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How to create a good design brief for a mobile app

How to create a good design brief for a mobile app

Last update: March 12, 2014

Successfully communicating an idea of what you envision for a mobile app to a designer can be a hard task and sometimes end up with disappointing results. A good way to avoid any miscommunications is to create a good design brief, so your designer can be fully aware of your needs and overall vision which will set a good foundation for the design process.

To help better understand what should be in a good design brief for a mobile app, we chatted with Germaine Satia, a UX and product manager with 12 years of experience.

Here are a few tips she has shared with us…

1. Define what your mobile app is, does, and why it exists

Photo subtitle: "Peek" calendar - "How we started". Check out the complete story in: http://www.peekcalendar.com/story.html

Photo subtitle: "Peek" calendar - "How we started". Check out the complete story in: http://www.peekcalendar.com/story.html

Begin with a clear and concise definition of what your mobile app is. Frame your mobile app in your business context and give a brief description of your company. It is important that you refer to who your competitors are and how you want to stand apart from them. Explaining to your designer your business purpose for your mobile app will give him/her the right context to create the product you need.

After a short explanation of what it is, get into the details of what it must do. Here it is very important to be precise and to explain all the functionalities of the app. What does your app have to offer?

Content driven vs task-driven mobile apps

Germaine explains that mobile apps are divided in two different types: 1) content driven or 2) task driven.  This will define the “weight” of the design. Content driven apps, like magazines or catalogs, have limited functionality and are more visual. Task driven apps demand more functionality. In these cases, the visuals should be on the backburner and not imposing, in order to keep the app functional for the user. The busier the visual design gets, the less functional it will be. 

If the mobile app is task oriented it is very important to clearly state in the design brief what are the basic functionalities, what will the app solve, how many tasks it enables the user to accomplish, and so on. Include all known details of the functionalities. Don’t worry about being extensive. This list will be a great starting point for a conversation with the designer. Together you will then prioritize  and think how to turn it into a good product.

2. Define your user and the context of use

Photo subtitle: My Visual Brief - define your target.

Photo subtitle: My Visual Brief - define your target.

On designing a mobile app, the user is always the main factor behind every choice.

Germaine says the focus is the end user and that the design brief should specifywho it will be and how they will be using the app.  It is also important to define the context of use, as she exemplifies: “designing a data entry app that will be used by a nurse at a busy hospital is different from creating an app for someone working in a quieter office.”

Different contexts of different users require different strategies for the design. Thoroughly and clearly defining the user and context of use is a great starting point.

Photo subtitle: " Peek " calendar - "Talking to People".

Photo subtitle: "Peek" calendar - "Talking to People".

3. Define your content

Clarify the content your mobile app will contain. Will it have audio, video, image or documents? How will you source this content? Will you purchase it online? Will you create it yourself or hire someone to help you? Or will your app just facilitate the content creation that your users will produce?

Screenshot:  My Visual Brief helps you to define your content easily.

Screenshot: My Visual Brief helps you to define your content easily.

4. Set the stage for the user experience

When thinking about the app’s structure, one starts stepping into a user experience territory. This is part of the design process and best done together with the designer. However, in your initial design brief you should at least clarify what sort of overall experience your app should provide.

Should it be fun? Efficiency focused? Explorative/discovery-based? A mixture of a few?... Which apps do you think provide a good experience that you’d like to emulate?

Photo subtitle: "Peek" calendar app by Square Mountains.

Photo subtitle: "Peek" calendar app by Square Mountains.

5. Define the look of your app (the fun part!)

Choose two or three examples of apps that showcase your vision for your mobile app. Discuss them with the designer, be specific on what you like and don’t like. This will be very helpful for the designer to get a sense of your vision and expectations. Keep in mind that style comes after function and most of the times the visual look of an app is derived from its functionality. Due to that, the same look may not be so obvious on two different products that don’t have the same functionalities.

Screenshot: choose some favourite designs and specify what you like.

Screenshot: choose some favourite designs and specify what you like.

Discussing your ideas and expectations with the designer is fundamental to understand what visual look could best suit your app. And, once again, the context of use is very important to define a visual identity that relates to the users and your business. On this note, avoid making stylistic decisions based only on your personal taste.

6. Define the design specifications to the last detail

It might be difficult to do this step on your own as often the designer is the best person to help you see all the details that the design of the mobile app will entail. I.e. what sort of and how many pages, icons, buttons, menus will need to be designed. If you can do this on your own and include it in the initial design brief, we are confident the designer will tell you that it is one of the best briefs s/he has received.

If you find it difficult to see all the details, then leave this step to discuss with the designer. What you can think about is the platforms (iOS, Android), the devices (mobile phone, tablet, etc) and the screen resolutions () that your app will need to be compatible with.

Photo subtitle: "Drive" magazine app by Swipe Studio, Germany.

Photo subtitle: "Drive" magazine app by Swipe Studio, Germany.

7. Clarify your budget and timing

After defining your design brief, think about your budget and timing for the project. Don’t forget that design is just one element of the mobile app’s development. You will need to allocate a budget for the technical part of the mobile app and, if needed, content development.

Creating a brief for a mobile app is a very specific task and best to be kept as a two way street between the designer and the client. Your briefing should communicate your intentions, your design preferences, fully inform your designer and set a good foundation for the project. For best results, leave enough of room for the designer to provide his/her ideas and guide you on what would be the best solution for your app. As Germaine reminds, mobile app design is focused on functionality and maybe what you initially envisioned for your app isn’t the best solution in the end from the UX and UI point of view.

A good design brief is an important bridge between your vision and the designer’s contribution to your project. Engage the designer in a collaborative fashion so that you will end up with the best solution.

Good luck!

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Manuela Montero, a Chilean freelance graphic designer and illustrator

Manuela Montero, a Chilean freelance graphic designer and illustrator

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