An all too close encounter
This article was originally posted in Ssachs Magazine as "A close encounter". This article expands and explores the points made to further explore the subject of the importance of the briefing process.
Every season, the decision to design and produce a new product is made. The reasons for this decision can be made for a multitude of reasons. The desire to refresh a product or collection, the need to change or reduce costs on a particular product, or maybe just the need to challenge the market with a fresh approach.
Once a decision is made, waiting for the inevitable brief to surface can be a painful time period. There will be rumours, small discussions with key personnel, and sometimes even a brainstorming or kick off to start a season, but nothing is normally 100% fixed or confirmed at this stage. This means it can be hard to keep tabs on which key details and factors will need to go into a final brief.
With so many pieces of important information that need confirming and then communicating, why do we always rush through the briefing process?
Often a brief is issued and then a timeline for the season is started. But with design and development time ticking away, the pressure for the team to make the right decisions to stay on time increases daily. To make good decisions people need to feel they have got the space to think, discuss and research.
Furthermore, there are literally hundreds of details, factors and filters that can be placed into a brief. From fabric details, to pricing considerations, fit systems to consumer profiling, sales expectations to product lifecycle, merchandising options to competitor products etc.
Finding and focusing on the most importance factors for the briefing of each product is vital. For example briefing a new version of an existing product means there are already a number of details that can be determined. From sales information that can be analysed and product feedback that can be reviewed.
The key is to determine the reasoning for the new version and focus on that. This could range from a need to change the fabric, to updating the feature set, to changing the styling to refresh the look. The important factor is to lockdown the details that don’t need to change and focus on the key reasoning for the update.
All too often there is a desire to change just one element of a design and we end up changing details that were working perfectly well.
When creating a completely new product there are less factors set in stone. The reasoning may also come from a number of different areas. From the growth of desire for a particular product type, to a new technology which enables a new style of product, to seeing market trends move towards a product that is not currently in the collection. In this case it can be hard to find a starting point for the brief, but normally a quick brainstorm on why and what impact you want the product to make will help determine the direction.
Deciding whether a product is there for brand appeal and marketing, or it’s there to be a large selling item is a good place to start. Everyone wants all products to strike the perfect balance between brand image and selling power, but it is better to be honest from the start in giving the focus mainly to one side or other.
Essentially, the more details that can be locked in, the better. But also making sure there are some elements not fully determined will enable “creative space” for the finding the direction of the product. The more open the brief, the greater chance of either misinterpretation or creative license throughout the process.
Therefore a brief has a large responsibility to get it right. But this should not necessarily be placed solely on the Product Manager (or whomever creates this brief). Surely with the vast amount of factors involved this should mean the process should be collaborative.
Should briefing be a more collaborative process?
Don’t get me wrong, there is a definite need for top line decision making to align with brand strategies and high level creative direction. But the expertise of the team cannot be under estimated to enhance a brief to a more effective level. For example, most briefs consist of a balance between a set of fixed information and variable information.
Fixed information is often details like retail price, profit margin or sales expectations. These kinds of details are often meticulously researched and agreed on at a top level and should form part of a core selling strategy. This kind of information will aid all parties to understand what are the fixed boundaries that a design needs to work within.
Variable information is often light on details or sometimes missing completely. This is normally because these details could either not be agreed on or it is left up to the creative process to figure it out. This is where the ambiguity in a briefing process can cause problems later down the line.
Generally speaking, the more variable information in a brief the greater opportunities for creative thinking, but equally the greater opportunities to deviate away from the focus of the brief. Therefore balancing a brief can be a delicate process.
Also for some people in a team, a briefing is when they are hearing this passing of information for the first time. Therefore it is not uncommon for people to react to the information. Expecting people to take in, understand, form opinions and agree to information within such a sort space of time seems an impossible task.
So finding ways to minimise the stress on each individual member through out this process will both help to people feel integrated and empower people to effectively deliver their input at the right time. The key here is to be open and honest with all parties and make it clear what is expected, and when, within the briefing period.
How can we better integrate a brief into a timeline?
So to enable all parties to have a chance to think about and contribute to a brief, I think there is a great opportunity to do what I have always called a Rebrief.
A Rebrief is a processed reaction, once the initial brief has been presented. It generally focuses specifically on the variable information and is undertaken by the more creative roles in a team, such as designers, developers and materials personnel. The idea is to start to try and answer some of the questions thrown up by a brief, and ultimately narrow down the direction before final decisions are made.
This gives an opportunity for all the creative parties to discuss, research and finally present their thoughts back to the whole team, before a final brief is issued. This enables all members of the team to start to visualise what direction the product may take and eliminate wasted time, resources and energy in the development process.
Even within a debrief process there is opportunity for focusing people’s efforts. Identifying the key areas of exploration for the team to focus on can help people to know what specifically they can affect, so even here their time and efforts are not wasted.
This Rebrief can then be integrated to create a final brief for everyone to develop the product from. Having these conversations early in the process may take some extra time, but are there to help unite and guide everyone forward, be the touchstones for future reviews, and ultimately make sure the right product is produced.
For more on briefing / rebriefing and the importance of getting it right (first time) contact Jonn at firstname.lastname@example.org