Brown’s Communicating Design: Design Briefs, Competitive Reviews, and Usability Testing

In Dan Brown’s Communicating Design: Developing Website Documentation for Design and Planning, he outlines three documents that play key roles in the planning process of any design initiative: design briefs, competitive reviews, and usability test plans. While these three distinct documents each serve different purposes, they all share a common goal of presenting their information in a clear and concise manner.

In the ninth chapter of his text, Brown describes a design brief as “a document describing the design problem and establishing a foundation of objectives, principles, and requirements.” Basically, design briefs are meant to start as both a project’s starting point and as a road map of sorts. Brown constantly harps on the fact that the best design briefs are relevant throughout the duration of a project. It’s incredibly easy to write a brief that will become outdated; thus, it becomes key to keep design briefs practical. A practical design brief that hits on the relevant design problems, supports statements with apt examples, articulates the logic behind various design decisions, and clearly delineates the projects boundaries will remain relevant for the projects entirety.

Brown then goes onto discuss the process of putting together a competitive review. In the words of Brown, a competitive review is a document created with the goal of “comparing one or more websites to a set of criteria or design principles to illustrate or validate those principles.” Basically, it’s a way to see how various design choices stack up against the competition. While Brown also notes that competitive reviews are a helpful when seeking design inspiration, they shouldn’t be the primary source for creative ideas. Rather, a useful competitive review clearly states what design elements are being gleaned from the various sites and how they pertain to the project at hand.

The final documents that Brown discusses are usability plans and usability reports. Over the course of any project, it becomes necessary to give real people hands on experience with whatever is being designed. Obviously you don’t just give a roomful of people access to whatever’s being designed and tell them to have it; strict scenarios and criteria for testing must be established. This is where usability plans come in. Simply described by Brown as “a document describing the objectives and approach for conducting a usability test,” a usability plan asks three core questions:

  1. “What do we want out of this test?”
  2. “How will we conduct the test?”
  3. “What will we ask users during the test?”

After creating a usability plan and administering the usability test itself, it comes time for the usability report. This is where the data from the usability test is compiled and succinctly presented. The ultimate goal of the usability report is to key in on the most important information and forge a “plan of attack,” as Brown puts it. From here, the project can move forward with the goal of correcting any issues that became evident during the usability test.

3 Replies to “Brown’s Communicating Design: Design Briefs, Competitive Reviews, and Usability Testing”

  1. I appreciated the section on competitive reviews because of the emphasis placed on identifying the industry standard within a swiftly developing medium. I think this is a lesson that creators of public history websites can benefit from. History websites often seem to fall behind user expectations in terms of navigation, options, and design. There are many understandable reasons for this such as lack of funding and expertise, but Brown seems to suggest that these challenges can be overcome with thoughtful comparison and planning. It’s just a hard reality that people are likely devoting their free time to perusing history websites, so it’s important to make sure they are easy to use and competitive in maintaining user interest.

  2. Although Dan Brown is writing about documents intended for the design process, I felt that Design Briefs, Competitive Reviews, and Usability Testing can easily be transferable to almost any public history project. Myself being in the middle of Public History Practicum, I was identifying with these documents in how they structure a planning process. If we had all been required to submit a ‘design brief’-esque document at the beginning of our current projects, I can’t help but to wonder if earlier confusion between students, the professor, and the site director(s) may have been avoided. Dan Brown’s “competitive review” is Lisa Brochu’s “creative thievery,” and in the often-times low-budget world of public history sites (both in the tangible sense and the digital sense) par for the course. (Lisa Brochu, Interpretive Planning: The 5-M Model for Successful Planning Projects) “Usability” tests are, in many ways, the ultimate test for Public Historians. Did I connect to the visitor/audience? Have we communicated our ideas in ways that are both stimulating and inviting? Did our methodology and media enhance the experience or deter from it? In short: did we reach and engage with the public? I can’t guarantee that I will be heading a design team for a digital project anytime soon, but Dan Brown’s book has so much straightforward organizational advice that I think I will be keeping it around for awhile!

  3. To build off of Laura’s point about the ability to transfer these concepts to public history projects I’ll take it one step further and claim that these concepts an array of different projects.

    The steps & strategy that Dan Brown presents is one that is refreshingly clear coming off as detailed but still easy-to-understand. I think what has surprised me the most is that the field of web design is not constantly changing but evolving and being tweaked, yet Mr. Brown has been able to put together such a complete piece of work, for now… since it was just published in 2011. To get back on subject the parameters set in place are not ones that are specific to web design- they are fundamental well-placed benchmarks for any project of any kind.

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