Starting a new software development project may feel like setting sail for a distant treasure island. A good project specification document can be compared with a detailed treasure map that will help you sail faster and more safely and increase your chances of making it to the hidden chests of gold.
Using Onix’s vast experience, this article offers tips on writing project specifications and includes a spec template for your convenience.
Table of contents
Let’s start with a project specification’s definition.
A project specification is a detailed description of a software product’s functionalities and purpose. It explains how the system will be used and may include performance requirements like speed, response time, etc.
The ‘system requirements document’ (SRD) is one of the most popular terms referring to the document. Requirements or product specifications, business or product requirements document, design specifications, proposal specifications, functional specs, tech specs, project specs, or simply specs are also used, and the list is still incomplete.
Some use these terms interchangeably when referring to the same document, while others use different terms to identify different specification types.
For instance, one can distinguish the following types of project proposal specifications:
- A functional project specification describes what has to be implemented from the end-users’ point of view. For example, what a user should achieve when interacting with a website or mobile app. You can call it an ‘open specification’ because you only put the ‘X’ mark on the treasure map and leave it to the pros to decide how to get there. Clients include such specifications in project proposal requests.
- The ‘technical’ type specifies the inner workings of the proposed system and how success or failure will be measured. This type is a ‘closed spec’ because it describes the tools, technologies, or individual units that should be used to achieve the goal – like a definite route set on a map. A technical spec may incorporate or follow a functional spec for the same project and make a part of an IT company’s project proposal.
A treasure map’s function on a voyage is indeed similar to the role of a project specification in project management, and you’d better have one at hand as early as possible.
For instance, if you were arranging a voyage, you would want to calculate the time it takes and estimate the costs. Your project manager (the ship’s captain) and your crew of programmers, designers, quality assurance, or other professionals should know the route and understand their tasks perfectly. It’s also helpful to know the risks and ways around hazards and have a plan that accommodates them.
Even a functional specification enables professionals to define the scope of work and provides a means for identifying options and risks early in a project. It should also help them estimate the timeframe and give you a quote.
A good proposal specification not only lists the technical details of a project but also outlines its overall plan, risks, and budget, helping you decide whether it is worthwhile at all.
Normally, specifications are written at an early stage of product development. For example, the discovery stage at Onix’s projects often implies creating a project specification.
Sometimes, clients approach us with a prepared functional project specification. In this case, we can define the technical solutions, estimate the product development cost, assemble the project team, and kick off the development process much faster.
Read also: How to speed up software development
A detailed project specification is indispensable in the case of a fixed-price contract with the developers. Acceptance criteria defined in the tech specs can be enforced under the business contract terms. (One of a project’s success measures is often called ‘quality/specification,’ i.e. ‘specification’ means ‘quality,’ and vice versa.)
Many organizations favor Agile processes that downplay documentation and welcome changing requirements even late in development. However, whatever your preferred software development model, having a living document as the single source of truth throughout the product’s lifecycle can still be beneficial.
Even some big corporations’ multi-year projects involved creating project specifications after migration to test and even to production environments.
A good specification document remains a valuable asset even if you put off or cancel the project: you can still use the specs in the future or turn it into a sample for further projects.
Not surprisingly, the creation of project specification documentation has its own ‘specs,’ which professionals call technical briefs.
It is a project outline or a list of participants and roles. It should help you save time writing and ensure that all involved can understand your plan for the project early on and be prepared for it. A technical brief usually implies the following steps:
- Create a list of all project participants, if known, from the principal stakeholder to the last cabin boy, including each person’s contact information.
- Outline each person’s role in creating the technical specs (technical writing, review, decision-making, approval, etc.).
- List all the tasks and subtasks to complete, indicating the name of the person responsible for the job (in a dedicated team, the PM performs this task).
- If any decisions must be made, indicate when and how it should be done.
- With some expert help, try to list all technology to be used in the project, including software and/or hardware needed to complete the project.
- Try to include any possible technical problems in the technical brief.
Every project specification is based on a software product’s tech and engineering requirements and the details of the particular project.
The main components of a project specification are as follows:
Brief description of your company
You can include the following details:
- Your company’s sector of activity
- Core services or products
- Project stakeholders
Description of your project
Consider this your project presentation. It will be helpful to include:
- Name of the project or descriptive title, so the development team would understand what to expect right away
- Outline of the project idea and overall concept of the software product
- Why you are creating the product
- What value it should deliver to end-users
- SMART objectives for the project
Description of your end-user persona
The ‘end-user persona’ refers to the fictitious profile of the people who will interact with the product, including their age, gender, interests, income, and other relevant information. The more accurate the description of your end-user persona, the higher your chances of making a product the target audience will love.
One can collect such information from various sources, such as:
- Customer surveys
- Marketing data analysis
- Forums where users discuss issues your product can fix, etc.
Your unique selling points
You can identify your unique selling proposition by analyzing your primary and secondary competitors’ offerings and understanding their strengths and weaknesses. You need to offer something that might beat your competition and help your product win a market share.
Description of the product’s functionalities
The specification document should describe how the software should perform and what each functionality should achieve. The description of each functionality should include at least the following:
- level of priority
How the functionalities will be implemented
Software engineers should describe how the team will implement the tech requirements.
You can also ask professionals to calculate the time required to complete each part of the product development process, set milestones to track progress, and determine reasonable deadlines.
Your project budget estimate
The specification may describe the project cost structure and where the funds come from. The developers you’re partnering with can also help you with such estimations.
The specification document may include screenshots of similar solutions, wireframes, a link to the interactive mock-up of the product, if available, and other auxiliary materials that can help the developers to begin their work faster.
Professionals write the best specifications for project management purposes, but anyone can compile a fairly good document following these steps:
Find a project specification template that suits your needs
You may have a proven template at your organization or may have come across a nice project specification example on the web. If that isn’t the case, you can find a basic specification template below.
Gather project requirements from all stakeholders
To make things easier, prepare a list of questions regarding their expectations, the problems they expect the new software to solve, the type of data the software should collect, what processes it should automate, and so forth.
Identify, list, and analyze your functional requirements
Start with general project requirements for the product or its mini-version (minimum viable product or MVP), then add more specific criteria. The requirements/criteria must be SMART and testable.
Read the requirements critically, pretending you are not familiar with the idea yet, or as if you were seeking to minimize cost and effort. Show the draft to someone else.
It would be great to seek advice from other stakeholders, potential users, and software development professionals to evaluate all items and determine if they are essential to this version of the product.
Learn more: How to prioritize features for MVP
It is important to remember that many people with different backgrounds will be reading or collaborating on the document, and all of them must understand the requirements. These tips should help:
- Include a definition section at the beginning of the project specs to define all terms and abbreviations you are using clearly. One can make a product glossary for this purpose.
- Instead of using ‘it’ or ‘which’ in the text, always try to specify what is being referred to.
- Use the verb ‘shall’ to define requirements that must be fully and adequately met in the resulting product.
- Use short and direct sentences.
- Develop a table of contents.
- Assign to the document a title and control number with revision capability.
(Optional) Draw wireframes or develop a clickable mock-up
A picture is worth a thousand words; a prototype is worth a 10,000-word specification. The product visualization will not only illustrate the textual document but also help test ideas and discover issues early on. However, this method primarily belongs to the product design area, and at the initial stage, without confirmed requirements and the development team, you may need professional help to do this.
Before hiring a UX/UI designer or business analyst, make sure your general software product requirements will be clear at least to them.
Seek a technical writer’s help
The project specification must describe the minute detail of either all or specific parts of the system, such as:
- components, interfaces, and dependencies
- dynamic behavior, i.e. how the components interact
- specific algorithms that a component employs and how they work
- class models, including all methods, attributes, dependencies, and associations
- input and output data types in the information systems with exceptions
- physical data models, including the attributes and types of each entity/data type
- deployment considerations, such as runtime requirements and third-party components
A technical writer would help translate a functional spec into highly formalized technical language as the development phase requires and ensure your project specification‘s consistency and clarity.
The experts should also list success criteria and add other essential factors, such as conditions under which the product must meet the specification, establish applicable safety standards, etc.
Divide the work into specific tasks with deadlines
Professionals will also help segment your project’s workflow and estimate the time each phase may take.
For example, during the first phase, the designers will work out the product’s layouts, navigation, and other elements of the UX/UI. The second will be allocated to proper client-side and server-side development. The third – to software testing and debugging, and the fourth – to its release.
Indicate the due dates for each project part to be completed and the dates of all reviews.
Learn more: How to create a roadmap for a project
This segmentation and planning will also give you an idea of what skills will be required and how many specialists you need to hire to complete the project on time.
Sign it off
When the team agrees that the specification consensus is reached, the spec may be deemed ‘signed off.’ The developers and QA team can write source code and test cases using the specs as the reference.
Suppose your project is not large, without complex functionalities to be implemented, you’ve been happily working with the team before, and there are no restrictions whatsoever. In that case – that’s it. Happy sailing!
Otherwise, you may need another iteration of the requirements documentation to make a full-fledged comprehensive technical specification.
A thorough technical project specification document facilitates the overall development progress and helps ensure the product’s high quality and compliance (e.g., financial app security or HIPAA compliance for healthcare apps) because it:
- sets goals, expectations, and quality standards for a product
- makes a great reference guide for the development team, leaving no room for confusion
- saves the time to collate accurate information and clarify instructions during the development
- motivates and provides clear job instructions to the team members
- provides a step-by-step plan for a project with milestones, facilitating product delivery on time and within budget
- helps ensure the appropriate quality of the software product
- as part of the contract documentation, prevents the team from changing the development course
- after the project, provides a basis for technical documentation for the product, design documents for later product versions, etc.
Do you need assistance with your product specification? Are you confident about your ‘treasure map’? Are you looking for a reliable, seasoned crew? If you are contemplating a software project or would like an impartial review of your current product or design, please drop us a line! Onix’s experts will be happy to help.
Do I need a specifications document for my project?
You will most likely need a technical specifications document in the following cases:
- complex functionalities, e.g., a web platform or mobile application
- big-team project
- fixed-price project
- negotiating, signing, and fulfilling a formal contract
How to write a project specification?
The following steps and actions can be recommended:
- Create or download a specification template
- Gather project requirements from all stakeholders
- List and prioritize the product requirements
- Involve a technical writer to help describe the technical details of the project
- Divide the project into manageable phases and milestones
- Include the approximate product development cost
Developing wireframes or even a basic interactive prototype will be a huge advantage.
What are the three main components of a project specification?
Each project specification document is pretty much unique, but the following components are universal:
- Scope of work
- Implementation plan
- Legal and technical definitions and project roles distribution, i.e. the duties and tasks of the product owner, designers, developers, testers, and others.