11 Jun 10 keys to the perfect business and tech design doc
by Shane Howard
Presales, scoping, and estimating—you’ve done a lot this far into a project, and it seems like the project has hardly even begun! However, all this supposed “pre-work” is really the bulk of the work it takes for true project success. And the design doc is no different.
Taking the time to make a stellar business and tech design doc is often the differentiator between so-so and failed projects and the impressive ones. This is the time to lay it all out and get down to the nitty-gritty of what this project is going to look like. These ten sections are a good way to begin your perfect design doc on solid footing:
1. Table of Contents
First, the document should absolutely start with a table of contents to guide the client. This should also include an introduction—something that explains the purpose, intended audience, and use of the doc.
Next up, you want to offer some background on the details of the initial scope. Go back to your notes from scoping and maybe even presales: why the scope of this project is important, high-level expectations for what is happening, and an outline of what’s being done. Most of all, provide project objectives. Make sure it’s clear what the end results and goals are.
3. Roles & Responsibilities
This is where you get into the finer details. You want to clearly and specifically state who owns what, who to contact for specific areas of concern that come up, etc. Your goal is to make sure the client knows the internal project team as well as their own internal team.
4. Scope Definition
Next is scope definition. This part of the doc is for summarizing the details of the scope, and it may also include a glossary of the terminology used to explain the scope (not required, but often helpful for the client). Technical acronyms are often a hurdle for client understanding, so make it easier for them and spell these items out.
You should also dedicate part of the doc to outlining what is NOT in scope. This saves you frustration down the road by preventing implied or assumed technical requirements from popping up. You should also be keeping a document changelog, especially for Agile projects, to create a history of any changes made to the scope and more easily accommodate adjustments to budget and timeline.
5. System Description
Next is the system description. This is where you should describe the technology being used, an overview of the system design, and any associated applications, code, testing environments, and integrations. Basically, you’re creating a map of the technology at play and how it all works together.
6. Some optional add-ons
There are a few design doc items that aren’t always included but, depending on the project and client, they may be extremely useful additions.
Architectural diagrams: These should include current and future state.
Interface design: If applicable for the project, be sure to add this. These are of use when a user interface is involved in the project. Be sure to think about the admin interface and functions, not just the end user requirements that were most likely focused on.
7. Requirements Matrix (and associated diagrams)
This section of the doc should be extremely detailed. It will include use cases and user stories outlined in a matrix. This shows the requirements of the project and how each will alleviate specific business processes or roles. You may also include the following:
Use case: A detailed description of a particular function and the associated steps. Alternative paths may be outlined.
User story: This is high-level and written in Agile form. Basically, it’s a statement of “User role wants to do this so that this will happen in order to achieve this.” It’s explaining what a specific user wants the system to look like and do for them.
You may want to also include any workflow or process diagrams here to explain the requirements further.
8. Project Constraints
This is arguably the most important section of your perfect design doc. You must include a clear list of factors that constrain the project. This will not only keep your design on track but also prevent scope creep. Constraints are your way of boxing in the design, addressing any assumptions and risks, and reaffirm what you and the client are contractually agreeing to build together.
You’re almost there! Before a design doc can really be useful to your project team, you have to get sign-off from the client—regardless of the project size. This ensures that everyone will be held accountable for decisions, that stakeholders will know what to expect, and that the project stays within the agreed-upon budget and schedule.
Finally, you’ll have your design doc addendums. This section should include things like data sets, configuration mappings, RACI (responsibility assignment matrix) charts, and links to any other important information.
And there you have it—the ideal design doc for business tech projects. Crafting the design doc is a critical step in the entire lifecycle of a project. So critical that it takes about a month to write up. But by taking this time to define each phase and facet of the project clearly, you’re making sure you’re set up for success with no guesswork or assumptions lingering. With a good design doc, you’ll be fully prepared to move forward with all of the needed information on the table.
Shane is the VP of Global Operations at Simplus. With his expertise in Professional Services, Operations, PMO, and Software Development and his experiences in partner, C-level, VP, and Director positions in a variety of industries, Shane thrives in operational excellence. He solves complex internal and client-facing problems with scalable solutions.