Building great products is like creating a great movie. In each case, there are many specialized people, each serving distinct roles and working towards a unified goal of a final end product.
Fareed Mosavat, former Director of Product at Slack and former Technical Director at Pixar, says, “Great product managers direct their product, not manage it. They empower their team to make decisions, instead of dictating each decision.”
In product management, the most obvious illustration of this is the humble but extremely important product spec. Product specs, or specifications, are written documents that communicate what, why, and how a product or feature should be built.
But product specs shouldn’t just be a checklist. The best product managers write their product specs at a level of detail that is neither too prescriptive nor too high-level. They empower their team to make decisions, giving them both sufficient implementation space and contextual information.
Effective product specs set the overall direction of a product or feature and create space for creativity, instead of trying to control all the details. That said, to really ensure that your product specs drive the product development process forward there are 10 different components that they should feature. We worked with Sachin Recki to outline each of those components and walk through how to craft an effective product spec.
Meet The Contributor
Sachin is the Founder & CEO of Notejoy. He was previously Head of Product for LinkedIn Sales Navigator, growing it from idea to $200M in sales in 1.5 years, and from 0 to 500 employees. He is also a seasoned Product teacher with 150+ published essays on product management and leadership.Learn More
What Are Product Specs?
At its most basic level, product specs are written documents that communicate what, why, and how a product or feature should be built. They’re an integral part of the product development process because they provide all relevant stakeholders with a clear understanding of what the product team is doing. Without a product spec to break down what the next feature will be and why, teams tend to find themselves unaligned and lacking basic information.
All product specs should provide three types of information:
- Context on why the team is building the feature.
- Implementation guidance on how it should be built.
- FAQ section that answers obvious questions that stakeholders might have.
Both the Context and Implementation sections of a product spec have 5 components each, which we will dive deeper into in the next section. Product specs are primarily meant to be straightforward, informational documents, but it’s actually pretty easy to create a product spec that is either too vague or too prescriptive.
There is a sweet spot when it comes to product spec creation that accounts for the level of detail necessary for engineers and designers to have a clear understanding of what is being created, while not explicitly telling those same designers and engineers exactly how they should do their jobs.
It’s important to note that while product specs are pretty ubiquitous in the product development process, they don’t all look the same, and they don’t use all the same terms.
5 Key Contextualizing Components Of A Product Spec
When we’re providing context on a product spec, we’re describing why the product or feature is important, who it’s for and why, and how we’ll measure success. We can use five key components to provide proper context for the product or feature.
The five key components are: opportunity, target audience, customer insights, competitive insights, and success metrics. This section is important because it outlines exactly why you are building a product or feature, who it is for, and how your team will tell if it’s successful. Now let's look at some best practices of each component.
The opportunity section of your product spec, which may also be called the problem statement or the user problem, should explain what user problem you’re solving and why the time is right to prioritize this feature. This will help the team stay aligned and will give everyone a clear understanding of the benefits they should be trying to achieve.
The optimal way to write an opportunity section is to explain the problem you want to solve in a non-prescriptive way. Even if there is some consensus that a key part of the product could use a cosmetic update or one that would lead to a better user experience, it’s important to identify the opportunity in clear terms without describing specifically what needs to happen in the product to bring the opportunity to life.
When identifying what the opportunity is, it’s key to strike a balance between being vague and being overly detailed. When a product manager is too vague about what the opportunity is by suggesting, for instance, that the opportunity is to “generate more revenue,” they’re setting the project up to fail. Instead, the opportunity should clearly articulate what the next big bet is for the company.
2. Target Audience
The target audience section of your product spec explains who you’re building the product or feature for. Frequently, product managers fail to define a true target audience; their target audience is often the general audience for the overall product rather than the specific audience for whom the feature is being built.
Defining a somewhat vague audience can prove to be a real issue, because the overall product audience does not precisely capture the wants and needs of the unique sub-audience. When product managers fail to identify the true target audience, they risk getting bad information and not adequately solving the user problem.
Let’s think about a quick example of this in practice. In a scenario where Uber realizes that they have an opportunity to take their rideshare model and expand it to food delivery, their target audience would not be absolutely everyone who currently uses the rideshare app.
It could be busy young, single professionals living in cities who would have a unique appreciation for good food being delivered to them. It probably wouldn’t include suburban families who have used Uber in place of a taxi on the occasional weekend night out on the town.
3. Customer Insights
The customer insights component of the product spec captures the most important insights from your user research. Having empathy for what the user wants and needs is exactly how a product succeeds in the market. The best product managers will summarize the most relevant user research into key themes, including verbatim customer quotes that exemplify the given theme.
But you may be asking, what does a good customer insight even look like? A good customer insight typically has two qualities: The first is that it is counterintuitive, or surprising in a way that meaningfully differs from your default assumption about what the customer thinks and feels. The second is that it helps inform a material change to the approach to building a feature or product.
4. Competitive Insights
The fourth key component is competitive insights, which focuses on a summary of key learnings resulting from competitor research.
These insights address questions such as:
- How have your competitors, or other best-in-class companies, implemented this feature?
- What functionality is foundationally necessary to include when you build it?
- Where are your team’s opportunities to differentiate themselves from the competition?
Possible research avenues include reading through competitor marketing materials, staying up-to-date on product reviews on app stores and review aggregators like G2Crowd, and actually using your competitors’ products.
5. Success Metrics
The fifth and final key component that makes up the context section of your product spec is success metrics. These are the metrics that will define whether or not your new feature or product is successful. There is no set list of metrics that a product manager or leader should include in this section, instead, it should reflect the product or feature you plan to build. So don’t try to use the same metrics on all of your product specs, it's a recipe for disaster.
In a hypothetical Uber Eats example where Uber is exploring the possibility of entering into the food delivery market, a product manager may define one early success metric by counting the percentage of customers who complete an order with UberEats. Other signs of early success might be customers who complete the signup onboarding flow within their first week. Less concrete success metrics might include prospective customers who use the search bar or scroll to the bottom of an in-app menu.
5 Key Implementation Components Of A Product Spec
The implementation section of your product specification document is intended to help product managers define and clarify to the team how the new product or feature will materialize, and what its release plan will look like.
The five key components that make up the implementation guidance section of your product spec are: scope, experience, implementation details, launch plan, and investigative metrics. Let’s briefly define each of these elements.
When you’re defining the scope of the project, you’re answering a couple of questions:
- First, what are the key functionalities you need to implement now?
- Second, what key functionalities do you think you might want to implement later?
It’s important to define the depth and breadth of the product or feature to the best of your ability. If you scope the project appropriately, the engineering team can also take future work into consideration.
For example, if your engineers code something purely to work on desktop, not knowing that they’ll need to support it on mobile later as well, they may have to completely redo their code. However, if they know they will eventually have to support both desktop and mobile, they can invest slightly more time upfront to make their code work regardless of platform.
The experience component of the product spec accounts for what the user experience will look and feel like. Now, there are many places in the product spec where a product manager needs to be careful not to be too prescriptive because it can deter the product designers and engineers from doing their best, most creative work. The experience section of the product spec is one such place. Because of this, we recommend entirely handing the experience section over to your designers.
8. Implementation Details
The implementation details component of the product spec highlights the most important technical details that may require clarification in the document. These would be details that could potentially alter the user experience if they were not properly clarified here.
In our hypothetical UberEats example, a key part of the implementation details might be determining what factors affect the restaurants shown in the app feed. The engineering team would own the exact algorithm used to weigh each factor, but the product manager might identify the ways users want to sort information in the product spec because this navigation closely impacts the end-user experience.
9. Launch Plan
The launch plan piece of the product spec explains the rollout process and rough timeline for the product or feature’s release. This helps engineering anticipate things like what server load to expect and know whether feature flags will be required.
The ideal way to detail the launch plan in a product spec is to detail the feature rollout plan, including rough user counts in each launch phase and the approximate duration of the rollout.
However, some of these details aren’t necessarily known during the spec writing phase. In these situations, it’s helpful to identify what type of launch would be best for the product or feature and return to this placeholder with details at a set time and date.
There are three general types of launch plans:
- The first is A/B testing, where some small sample of the user base is randomly selected to have access to a feature before others do.
- The second is beta testing, where an opt-in set of users get access to a feature before others do.
- The third is the soft launch, where a feature is released, but not publicly announced. This ensures only a small % of users stress the servers at first.
10. Investigative Metrics
The final component to include in the implementation guidance section of your product spec is the investigative metrics section. These metrics provide information that will help you make a decision or answer a question about the launched product or feature. For example, these types of metrics could provide data on usage and information about the point in the user journey where users stop using the product.
There are three major categories of questions you might want to answer later on.
- The first is around usage, such as, “How often is this feature being used?” This helps you appropriately gauge how many users benefit you’d create by further improving the feature.
- The second category is around functionality additions, or, “What do users want to do that they can’t do today?” These tell you what other functionality you may want to implement.
- The third category is user experience improvements, or, “Where can I improve my UX?” This allows you to improve user experience in a targeted way.
We have now covered the five implementation components that explain how you’ll build your product or feature in addition to five components that provide context explaining why it’s important to build your product or feature. Let’s take a brief look at the final of three important sections every good product spec should have — the FAQ section!
Why Product Specs Need An FAQ Section
Typically, product managers might not think to include an FAQ section in their product spec. Inevitably though, not anticipating the most important concerns and addressing them in the product spec will yield unnecessary meetings and can create otherwise avoidable red tape. In other words, take some time to write your FAQ section in the beginning and it will save you a ton of time down the road.
To avoid repeating yourself, or at least limit how often you need to, create an FAQ section where you document complex or contentious decisions with a straightforward rationale for why you made the choices you made.
You can take this part of the product spec to explain the major decisions that have been made over the course of the product or feature’s development and why they were made. Your stakeholders will appreciate that you had the foresight to think of their concerns and will be more likely to buy into your product vision.
Learn More On How To Write A Great Product Spec
We’ve walked through the three key sections of a product spec — the context section, the implementation guidance section, and the FAQ section — and we’ve detailed the main components that comprise the context and implementation sections.
As a reminder, try to include the following in the context section:
- Target audience
- Customer Insights
- Competitive Insights
- Success metrics
For the implementation section, try to expand upon:
- Implementation details
- Launch plan
- Investigative metrics
And don’t forget about the FAQ section! It may sound unnecessary in the midst of all the other important components, but it will save you from headaches and unnecessary meetings.
That said, the product spec is the kind of quintessential document that different organizations define and make their own in various ways. If you’d like to learn more about product development and the role of the product manager, we recommend Reforge’s Mastering Product Management program.