to try to help with the problem was making it worse, I asked that it be removed and was told “You can try to disable the nic in the BIOS. As said earlier, we do not offer any support for FreeBSD. We can re-install your server and connect your old disk via USB to allow you to recover your data.” It took another hour debate of back and forth for them to simply remove the NIC.

Once the second NIC was removed I was again able to boot enough that I could see that when the OS patch was installed, a new driver switched the em0 and em1 interfaces and effectively broke em0. The simple command “freebsd-update rollback” restored the server to its previously working state.

Please use this feedback constructively. I encourage you to contact your customers individually and make a public announcement both about this change in support; and in the future, 3-6 months before dropping support for any other operating systems.

Yvan

The next day an announcement was posted on iWeb's website.


 I received a response a few days later.

Hello Mr. Rodrigues,

Thank you for your feedback to management. Your comments are appreciated.

Please accept our apologies for the treatment of your ticket 6129693, in which you were twice given misinformation about the operating systems we are currently supporting. We can clearly see how this misinformation not only adversely affected the treatment of your issue, but how it has given you a misimpression of iWeb and our attitude towards our clients.

In fact, we do currently support BSD and will continue to do so until April 30th, 2013. This information is currently being disseminated to our clients in advance of the end of life for this product for exactly the reasons you cited in your email; we do not wish for any client to be caught unawares by this change and wish to give ample time for alternate arrangements to be made.

The system administrators who treated your ticket were either uninformed or misinformed on this issue; an grievous error that we assure you will be addressed internally. We are sincerely sorry for this lapse in service and would like to offer you full credit on your current invoice for server  CL-T012-164CL along with our apologies.

Have the issues with the server been successfully resolved at this point, or would you like further assistance from one of senior agents in order to have things as you would like? We would be most happy to have someone help you on this, you have only to give the word.

Please advise if the proposed credit is amenable to you and we can do anything to help.

Sincerely,
Misty


Hello, Misty,

Sorry for not getting back to you sooner -- the e-mail that I have registered with iWeb is a secondary one that is only used for support tickets when my main SMTP server goes down. My main contact is [redacted].

Thank you for this and your previous e-mail in response to my concern about iWeb's discontinuation of FreeBSD support, specifically with concern to that support ticket.

I appreciate the credit for the KVM and the month of service on that server.

I saw that you have since officially made the announcement about discontinuation of support of FreeBSD as well as some older Windows platforms. Please heed my advice in the future that you give 6-12 months notice on future support changes. This is common practice and is what most of your competitors follow. As you can understand, to organizations with a large IT infrastructure, even 3 months is considered short notice, and 1-2 months could incite panic.

It is my understanding that come April 31 my FreeBSD server itself will not be affected but that support or reinstallation will not be offered; that is, I am responsible for all support. Please let me know if this is not the case.

I have a request that I hope you will consider.

It would be of great value to people like myself, both users of widely adopted operating systems such as FreeBSD as well as niche ones (BeOS, other linuxes, etc) if you would offer a "bare-metal dedicated server" program.

The idea is that customers could order a dedicated server and you would connect a DVD drive and KVM for the customer to install the OS of their choice. It would be understood that your only support obligation would be to reconnect the drive and KVM when requested (which you already do) and replace faulty hardware. Customers could send you an installation DVD by courier or perhaps for a small fee such as $25 you could burn an ISO when requested. Perhaps it could come with a "do-it-yourself" support tier that included one emergency KVM hookup per month.

My suggestion would accomplish a few things. (a) it would be very helpful to customers with specialized needs; (b) you would be offering a very unique service in your market -- filling the gap between off-the-shelf leased servers and colocation; (c) it would strengthen your image as a customer-focused company. It could even be marketed with an angle like "Canadians embrace diversity, and so does their most reliable hosting provider".

If this isn't a possibility, the only additional thing I would request is a free month of service for overlap if/when I'm ready to migrate to another supported server.

Thank you.

WebIssues: An issue tracker worthy of support

WebIssues screen shot

I think any project that could have multiple issues requiring resolution, especially on an ongoing basis deserve an issue tracker, also known as a ticket system.

In the past I have used Eventum, RT, and Bugzilla, Mantis, and the Google Code IssueTracker. My favourite of these is Eventum, but when considering a new tracker I did some looking around.

I have found that most trackers can be divided into:

  • general-purpose trackers (like the ones mentioned above)
  • do everything including tracking trackers (Horde)
  • trackers designed for software development, usually supporting an agile workflow.

While browsing SourceForge I stumbled upon WebIssues. It is a general-purpose tracker but it has some nice features that make it unique.

  • In addition to a web-based client, it has a full-featured cross-platform desktop client with native support for Windows, Linux, and OS X.
  • It supports three different database back-ends, MySQL, PostgreSQL or SQL Server.
  • It has an attractive user-interface yet is fast and solid.
  • It supports different types of tickets, such as bugs and tasks. Each type has customizable attributes and new types and attributes can be added. It even comes pre-loaded with a type called forum that can be used as a simple message board.
  • Reports can be exported to CSV, HTML and even PDF format.
  • It is well documented, including:
    • a comprehensive user manual in English and Polish in online, downloadable HTML, and PDF formats.
    • developer documentation that introduces contributors to the concepts used in the software.

I tried the software and it installed on the server like a dream. It was simply a matter of creating an empty database and user on my MySQL server, unpacking the server component to a directory on my webserver, and running the simple web-based installer. Many applications try to install this seamlessly, but few achieve it without a snag or two.

I was thrilled to discover that not only is the client available as a portable application, but it is packaged in PortableApps (paf) format. It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of PortableApps.

Unfortunately one feature it doesn't have, one that I consider a necessity is an inbound e-mail gateway, so that users can create new tickets and update tickets simple by sending an e-mail to support@example.com

Of course the beauty of open-source software is that contributions are welcome. I have joined Michał Męciński and the WebIssues team to add an inbound e-mail gateway.

Michał's code is very clean, and I was able to add the new functionality in about 10 hours. It is currently being tested at my site, and I'll merge it with the rest of the project when it has been thoroughly tested. It will still require another 20-30 hours to smooth out the rough edges and document it.

WebIssues started in 2005 as Michał's master's thesis. He made it available publicly in 2006 and it won the Qt Centre Programming Contest in 2008. The current branch was released in December 2011 and the latest release, 1.0.4 was released just a couple of months ago.

If you are considering a ticket system, please take a serious look at WebIssues.

If you think a system like this would be useful in your business but you don't know where to start, please contact me.

Why does Rogers have such contempt for their current customers? It's good for business.

cat and mouse

I just got off the phone with Rogers after changing my internet plan from the Extreme Plus (45Mbps/4Mbps/150GB @ $74.99/mo) plan to their 300GB Express (25Mbps/2Mbps/300GB @ $71.99/mo).

You see, Rogers raised their prices today, and my bill was getting a bit pricey. I don't need 45Mbps, and if I did I would use up that 150GB pretty quick. The new price is about $30 more than their competitor, who ironically leases their lines from Rogers.

When they raised their prices they sent me mailer to inform me. It listed all their plans with the old and new rates. When I saw the 300GB plan I was pleased to know I could get twice the volume by sacrificing some speed (I've been burned by overage charges and didn't want to pay an extra $20 a month for 80GB more on the chance I went over my monthly allotment) .

So I called up customer service. The rep said she couldn't offer me the 300GB plan. Oh for fuck's sake. I read between the lines. I've played this game before.

OK, I'd like to cancel my service please.

I'm sorry to hear that. You'll need to call this other number for cancellation.

Fine.

Hi, yes, I'd like to cancel my service.

No problem, we can take care of that, but I'll need to put you through to another department.Hi, yes, I'd like to cancel my service. I need more volume and I don't want to pay more.Well, I have a 300GB plan I can offer.

Of course once I got through to the retention department (as it's called in the biz) I was easily able to get the plan I wanted, and both the rep and I knew we were just going through the motions of this stupid cat-and-mouse game.

Everyone in business knows that it's so much cheaper to retain an existing customer than find a new one, and yet companies like this show contempt for their customers by offering new customers 6 months of cheap rates and other incentives; and only offering value to existing customers when they threaten to leave.

It's also well known that both customer and employee satisfaction increases when front-line employees are empowered to offer the best solution possible to their clients.

That means the only logical explanation is that Rogers has done the math. This isn't a misguided policy. It's a business strategy. They know their policies piss off existing customers; they willfully bend over for new customers; and they're willing to accept the consequences of trading loyal customers for new ones, because there is a net economic benefit. They use the same strategy in their wireless, cable TV, and even magazine markets.

Do Rogers' executives adopt this strategy at home too?

Honey, I know we've been married for 10 years, but I'm not willing to put any more work into this relationship. I think I'm ready for someone younger and more naïve.

You've got to be kidding. If you're going to be a prick, I'm leaving. I want a divorce.

Oh. That sounds expensive and inconvenient. What if I let you drive the Lexus. Will you stay?

Dear "()<>[]:,;@\"!#$%&'*+-/=?^_`{}| ~ ? ^_`{}|~.a"@example.org

As I ranted in a recent tweet, "A plus sign is a perfectly valid character in an e-mail address." Yet about half of all sites I visit tell me my e-mail address is invalid when they encounter +.

The format for e-mail addresses is defined in RFC 5321, RFC 5322, and summarized nicely in RFC 3696. For the record, these are all valid e-mail addresses:

Dear America, we have guns too, but WTF?

The .ws TLD for web services... pass it on.

Does anyone disagree that the availability of .ws domains is pointless?

Perhaps in an attempt to generate revenues like Italy (.it), Tuvalu (.tv), Montenegro (.md), and Tonga (.to) did, Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) made available this ccTLD for general registration (that is, residency is not a requirement). Global Domains International Ltd. represents the TLD on behalf of Samoa and markets it as Your Internet Address for Life, essentially an all-purpose alternative to .com.

I'm of the opinion that the last thing the world needs is another one-TLD-for-all-your-needs. However, for the last five years I have been registering .ws domains for the purpose of web services. It's a nice way to distinguish websites-for-people from webservices-for-computers. You can even create subdomains for types of services, such as schema.example.ws, soap.example.ws, wsdl.example.ws, rest.example.ws, etc.

All the cool kids are doing it. Pass it on... it might even help out a country where the GDP per capita is about 1/10th of Canada or the U.S.A.

Websites that have sold my personal information or have been hacked and compromised

Whenever a website asks me to sign up or share personal information, I always use a unique, tracable e-mail address. These are those to which I now regularly receive spam.

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