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 It’s incredibly easy to write a brief that will become outdated; thus, it becomes key to keep design briefs practical.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:
- “What do we want out of this test?”
- “How will we conduct the test?”
- “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.