How to Write a Spec Sheet


© Ugur Akinci

Can you build a house without a blueprint? Technical writers are equally helpless if they are asked to "build" a document without any "specification sheets," or "spec sheets" for short.

We use the term "sheet" but actually what we are referring to is just another multi-page document SPECIFYING the DETAILS of WHAT certain ITEMS in a LIST should LOOK LIKE. In essence, that's what a "spec sheet" is all about.

When you write a Shopping List before you go to the shopping mall or the grocery store, you in fact create your very own "spec sheet" -- a MARKETING spec sheet. It includes all the things that you would like to buy and not forget.

If you wanted to do a really thorough job, you could of course go ahead and write the DETAILS of every ITEM on the list as well.For example, your "marketing spec sheet" could read:

  • SHIRT (blue, silk, with pocket, under $50)

  • TOASTER (steel, 4-slice model, under $30)

    But usually we keep the DETAILS in our minds and almost never write them down. It doesn't mean such details do not exist. It's just that we usually do not go that far in "specifying" our marketing needs.

    In the hi-tech and software-hardware world, projects do not start until full and detailed "spec sheets" of all kinds are in hand.

    There is the "marketing spec sheet," for example, which is usually called MARKETING REQUIREMENT DOCUMENT (MRD) or the "Requirement Specs."

    "Functional Specs," "Design Specs," and "Testing Specs" are the other kinds of specs that we will explain shortly.

    Spec sheets are like "maps" for the captain of a ship or the "blueprints" for an architect. No project can start without first putting the "specs" on paper.

    Here are some spec sheets that a technical writer should be familiar with:

    DESIGN SPECS - This is a document that builds on and follows closely the "functional specs" document. It basically describes what a product should look like when it is manufactured. It takes all the functions and detailed features specified in the functional specs sheet and translates them into a visual language.

    For example, if the functional specs describe a "configuration function," the design specs describes the button or the navigational link that should launch the configuration interface; what it's colors and fonts should be; where exactly the fields and buttons should be placed on the dialog boxes; etc. Design specs may also specify a product's maintenance schedule and the service requirements, etc.

    TESTING SPECS - This document specifies the "unit" and "system integration" testing that needs to be performed on the product before it is released to the market. This document sometimes also includes the "testing scenarios" [or "scripts"] that the test engineers should follow step-by-step to reveal the weaknesses and discover the bugs before consumers can find them.Technical writers sometimes contribute directly by writing such testing scripts and actually participating in the tests as well. Testing specs and the testing results are precious since they reveal for a technical writer all the vulnerable points of a product and become the input for the "Release Notes" that accompany every major release of a product, especially in the software industry.

    MARKETING SPECS (a.k.a. "Marketing Requirements Document (MRD)," "Marketing Requirements Specs" or just "Requirements Specs" for short) - The list of all the functions and features that the product should have; the profile ("demographics") of the market segment(s) that the product should be targeted for; the list of benefits that the product should offer to the end-users; analysis of competing products with their contrasting and similar features and benefits; etc.

    FUNCTIONAL SPECS (a.k.a. "Functional Specifications Document (FSD) or just the "specs,") - The detailed engineering document that lists of all the technical features of all system components and functions. Without the details included in the functional specs, no product can be designed or manufactured.For example, a marketing spec can mention that "the Gadget delivers ice cubes shaped like stars at the push of a button."But that means almost nothing for engineers unless they also know the shape and exact size of the Gadget, all the circuitry and digital components in it, the temperature range within which the Gadget should operate, what kind of "system load" it should withstand, where should exactly each bolt, screw and nut be placed, etc.

    That's why a functional spec is usually the longest, most detailed and hardest to understand spec sheet that a technical writer has to deal with. But for the very same reason, it is also the most important since it usually has the answers to many product-related questions that a writer might have.

    SCOPE STATEMENT - Technically this is not a "spec sheet" but it is still very important since it is the very first statement that needs to be written down before a project can start. It defines the general nature of the project; its audience; what it is supposed to deliver and solve what kind of a problem (the "problem statement"); the names of "stake holders;" what should be project produce at the end ("project deliverables"); major "milestone" dates in project calendar; and the rough cost estimate.

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