The briefing problem and how to solve it

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Developed by Nicolai Engdal Nørgaard

The client’s expectations of their new building are sometimes different from what they get at the end of the project. This can be due to the lack of shared information between the client and the designer in the briefing process and thereby creating a briefing problem.

The briefing problem can be illustrated by the Johari Window, which shows the need for the client to give the designer thoroughly feedback and disclose the expectations of the building. This can sometimes be a problem if the client holds some part of the information privately, which may be due to a number of reasons e.g. the client doesn’t have the capabilities to communicate its desires clearly to the designer. On the other hand the designer may also withhold information for the client, because of several reasons like: the designer doesn’t think the information is relevant for the client.

The briefing process can be optimized by using one of the formal briefing models that are available just as the feedback and the disclosure process can be stimulated through a number of different ways. By optimize the briefing process as well as the feedback and the disclosure process it is possible to avoid the briefing problem. The feedback and the disclosure process can be stimulated through different techniques. E.g. by; Working with known designers, Visualization, Joint visits, Involving the users, Existing users, SMART methodology and Expert choice.


The briefing process

Figure 1: Illustration of the Johari Window with the four different information boxes and which tools can be used to get the information shared.[1]

If a construction project has to end well for the client and it can be called for a success it is critical for the client and the designer to have a successful briefing process. The briefing process is often the beginning of a project and if it is done well, the end result will have a high probability of satisfying the client, because the process involves understanding the client's desires and solving them in a way where the resulting product meets the client's vision of the project. But there is often encountered some problems in the briefing process, because of the poor guidance and knowledge of the client, while the designer have difficulties in understanding the client's needs and explaining the different design options for the client. By using some methods to improve the process it is possible for the briefing process to ensure good quality and avoiding of additionally cost.[2]

The Johari Window

In the beginning of a project the probability of misunderstanding each other is quite high. To reduce this problem it can be a good idea to visualize the problem by drawing the Johari Window.[3] The Johari window, as seen on figure 1, illustrates all of the information of the project by splitting the information in four boxes. The four boxes is called; Shared, Blind, Private and Unknown. By getting as much as possible of the information to the shared box, the problem of misunderstanding each other is reduced. This can be done with feedback, disclosure and certainty. The feedback and the disclosure process is a way to stimulate the briefing process, while the certainty process is done by self-discovery by the client, observations by the designer and shared-discoveries by both the client and the designer.

  • Shared/public: Information that is known and understood by both parties.
  • Blind: Information known to the designer but not understood or communicated to the client.
  • Private: Information known to the client but not understood or passed on to the designer.
  • Unknown: Information that is not known or available for any of the parties.

Stimulating the feedback and disclosure process

The feedback of the designer’s work is used for the client to comment on what they like and dislike of the designer’s idea and in that way guide the designer in the desired direction. For the client to be able to give the designer some feedback, the designer needs to present their ideas in some way. In the same way the client needs to disclose to the designer what their expectations and desires for the building are in order to make the designer able to come up with some ideas for the design, which the client would be interested in. Sometimes disclosure and feedback can be difficult to give if one or both parties withhold crucial information for the other part. This can be due to the reasons that:

  • The client is inexperienced in handling a construction project.
  • The client is having internal disagreement on how the building should be.
  • The client is not capable to communicate their desires clearly.
  • The client is not giving their representative the authority to make decisions.
  • The designer is not capable to communicate the different design opportunities clearly.
  • The designer doesn’t think the information is relevant for the client.
  • The designer isn’t ready to present their ideas and needs more time to make research on the demands from the client.

But there are a number of techniques which can stimulate the feedback and the disclosure process.

Working with known designers

One of easiest ways to stimulate the feedback and disclosure process is for the client to be working with a designer, which they have previously been working with.[1] In that way the client and the designer already have a great awareness of the other team’s communication skills, working skills and development process. It is also possible for the teams to learn from the previously mistakes and misunderstandings that occurred in the last project, which should make the briefing process much simpler and possible to avoid a briefing problem.


Figure 2: Illustration of a value tree made by the SMART methodology. The numbers indicate the weighting of each node. [4]

Another of these techniques is the visualization technique[1], where the designer tries to transform the client’s requirements from text format to a visual representation. The visual representation can be made as a physically model like a small scale model or as a virtually model in a computer by using a 2D or 3D modelling program. As technology keeps evolving new visualization techniques gets possible for the designer to use. E.g. more and more firms are already started to use augmented reality and virtual reality to represent their design ideas for the client. These new technologies can also be implemented in the new technique called VDC, which allows the designer to simulate the building process in all of it's phases for the client, because of it's composition of drawings, time schedule and budgeting. [5]

The physically model is often very quick and cheap to build, while the virtually models is often slow to produce and expensive due to the equipment needed to produce and showing the model to the client. With a visual model of the design idea it is possible for the client to reject certain design solutions, which reduce some of the uncertainty regarding the project because it closes off options. The visualization technique can thereby be used as an iterative process as the nearly approved design solutions can be used as a basic model for the next design idea and in that way working towards the desired design idea.

Joint visits

Figure 3: Illustration of an analytical hierarchy process with the alternatives shown at the lowest level, which indicates that there are three possible sites. The weightings of each node is not shown.[4]

A technique to stimulate the feedback and the disclosure process can also be to make joint fieldtrips[1] for the client and the designer to similar constructions. This is a sort of a team building exercise that creates trust between the two parties, which makes the communication easier and give each party a greater awareness of the other’s ways to develop. A great advantage of joint visits to similar constructions is the possibility for the client to disclose some of their thoughts of what the building should contain in order to make it functionally for the users. It can also be used for the designer to show the client some of the existing designs of similar constructions and thereby enable the client to give feedback of what they expect for the design. A negative side effect to a joint visit can be a reduction in the designer’s creativity, because the designer gets too affected of the seen designs and thereby creating a construction less unique than the client might have hoped for.

Involving the users

Another way for the client to disclose for the designer what the building should contain is by involving the future users of the building[6]. Sometimes the client doesn’t know enough about the needed facilities, which is why the involvement of the users can be a good idea. The involvement of the users can be done in different ways like; making a survey among the users which include relevant questions about the users’ expectation and desires for the building, making a focus group that can work together to create a list of the desired facilities or find a representative for the users, who is included in the actual designing process. However sometimes the using group is quite large and consist of very different people with different needs for facilities. In this case the users may cause a more chaotic situation and in the end the real impact from the users will be relatively low.

Existing users

In line with the idea of involving the future users of the building the client could also involve users of existing similar buildings to gain knowledge of the needed facilities. By asking existing users of their experience with the facilities the client is able to harness the wisdom of a large group and thereby makes it easier for the designer to avoid what these users’ have experienced as problems. Existing users can be a nice substitute for the future users, because sometimes the future users of the building are unknown for the client. On the other hand it can be difficult for the client to find users of existing buildings that are similar to what the client wants to build and the users might not be motivated to participate in a survey where they can't see any benefits for them self.

SMART methodology

The SMART methodology[4], as explained by Stuart D. Green, is a method used for minimizing the mathematical complexity while maximizing the user involvement and understanding. The aim of the method is to involve all the users and create a common understanding of the problem(s) and find the preferred solution(s). The users create a value tree, as seen on figure 2, which represents a hierarchy of the needed design solutions. The value tree is created through discussion and agreement on which nodes are the most important and thereby creating a hierarchy. The weighting and structure of the value tree is adjusted until some sort of agreement between the users is reached. This method can give the designer an overview of the desired facilities in the building, but doesn't tell the designer how the client prefer the design to be. It can also end up being to superficial for the designer to get any help out of the value tree. The SMART method also requires that the involved users can come to an agreement on which facilities are of most value.

Expert choice

A method called the Expert choice[4] was developed by a mathematician at the University of Pittsburgh called Thomas L. Saaty. He believed that the best way for the client to make decisions and to brief the designer was by making an analytical hierarchy process. The hierarchy tree , as seen on figure 3, consists of 3 levels where the first level is the goal node, the second level is the criteria nodes and the third level is the sub-criteria nodes. As a fourth level there can be made some alternatives of the priorities or of different locations. By evaluating the importance of each node and all the alternatives it should be possible for the client to make the "Expert choice" of what is most important for the building. This method also has the limitation of only giving the designer an overview of the desired facilities and not a more thorough description of the client's desires. It also requires the client to have enough knowledge about constructions to make alternative wishes.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Graham M. Winch. Managing Construction Projects. Chapter 9 "Defining Problems and Generate Solutions". Second Edition. 2010.
  2. D. Bouchlaghem, Y. Rezgui, M. Hassanen, G. Cooper, D. Rose. IT tools and support for improved briefing. Retrieved 11 June 2017.
  3. Alan Chapman. Johari Window Model. Retrieved 19 June 2017
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 J.M. Smith, R. Kenley, R. Wyatt. Evaluating the client briefing problem: an exploratory study. Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, Vol. 5 Issue: 4. Retrieved 06 June 2017.
  5. Rene Pedersen. VDC skaber overblik over byggepladsen. Retrieved 19 June 2017
  6. Stephen Emmitt, Matthijs Prins, Ad den Otter. Architectural Management: International Research and Practice. Chapter 8 "User Involvement and the Role of Briefing". 2009.

Annotated bibliography

- For further general information of the briefing problem, it is suggested to read: Winch, Graham (2010), "Managing Construction Projects. An Information Processing Approach" Chapter 9 "Defining Problems and Generating Solutions" Second Edition, Wiley-Blackwell, United Kingdom.

The book is written by Graham Winch and is about managing construction projects. Chapter 9 in it self deals with the problems and possible solutions that occur in the beginning process of a construction project. The chapter focus on managing the process where the client and the designer meets to establish the client's desires and expectations for the construction and how to solve these desires through briefing and design.

- For more information of the user involvement, it is suggested to read: S. Emmitt, M. Prins, A.D. Otter (2009), "Architectural Management: International Research and Practice" Chapter 8 "User Involvement and the Role of Briefing", Wiley-Blackwell, United Kingdom.

The book is written by Stephen Emmitt, Matthijs Prins and Ad den Otter and is about architectural management. Chapter 8 in it self deals with the briefing process and especially about user involvement. The chapter focus on how it's possible to involve users and which role user involvement can have for the briefing process. The chapter include examples from the real life and compare the use of user involvement in United Kingdom with the use of user involvement in the Scandinavian countries.

- For more information about the SMART methodology and Expert choice, it is suggested to read: J.M. Smith, R. Kenley, R. Wyatt, (1998), "Evaluating the client briefing problem: an exploratory study", Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, Vol. 5 Issue: 4, pp. 387-398,, viewed on: 06 June 2017.

A paper with the aim to present and test three potential client briefing techniques. In the paper the authors describing the briefing problem, some potential problem-solving techniques and their test with these techniques. The SMART methodology and the expert choice is presented under the section of potential problem-solving techniques.

- For more information about tools and solutions to improve the briefing process, it is suggested to read: D. Bouchlaghem, Y. Rezgui, M. Hassanen, G. Cooper, D. Rose (1998), "IT tools and support for improved briefing",, viewed on: 11 June 2017.

This paper defines and describe the briefing process along with creating an overview of the current technology used by the industry in the briefing process. The paper also introduces five key areas that can be used to improve the briefing process. The five key areas described in the paper is called: Communication, Information capture, Information referencing, Information representation and change management.

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