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Understanding the Functional Specification: your website’s blueprint.

by: Brady Kingsbury

In a constantly shifting digital landscape, agencies like SilverTech are forced to change and evolve to keep up with increasingly technical demands. Just as our clients and their projects have become more complex and involved, so have our internal processes and documentation strategies. Case in point: The Functional Specification.

The Functional Specification (a.k.a. "Func Spec") is something that has evolved quite a bit here at SilverTech. It's hard to imagine a time that agencies didn't have a valuable reason to use a Functional Specification, especially seeing what it’s turned into today. So, what exactly is a Functional Specification?

What is a Func Spec?

If a client’s website was a building, then the Functional Specification would be the blueprint. It is a document that, in its most basic form, specifies the functions that a system must perform. This concept is bilateral, pertaining to both end users and business users or content managers. What this means is that, as it pertains to all system features and components, the document aims to specify:

  1. How end users interact with the website and how the system responds to those interactions.
  2. How business users (like content managers) interact with the content management system (CMS) and how the system responds to those interactions.

In addition to outlining functional requirements, the document has transformed to become more technical in nature, outlining detailed data models and requirements for all website features and components. This transformation can be credited to the need of portraying requirements more accurately at the atomic level, which inevitably contributes to the overall functionality that is available within each feature.

The document is split up into a variety of sections, all of which aim to specify different areas of functionality and general platform requirements. Some sections are more specific to end user functionality while others are dedicated for defining systemic and centralized content features. Other sections are meant to outline the architecture of the website and other project-specific insights that all tie back to the functions required from the system.

The following sections are common and could even be considered standard in many of our modern website projects:

  • Platform Requirements
  • Analytics & Tracking
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Website Architecture
  • Migration & Deployment
  • Central Content Features
  • Systemic Website Features
  • Page Content Features & Components
  • Annotated Wireframes
  • Configurative Response Library

Where does it come from?

Functional requirements don't just appear out of nowhere. Most of the document requires a detailed understanding of what needs to be available on the site when it comes to our Clients' business needs and marketing objectives, which is why every project includes an extensive strategic discovery phase. Discovery is integral for establishing a foundation for understanding what it is that the website is aimed at achieving, and being able to accurately convey what it is that the website needs to do from a business perspective (i.e. increase online leads, increase the number of applications for loans, etc.). However, when our clients don’t directly influence functionality that is needed during discovery, we have alternative ways of specifying business requirements.

As strategists, we use a combination of our industry expertise and our understanding of any limitations that might exist within the scope of the project or the platform being utilized, commonly the content management system (CMS), to make educated decisions on how something should function. Still, we always tie our decisions back to our clients, constantly working to define functionality that compliments our clients' business goals and objectives. It is from this combination of directly influenced requirements and strategic decisions that we can paint a full picture of the required functionality that will be included within the project. Can you guess where we paint this picture? You got it – the Functional Specification!

How is it used?

Once the Functional Specification is complete, it takes on one of the most important roles in any project: the blueprint. At SilverTech, the primary purpose of the document is to serve as the guiding source of knowledge on a project for what will be developed and how, making it one of the most important tools for the development team. There are some additional major uses for it as well, some of which include the following:

  1. Quality assurance engineers use the document as a validation mechanism, using it to craft test plans that are specific to the functionality and system requirements outlined throughout.
  2. Designers use it to establish an understanding of the content requirements for all site features and to determine any functional limitations. They also use it to better understand the responsive functionality behind the features, adhering to scenarios defined in corresponding sections.
  3. Project managers use it to form basis of what will be included within the scope of a client’s project, understanding where change requests may be necessary.
  4. Solutions strategists, who also write the document, use it to create content collection tools that are specific to the data requirements outlined throughout.

Overall, the document has many purposes and is used throughout the project teams in a variety of different ways. In its essence, the Func Spec is used to establish a universal understanding of the website, its features, and its functionality.

Why is it important?

At this point, hopefully it’s clear why something like the Functional Specification would be one of the most important items in any website design and development project. Like most other aspects of any project, it serves to be mutually beneficial – bridging the gap between project teams and, more importantly, between our clients and their websites.

Developers receive a blueprint of the solution they’ll need to build, project managers have a solid, central source of information to refer to, and other teams also have it as a resource that they can rely on. Most importantly, the Func Spec aims to help our clients understand their website and how it will function to accomplish their business goals.