How to Write a Website Specification

February 22, 2023

Every website project should start with a specification. Nail your website specification, and you’ll get better quotes and feedback from the agencies you approach. So let’s get into it...

“How much does a car cost?”

E-commerce projects come in all shapes and sizes, with every feature and design element offering new complexities. But when you’re gathering quotes for a project in mind, you want them to be accurate (and efficient).

When you approach agencies, you need to be armed with a killer specification. Here’s a loose template to follow when writing yours.

1. Start by introducing yourself

Open with a short description of what your brand does. Just enough to provide a little background, without getting into the weeds.

  • Brief history
  • Size (number of employees, turnover)
  • Key services
  • Major achievements
  • Your mission statement

2. Lay out your objectives

Explaining these will drive the rest of the specification. Think about:

  • Why you need the project?
  • What outcomes do you want to achieve — are they measurable?
  • Are there problems with your existing site?
  • What are the business drivers for the change?

Get at least one goal for the project, written down. This might be ‘increased online sales’, ‘increased number of website enquiries’, or something very different.

Whatever it is, it’ll need quantifying. Rather than looking to industry benchmarks, review what you’re currently achieving and consider what improvements you’d like to see.

Oh, and if you have secondary objectives — maybe they’re to ‘gain press attention’, or to ‘reduce admin associated with X’ — it’s good to include these too.

3. Pull out your key audiences

To reach those objectives, you’ll need to appeal to your key audiences using your site, so be sure to make these clear. These are likely to be:

  • Prospective customers/clients
  • Existing or returning customers/clients
  • Key stakeholders (marketing department, warehouse staff, order fulfillment/admin staff, customer service teams, management)

But they may also be:

  • Members of the press
  • Prospective employees
  • Any other, key segments?

Got them listed? Now, for each group, consider:

  • What do they want to do on your website?
  • What do you want them to do on your website?

...because the answer isn’t always the same. For instance, one segment might head to your website to keep on top of your blog posts. However, you might be hoping they sign up to your newsletter whilst they’re there.

Whether you want them to buy a product or get in touch about careers, this should align with the objectives you set in section 2.

Note: it’s useful to consider the priority of your audiences. This will help when it comes to designing your website’s layout and navigation.

4. Your competition

If you’re hot on competitor analyses, this part will be a breeze.

List your main competitors and make note of what they’re up to. Who has the best online store (and why)? Whose isn’t so great (and what are the reasons)?

It’s these details that will help you beat them — through improving what the market offers, ensuring your store stays distinct, and of course, taking inspiration from any cool features (we said it!).

Oh, and this part is also handy in helping your agency partner understand your industry that little bit better.

5. Website structure (don’t worry, it’s provisional)

This won’t be set in stone. It tends to change around the design stage. But having a starting point that clearly conveys the ‘information architecture’ of the website prevents anything that needs to be on there, getting left behind.

Try to avoid simply copying your current website structure (unless there’s good reason for this). A change could yield benefits and prevent carrying old assumptions into a new project.

6. The meaty part: functional specification

In other words, what should the website do?

Firstly, if it’s a brochure website, this will be relatively straightforward as most pages will be static (not reacting to user actions). Though, of course, there could be exceptions you’ll need to write down, such as wanting a ‘contact’ page with an interactive form.

If it’s an e-commerce website, however, there’ll be a tad more work. You should list out any functional requirements for your home, product listing, search, and product detail pages. And, if there are other pages where you’re wanting custom functionality (say your checkout needs to allow shoppers to personalise a product in their order) get those down too.

Now, take a look at your key audience groups in section 3 and pen some ‘user stories’ for each. These describe what different users should be able to do whilst on your online store, and look a bit like this:

  • ‘As a customer, I want to add items to my cart so I can buy them later’
  • ‘As an employee, I want to change the status of orders so I can mark items once dispatched’

Note: if you have unusual functionality requirements, these are especially important.

At this stage, you should also detail any technical preferences you may have. For example, your preferred CMS or web framework (if you have one), the payment gateways you’d like to use, and any integrations that need considering (e.g. order/warehouse management, ERP).

7. Now for the non-functional requirements

Not quite as sexy, but trust us, you don’t want to miss them.

  • Usability: do you have accessibility requirements? If you (plan to) sell in the US, have a read of this. Could your website be used mainly on tablets? Perhaps by the elderly?
  • Security: do you need to be PCI compliant?
  • Website performance: how important are loading times to you? If you're in e-commerce, the answer is ‘very’ (and here’s why).
  • Legal: are there any industry-specific compliance requirements your website must adhere to? Will your customers need to accept T&Cs?

8. The good, the bad, and the ugly...

Spill it: ever stumbled upon any sites with design elements you’ve struggled to warm to? Or other aspects that just... aren’t really for you?

What about those that have caught your eye in a good way?

Having a list of what you do and don’t like will get you to your ideal design quicker, guiding the process from the off. Let’s hear it.

9. The B word

Budget (of course). Now and again, brands shy away from disclosing their budgets when they first approach agencies. Don’t be one of them — this doesn’t help anyone! Being transparent about what there is to play with, means agencies can come up with the best solution to match.

If you’re conscious your budget’s erring on the lower side, still reach out. A good agency will think about what can be done with it, whether that means discussing a phased approach or recommending you different technology.

What have you got to lose?

10. Now’s the time to mention that deadline

We beg you: be reasonable! E-commerce website projects can take anywhere between 6 weeks and 6 months. It all depends on the size of the project. 3 months is about average.

Whilst deadlines and timeframes can be a key constraint on your project (often determining how it’s structured and if it’s even possible), it is worth noting that temporary solutions do exist.

If you have nothing live currently, things like sign-up pages can actually be a good way to gather email addresses and build excitement before you launch your new website.

And if you need a quick turnaround, there might be the option of launching with an MVP site, whilst the full bells and whistles version is in the works.

11. Outline your procurement process

When sending your website specification to agencies, be clear on this stuff.

  • When do you need a response by?
  • Who will be the main point of contact at your brand?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • When will a decision be made by?
  • Any other key dates to include?

And lastly, here are a few DON’Ts

(or at least, try-not-tos)

  • Don’t drill down too much detail: this stage should be more high-level descriptions.
  • Don’t waffle: it’s already a long enough document! Get a fresh pair of eyes on it to help spot any fluff.
  • Don’t use jargon: it should be written in a language accessible for whoever sees it (remember, agencies might not speak the language of your industry). You want to prevent miscommunication and not have to explain things verbally.
  • Don’t focus too much on the website’s look and structure: leave that for the design phases.
  • Don’t forget to measure your site’s performance against your goals in point 2 (after go-live, of course).

With that said, good luck and go forth!


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