I love a simple answer. When faced with a problem, being able to choose one thing that can fix something you’ve agonized over for ages is brilliant.
The thing is, simple answers only work for simple questions. And, unfortunately, simple questions are few and far between when it comes to building technology products.
A common challenge I find is to create a shared understanding about a given feature that needs building. Often, part of the solution is as simple as writing better specifications.
A product specification is as common a document as there is in the world of product management. But, to truly create alignment, it has to be used alongside processes and approaches that integrate what goes into that document with the rest of the product development process.
In this guide, we’ll define what a product specification is and show you how to use product specs to drive better discovery, promote collaboration, identify problems, and validate solutions.
A product specification is a document that outlines the characteristics, features, and functionality of a product. It serves as a blueprint for designing, developing, and testing the product.
The aim of a product specification document is to ensure that everyone involved in the product development process understands what is required and that the end product meets the customer’s needs and expectations.
A typical product specification should include the following components:
We’ll go into more detail on what each component entails below. If you’d like to start writing your own product specification as you follow along, feel free to use our product specification template (to use the template, select File > Make a copy from the main menu).
This section outlines who is involved in the development of the product and who is accountable for decisions that need to be made. It also outlines the intended problem to solve.
The scope section outlines the product’s features and functionality, performance targets and metrics that define success, any constraints and limitations, and key assumptions and risks.
For most software products you will need a high-level architecture design, the user interface mockups, process maps for any changing workflow, and technical designs. You’ll also need to compliance with any relevant standards and regulations.
It is likely you will have a standard method for testing your software, so this section just needs to note any differences or adaptations from the norm. Possibly, you will need to establish the product’s warranty and support policy.
The release plan should include required steps to release the product to customers. It may involve training for teams, a tie-in with sales and marketing activity, or something else relevant to the market your product is entering.
Managing the product involves defining the product’s lifecycle, outlining the maintenance and upgrade plan, and establishing the product’s support and training needs. It’s essential to ensure that the product continues to meet the customer’s needs and expectations throughout its lifecycle and to identify opportunities for improvement.
Again, much of this may be standard in your organization but worth confirming those standards will still apply with any changes you make.
As I mentioned, the aim of a product specification document is to ensure that everyone involved in the product development process understands what is required, and that the end product meets the customer’s needs and expectations.
However, just because you write all the details down does not mean you get everyone to agree or understand.
Before you start on any endeavor with your product, you need to go through a discovery process. This process can be done in hours or weeks — regardless of the scope, it is the foundation of the alignment you seek.
A product discovery phase is where you define the problem you are looking to solve and confirm it exists before testing ways to solve it. The end result should be a confirmation that the business supports solving the problem, the customer values the problem being solved, and you’re able to build a solution for that problem with the technology at hand.
The best discovery processes promote collaboration with key stakeholders and produce the product specifications as they go. Even better, you can include customers through interviews and prototype testing. Together, they build up the shared understanding and can all support the written product specification at the end.
Any experienced product manager will tell you that there is very little that works in a linear way. In product management, every process is a mess of going backward and forward, refining, learning, and adapting along the way. This is the way it should be with complex problems.
Let’s walk through an example of how you might put together a product specification with a discovery process. If you’d like to follow along and create your own product specification document as you go, you can use our free template.
The process of gathering data and feedback for and then writing a useful product specification document can be boiled down to three steps:
Usually, I start each new initiative with a kickoff session that involves all relevant stakeholders. The point of the kickoff is to confirm that you have the required skills and decision makers in place to bring the product vision to reality.
Together, this team agrees on the measurements of success. This is the start of you defining what the problem is and describing what success looks like. The outcome of this session will be the first draft of the scope section in your product specification.
Now that you have that shared understanding, you can confirm with certainty whether a problem exists. You can gather evidence by talking to customers, looking over your analytics, and observing how users interact with your product.
This might be the first time you need to amend the scope you set out based on what you learn. You may need to come back to stakeholders to check if their desires still stand in the light of this new evidence. In fact, if there’s no evidence a problem exists to solve, you may even decide to stop here. After this, your scope section will get more definitive.
The next step is to determine how you can solve the problem. While you will have lots of ideas, you will need to gather some evidence that they will have the impact you expect them to have. This might involve creating a prototype and testing it with customers, experimenting with a technical proof of concept, etc. Whatever it is, it should be easier, quicker, and cheaper than building the full solution while still helping prove that the solution will solve the problem you are setting out to solve.
As you conduct your experiments and learn what works and what doesn’t, you’ll build up the section about the product design as you go. It can be helpful to record and reference the experiments that got you to this position so teams in the future can understand your thinking.
It can also be helpful to use a variety of mediums. As they say, a picture says a thousand words.
The product design section is complete when you have decided on what your first iteration of the solution will look like.
By now, you and your team will have spent some significant time working out the problem and the best way to solve it. Writing out your findings as you progress with your team both builds up the product specification document and creates the shared understanding you need for success.
During the final stage, it’s time to think about what it will take to bring your solution to the first customer group at the level of quality you desire. As I mentioned, much of the testing and support may already be set, especially if you have an established product, so the purpose would be to think about the context of this feature and what implementing it might change.
Then, when the team is ready to start development, there is a set of documentation they helped create that can help guide the process.
Ready to write your own product specifications? This product specification template contains all the components described above as well as instructions to help you get started.
To use the template, click here and then select File > Make a copy from the main menu.
Only simple questions have simple answers, and building products is not a simple endeavor.
Product specifications can help you build a shared understanding across teams and stakeholders, but they are not a silver bullet. Product specs are most impactful when you integrate them with the messy, back-and-forth process of solving your customers’ problems and figuring out how to best serve their needs.
Put it all together, and you have a flow of working that can produce excellent results.
Featured image source: IconScout
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