A better website brief


As someone who runs an agency offering WordPress website development, I get quite a lot of website development briefs in my inbox. Some are excellent: they give me and the team a clear sense of what’s required. Typically, they’re documents under 20 pages long which talk quite a lot about users and goals and priorities, about what’s good and bad about the current site, what’s known and unknown, what needs to change and why. They ask for our ideas and suggestions about how the digital platform and they way we develop it together can help solve strategic questions for the organisation.

Other briefs are less helpful. They’re invariably longer, start with the procurement process, talk little about users or content but in great detail about must-have features (which frequently aren’t really features). They ask us to explain – and these are genuine examples, I promise – how we’ll foster improved race relations through the CMS build process or the margin we apply to subcontractors’ day rates or to confirm we’ll run Gateway meetings at the end of each ‘AGILE’ sprint. I’m not sure what kind of suppliers happily fill in those templates and earnestly tailor their response to the weighted percentage scoring system described, but I suspect they aren’t the ones who build the best websites. If you require those things as a client, you’re just asking to be lied to.

I understand that it’s hard to go shopping for a new website, especially if you’ve not worked in that field. Procurement colleagues frequently don’t help, with their convoluted templates and inhuman portals. I don’t blame the clients who issue bad briefs, but I would like to help them write better ones, based on 15 years’ experience both dishing out briefs and trying to respond to them.

So here’s a template – a set of questions we look for answers to as suppliers of this kind of thing, to help us cost a job. Briefs that give us this information will get a more useful, precise proposal from us, and almost certainly a more competitive price since there’s so much less risk involved for us to cost in.

I’d really appreciate thoughts and comments from others on the Google Doc.

Direct link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1tlNuVhw44-5MVj48iewhNHGAYp_7r8iqNUc3r8xNjiE/edit

The bottom line is that you don’t have to know exactly what you need, but you should be able to talk about what’s important to you and why. The best briefs are up-front about this: they say what’s known and what isn’t, and give us the opportunity to recommend a proper discovery phase to scope out the user needs, content, constraints and technology so that together we can focus the budget on what’s most likely to work.

Photo Credit: Hegemony77 clothes for dolls and 1/6 figures via Compfight cc

Digital people by the ounce

Pan balance

Five years ago, I remember being in Government trying to buy an enterprise licence for Huddle, an innovative UK cloud-based project management tool. In those days, the technical co-founder himself would pop round our office to sort things out, and it took days of internal negotiation with IT colleagues to reassure them that using a secure website to share files wouldn’t spell disaster. In the end, the only way we bought it was thanks to help from the Interactive Services team at COI, who heroically persuaded their own procurement team it could be done, despite them being very dubious. They were more used to buying digital design services in ad agency-style pitches, and selecting an unique tool off the internet that you wanted to buy directly on an annual licence sounded deeply iffy. I found it easier to contract the services of The Dextrous Web Ltd, comprised of a youthful Harry Metcalfe and James Darling, than the server to host their team’s code on.

These days, it’s the other way round.

Harry’s right, of course, when he lays into the nonsense that is the Digital Services Framework, which instead of making it easier to buy good digital services, in fact makes it harder.

We’ve been on the first iteration of the Digital Services Framework, and it’s been a largely pointless experience and a considerable waste of time and email.

Like Harry’s team, my firm is a small team with a mix of skills – our main back-end developer has a passion for UX and training; our front-ender can also design etc – which never fitted into DSF’s strict whole-numbers-only allocation of Resources.

Though we’ll travel, we’re based in London, and can’t spend weeks on end in Warrington or Newcastle.

We’ve not perfected it yet, but we’re gradually improving our processes, our sharing of knowledge, our team culture and our support processes. We don’t have to be in the same room to work well together, but we need to be in touch throughout the day as well as maintain some institutional memory and client relationships. It’s daft to pretend an agency team of people creating and supporting digital services can work in any other way.

It’s equally daft to procure those people in a ‘reverse auction’ where suppliers are told the 50 bidders with the lowest rates will be appointed to the framework. I remember watching the day rate on the screen in front of me drop and drop until it was a good 40% below our regular (pretty competitive) one, and then giving up. I’m still confused how we ended up winning a place on the framework at all. Still, it’s not led to anything useful since, apart from lots of email.

G-Cloud works much better for us (though I do miss the simple logic of the old COI competitive tenders with a handful of shortlisted suppliers and a logical brief). As Harry puts it:

We need a framework that nurtures suppliers who share the culture and approach of GDS, helping them to grow, thrive and multiply. We need a framework that’s designed to serve the user needs of buyers and suppliers who are getting things done.

We need to build on the shining example of the G-Cloud framework, using short contracts, open standards, flexible terms and financial transparency to manage cost and commercial risk. Heavy-handed procurement process should be a thing of the past.

We reviewed the paperwork for the second iteration of the Digital Services Framework before Christmas: assessed the effort involved, and the slim prospect of suitable, enjoyable, commercially-viable work arising from it, and decided it wasn’t worth the bother this time.

So much about the government digital landscape has been positively transformed in the last few years, it’s a shame SME procurement still hasn’t been fixed. You don’t buy good digital people by the ounce.

Photo credit: Matt Smith

Feet on the ground

cloud and pylon

There’s been a lot of buzz about the G-Cloud today and over the weekend, and rightly so. It’s a potentially exciting development, and a real achievement for Chris Chant and his team. Not only have they set out, aggressively in Civil Service terms, to get a better deal for taxpayers, but they’ve also managed the process with truly impressive openness and frankness.

It’s exciting to see little ol’ Helpful Technology alongside the likes of CSC and Capita on the newly-announced G-Cloud Store (we’re under Specialist Cloud Services, offering digital engagment support, training and integration of tools such as WordPress).

But I’m keeping my feet on the ground. I won’t be rolling out the new Universal Credit transaction or equipping police forces with BlackBerrys (nor would I want to). I may not even get much of a sniff at contracts for things I do do, like helping public sector people develop the skills needed to work in social media and cloud technologies. And that’s OK, because the G-Cloud is really three things:

1. It’s a way to buy IT-as-paperclips

Plenty of IT services are digital commodities, pretty much – things like compute cycles and storage space. Amazon demonstrated that you could sell them as such, and now the UK Public Sector can more easily buy them as such. Servers are servers, and it’s about time the cost and speed of provisioning servers for government projects, for example, was subjected to some harsh competition.

2. It’s a sensible model for 2.0-style subscription services

While the G-Cloud store still features the likes of Capita, CSC and co pretty prominently, it’s awesome to see friends like Huddle, Learning Pool and Delib (for which I’m an associate), on the framework too.

What they offer really does transform government IT, but until now they’ve faced real headaches getting procured on a subscription model, rather than as bespoke, fixed-price projects. I remember my own experience bringing Huddle in to DIUS in 2009, and the hoops that helpful COI chums had to jump through to help me save taxpayers’ money on them. Times have changed.

3. It’s a state of mind

Chris clearly thinks it’s big news:

[blackbirdpie id=”171631766241677312″]

I might not go that far right now, but as much as anything, G-Cloud symbolises a willingness to tackle procurement barriers preventing SMEs from winning government work; a new ethos of easy come, easy go relationships with suppliers; and an endorsement for cloud services offering better quality and value than the alternatives, including no-nonsense accreditation.

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/pubstrat/status/171668815409709056″]

There are some things that niggle me, and one or two deeper worries. The Govstore is a good first iteration, but maybe highlights the dangers of free. The foolish and short-termist abolition of COI has taken with it a number of relevant frameworks for digital communications services, and perhaps even more importantly the savvy and experienced brokers who managed them. G-Cloud is often posited as the replacement, but COI didn’t really trade in commodities, and Helpful Technology isn’t really fungible. And maybe my deeper worry is that underlying cultural barriers will still tend towards larger all-in contracts with bigger players.

[blackbirdpie id=”171610842872287232″]

Oddly, all within the same week, I heard that I’d been set up as a preferred supplier to one of the big Systems Integrators, and been turned down from the DfE’s Creative Choice ‘black box’ service company.

As with all things in government, a wise SME will hedge its bets. Look up at the sky, keep your feet on the ground.

How to kill off a brief

Talk to the hand

It’s one thing to run a pitch, compare proposals, pick one, and turn down the others. It’s sometimes hard on the losers, but people know where they stand: they tried, they didn’t get it.

But sometimes it’s not as clear cut as that. Sometimes, you’re not quite sure what you want to buy, you chat to a potential supplier, they send you a proposal of some kind, you ponder it, things get busy or the landscape changes, and the timing isn’t right to take it forward. Or maybe you’re crystal clear what you want, you get proposals in, and the wheels come off when the boss changes, or the budget’s frozen, or the procurement department get involved. Either way, the glorious battle of the pitch ends not with a bang, but a lingering whimper, as I was reminded of by a crisp little post from a former colleague which randomly re-appeared in my Reader today:

Just as I’d given up on the piece of work that had looked so promising back in September, it comes back to haunt me.  They still want to work with us (and so they should, we’re great) they just need to sort out the incumbent agency and re-draw the spec.  But they LOVE the proposal so could we just bear with them until, maybe, November?  So the waiting continues.  And while I’d love to affect a blithe indifference, I  really, really can’t.

I’ve been on all sides of this unhappy situation – as a supplier, a commissioner and a middle-man. It’s awkward, and leads to dodged phone calls and unreturned emails and all manner of bad feeling and chasing. It’s annoying on the supplier end too for obvious reasons: maybe they thought the deal just needed rubber-stamping, or their commercial director was counting on it to meet a quarterly target.

So if you’re on the buying side of the equation, here’s five strategies for killing off a brief in ways which minimise the collective gnashing of teeth (n.b. if this reads like a pissed-off supplier, I’m really not, and I didn’t mean it to come across that way…):

  1. Before you start, make sure both sides are clear about the difference between a speculative enquiry and a formal request for proposal: don’t confuse a chat about ballpark costs and potential strategies with a request for a fully-costed approach which takes a big investment of staff time. Writing it down in an email is a good idea.
  2. Writing it down is really important: a verbal brief, from the supplier perspective, is often a PITA. It means all you have to go on are your notes, often based on a stream-of-consciousness conversation with a potential client. If you need to pass it on to a colleague to write up, Chinese whispers come into play. So if you’re buying something, spend 10 minutes jotting down an email with at least (i) a one sentence description of your goal; (ii) a list of the constraints that apply, including time, politics and budget if relevant. Thinking it through in your own head by writing it down really helps refine an idea.
  3. When things get stuck, don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’, and proactively: if for some reason the project gets stuck, it’s better to be honest and communicative than definitive and evasive. Answer the phone, send a holding response to the chasing email (or before it arrives) – don’t pretend there’s certainty or likelihood where there isn’t.
  4. Be frank about your enthusiasm for the idea and the proposal: sometimes the proposal that materialises from a chat, or even a more formal brief, isn’t quite what you had in mind… but there’s not a simple yes/no decision to be made. Be blunt with your suppliers. Suppliers crave more detailed, first-hand feedback from clients on proposals (especially the unsuccessful ones), because they so rarely get it. If the proposal missed the point, rubbed you up the wrong way, was too expensive, or if on reflection the proposal showed your brief was a hare-brained scheme in the first place, tell them (probably easiest and safest in a phone call).
  5. Control the next steps: give negative feedback to some sales guys and they turn defensive (‘Well you never said…’), desperate (‘But we can do that! Give us a chance!’) or annoyingly determined (‘I’ll call you again next week…’), and nobody wants those kind of phone calls. Be very clear what you, as the buyer, want next. ‘Thanks. It’s great to know what you can do. Put me on your mailing list, and I’ll circulate your spec sheet to colleagues in case they can use you’ or maybe ‘I appreciate the effort you went to. The project is pretty much dead now, even though I wish it wasn’t. I will be in touch if it comes back to life’. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.

Note that I didn’t suggest producing a 3 page evaluation matrix so you’re able to give people a post-procurement letter which says they scored 74 out of 100 and thus didn’t win the work. That kind of thing wastes everyone’s time, often out of a desire to cover arses. Similarly, I didn’t suggest writing a 53 page brief (seriously, I’ve had those), asking for everything from TUPE compliance to estimated taxi costs. Volume of briefing material isn’t what’s useful, clarity is. Suppliers don’t read long documents, just like you don’t. Give them a 3 page document that really nails what you’re looking for and the constraints on delivering it, and you’re much more likely to get the proposals you want.

There’s more than a blog post’s-worth of material about what’s wrong with procurement, but you can make it a whole lot less painful by being clear & concise, being a communicative human being, and staying in control.

 Photo credit: Mark Van Laere on Flickr

How to sell me stuff

Business Meeting (thinkpanama on Flickr)

(Photo credit: thinkpanama)

At work, I get a fair few people come and try and sell me their thing. Some are better at it than others. Here are eight tips on how to sell me stuff (and if you’re smart enough to find these before you contact me, you’ll be well on the way):

1. Don’t cold call me.
I know cold calling is probably an efficient way to reach consumers, but phone has to be a bad way to make a business sale. The people who’ll speak to you probably don’t have the budgets, and the people who do will be annoyed that you stole the few minutes they have at their desk between meetings.

2. Get to know me through social media (but don’t creep me out)
I’m a dead easy target, because I talk about so many of the things I’m working on, the people I work with, and the problems I face here and across the social web. When I meet a potential supplier who’s read my blog, we save ten minutes each and have a more interesting conversation. That said, I had a slightly freaky (cold) call recently from a vendor who’d clearly been randomly sampling my blog and blogroll in order to drop names and quotes into the patter. Thanks, but no thanks.

3. Go where I go, talk to me about the other things you’re doing
I’ve barely spoken to some of the suppliers I have the most favourable impression of: I feel I know them and their work from the barcamps, events, blogs and online magazines I follow. I’m actually fairly receptive to a simple, factual email now and then about the work you’re doing, new products you’ve developed, conferences you’ve presented at (with links to your material) and so on.

4. Have a demo, a tour and a feature list
If you’re selling software, this is important. Depending on the tool, how much I need it and how innovative it is, I might want to start with an online demo I can play with in my own time (often, I’ll just forward it to home, to play with of an evening) – I’ll definitely want this before I buy. Occasionally, I may watch a ‘tour’ video, but again, probably not at work where video performance isn’t great. But I almost always need a feature list – preferably a page on your site – which gives me an impression in 10 seconds what the tool does, and gives me something I can send on to colleagues if I want to get them interested. A smart vendor will have all three, publicly available on their site.

5. Give me some ballparks
I know, I know. Tell the client it will cost roughly X and when they’ve given you their full requirements and it actually costs X+Y, they turn round and say: “But you said it would cost X?”. I’ve been on both sides of that in the past. Frequently, I have little or no budget right now, but I may do in the future if the right project comes along. But without a ballpark, I’ll struggle to assess the kind of value I’m expecting from your product, I’ll have no idea whether I can afford it or should suggest it to a colleague, and we’ll waste both of our time. If it’s highly configurable, say: “Client A bought a mid-range package to do X, Y and Z and it cost them between £5,000-£10,000”. Ranges are fine.

6. Tell me about you and UK government
I’m a central government prospect, so tell me about your work with government. Mention some clients you’ve worked with and describe or show me screenshots of the kind of projects you did with them. Tell me what government standards or accreditations you’ve achieved, and about the procurement frameworks you’ve got onto which I might be able to buy through if things go well.

7. The biography goes at the end
It’s not that I’m not interested in your slides of big-name client logos, org charts, parent company details, awards, shortlistings, staff profile, company history, chief executive’s photo, office locations, mission statement, core values or brand essence… actually, it is. Above all, it’s a bad way to spend the first twenty minutes of our meeting, even if I eventually want to know some of that stuff. I’ll be impressed if you kick off with the product and what it does in a nutshell. Then tell me some stories about how it’s been used by your different clients – and if you’re brave, where it hasn’t worked so well and why. Give me an idea of the kind of costs involved. And then tell me why, since the company behind it all is so ace, I’d be a fool to miss out.

8. The killer email
So what’s the best way to approach me? Probably a well-crafted tweet, or more likely a good email that reads something like:

Hi Steph

I hope you don’t mind me getting in touch. I’m a big fan of your [insert adjective flattery here] blog. I read your post recently about [some fascinating topic] and I thought the responses to the comment I left were really interesting.

As I mentioned on the blog, I’m sales director at CoolStartup.com, a UK startup which offers an unusual online contact management tool called CrazeeName. It’s different from ThingYou’veHeardOf.com in three main ways:

– one: it has cool features A, B and C – and it even works on Internet Explorer 6!
– two: our pricing model is based on X which means a simple install starts from £2k up to £10k for our gold package
– three: we’re government accredited to level X and on frameworks A, B and C

If you want to take a look, I’ve set up an online demo for you at: http://coolstartup.com/yourdemo which will work for 30 days, and I’ve attached a summary of what the tool does with a few case studies of how government clients have used it. If you want to know more, head on over to http://coolstartup.com/tour and take a look.

I’ll drop you a line in a couple of weeks to see what you think – perhaps we can set up a meeting then if you want to discuss it further or involve some colleagues?

All the best – see you at CoolSocialMediaEvent09 next week?

V. Smart