Designing and developing a top-notch product is hard work.
Alright, I’m probably preaching to the choir here. As a product manager with any real-world experience at all, you know just how difficult true success is hard to come by in your position.
To be sure, you’re not alone. According to some recent surveys:
- 95% of products fail almost immediately upon launch
- Only 40% of developed products make it to market
- Of this 40%, only 60% end up earning a profit
While there are many reasons for this, a consistent top cause of product failure is a lack of preparation. In fact, a lack of planning can often be the root cause of the many other issues teams face when developing new products for their users.
In short, proper planning is essential to the creation of a successful product.
One of the key steps of the planning stage:
Creating a product requirements document.
What is a Product Requirements Document?
A product requirements document (PRD) is a comprehensive report that describes a future product to be created — along with additional information about the surrounding project.
The overall goal of a PRD is to communicate to the development team:
- What the product should be, and how it should function
- Who the product will be used by
- What the product will enable the user to do
As we’ll discuss, this sets your dev team up for massive success — which, in turn, can lead to major opportunities for your business.
Product requirements documents are typically written by product managers. However, all stakeholders will be involved in the creation process to ensure the document is clear, comprehensive, and focused — and that it will help get the dev team started on the right foot.
PRDs, MRDs, BRDs (and Other Documentation)
As you may know, PRDs aren’t the only requirements documents in existence.
And, each of these documents serves a unique purpose throughout the development process.
It’s crucial, then, to understand what these purposes are, and how each of these documents work together to form a solid product development plan.
A marketing requirements document (MRD), for example, is used to validate the approval of a product or project based on existing marketing conditions and opportunities. This document discusses consumer needs, market gaps, and potential value propositions to offer via the upcoming product.
A business requirements document (BRD) focuses on the overarching business implications of an upcoming project. Here, the goal is to validate the project from an executive position, and to begin planning for next steps after successful implementation of the project.
Finally, a functional requirements document (FRD) provides a more in-depth, technical description of a product’s features and functions from an engineer’s perspective. This, of course, is used as a blueprint for the dev/design team to follow as they create the product.
(Note: There are many other requirements documents in existence; these are just the most relevant to our purposes.)
The point of reviewing all this is two-fold.
For one, it’s important to see how they relate to one another in a practical sense:
- MRDs showcase market opportunities that require the development of a new product — and the creation of a PRD.
- FRDs expand on the information provided in accompanying PRDs to provide clear instructions for the development team.
- BRDs use all of the information from the above documents (and more) to determine that the upcoming initiative is a sound business decision.
It’s just as important to understand what information goes where — and also where certain info shouldn’t go. For example, since an MRD will include all marketing-related information, there’s no need to waste time and energy (and document space!) including the same info in your PRD.
(In other words, keeping the right info in the right document is vital to staying organized and efficient.)
Why are Product Requirement Documents Important?
Alright, so we already said that PRDs are a part of proper planning, which is essential to even have a chance at a successful product launch.
Now, let’s look at some of the more specific ways creating product requirements documents will benefit your team and your business.
1. Create Alignment with Marketing and Exec Teams
As we touched on above, all stakeholders need to be on the same page from the onset of a given project.
Firstly, your product team needs to be absolutely certain their image and initial designs match the current needs of the market. As you create your PRD, you can work with marketing to ensure you’ve addressed the right opportunities and audiences — and that your overall plan is in-line with your marketing team’s hypothesis.
Without this alignment, it’s increasingly possible to create a high-quality product that there’s unfortunately no market for.
Creating a PRD also keeps your executive team in the loop in terms of project outcomes, costs, and all in-between. This, again, enables execs to make proper business decisions — and allows project managers to optimize their plan based on company financials and other situational factors.
Without this alignment, going over budget is almost guaranteed — which will put a huge dent in your profit margin, no matter how successful your launch is.
Check out our post on team management best practices for more.
2. Define Goals and Outcomes for Product Development
Your PRD gives your product team a crystal clear idea of what’s expected of them throughout development, and what the new product is expected to accomplish upon release.
Regarding design expectations, the PRD (and accompanying FRD) leaves no question as to what the product should be and do. By the time the document is handed off to development, all descriptions and illustrations will have been checked, finalized, and communicated with clarity.
Your PRD will also lay out a timeline for your dev team to adhere to. As we’ll get to, this timeline can be approached in multiple ways — but will ultimately serve to keep your dev team on track and focused on the task at hand.
Lastly, your PRD will define performance metrics to determine the success of the product (and of the overarching initiative). Whether focused on direct usage metrics or long-term business impact (or both), your PRD will illustrate the key changes that should occur upon successful product deployment.
(That said, there are again many reasons a product launch can fail — even if the dev team does everything they’re supposed to. In setting clear goals for your launch, you’ll be better able to gauge your team’s success, and identify specifically where things could have gone a bit better.)
3. Avoid Scope Creep and Other Pitfalls
In general, scope creep affects around half of all projects and initiatives.
While the impact of scope creep can vary, it typically leads to delays in production, budget overruns, and outright product failures. A product requirements document will help you avoid all this by setting in stone exactly what is to be created, and exactly how it’s to be done.
In fact, you may even choose to include a section focused on product scope. You can also use this section to explain what’s not included in the scope of the current iteration — along with a list of potential features and functions for future iterations of the product.
In any case, documenting this information can all but eliminate scope creep, and keep your team’s energy focused on developing the product as planned.
A Note on Agile Product Planning and Documentation
Now, the product requirements document has its origins in traditional, waterfall-style organizations.
And this just makes sense: After all, it’s part of a sequence of documents setting plans in place that, for the most part, are not to be altered.
However, there are two key exceptions to this rule — which is where the agile approach comes in.
First, you should always be able to change course once you realize your original plan isn’t going to work. Though changes to project scope should be (very) few and far between, your team should always be prepared to make iterative changes to your PRD should the need arise.
Even if not making changes to the project scope, you can still add more information to a given PRD after development has commenced.
For example, you might:
- Provide more clarifying background info
- Uncover new audiences or use cases
- Develop additional wireframes and other assets
All this being said, the PRD can actually bring balance to teams at both ends of the spectrum. On the one end, traditional teams will become more flexible in areas that will impact performance most; on the other, agile teams can maintain their loose approach without straying too far from their original goal.
Key Elements of a Product Requirements Document
Though we’ve touched on most of the following already, let’s now take a look at the main elements to include in a product requirements document.
1. Product Objective
This section will define and detail the overall purpose of the product being created.
The main question this section will answer is:
Why is this product being created?
To support this information, you can then discuss:
- The problem(s) it will solve for the end-user
- Why solving this problem is essential to the user’s success
- What the user will be able to accomplish moving forward
From there, you can discuss how this product fits into your overall product vision and roadmap. This is especially valuable when creating PRDs for new iterations of existing products, as it will paint a clearer picture of how the product has evolved over time.
2. Project Background
This section can actually be broken down into a number of smaller sub-sections.
Here, you’ll define your end-user as specifically (and as practically necessary) as possible.
(By “practically necessary”, we mean “any information about the user that is needed to create the exact product they need.”)
Ideally, you’ll be able to pull most of this information from your personas and/or customer files. Still, you’ll then need to adjust this description based on the more current and targeted data you have on hand.
User Stories & Use Cases
Along with the above, your product requirements document should also include short user stories tied to specific use cases.
(Incidentally, these use cases will be tied to product features in a subsequent section.)
These user stories are usually single-sentence statements that express a user’s need or desire.
For each user story in focus, you’ll then list an accompanying function and/or use case that will allow the user to accomplish their goal.
Here, you’ll simply list the teams and individuals involved in the project, along with their titles and roles pertaining to said project.
This keeps all stakeholders informed of their responsibilities throughout the development process — and also ensures everyone keeps each other in the loop at all times.
Assumptions, Constraints & Dependencies
Finally, you’ll list out any assumptions, constraints, and/or dependencies that exist within your plan.
Assumptions refer to any expectations you have about the project, the user, your team’s capabilities, etc. For example, you might assume that your target user has a certain level of technical expertise, or that your team is fully trained in use of a certain design tool.
Constraints are the limitations in place that prohibit your team from “doing more” in a certain regard. Common constraints include time, financial budget, and access to resources. Risk is another technical constraint, as it can inhibit development breakthroughs in the interest of “playing it safe”.
Lastly, dependencies define the sequential relationships and limitations between development tasks. On top of making these limitations known, listing dependencies also allows you to plan around certain tasks whenever possible.
3. Product Features
Here’s where you’ll provide more in-depth information about the features planned for your product.
For each feature listed, you should at least include:
- The user story the feature is linked to
- A short description of the feature
- The purpose of the feature (from the user’s perspective)
Additional information (e.g., assumptions) may be included as necessary.
4. Release Criteria
In this section, you’ll define the terms of success for the project based on the following characteristics of your product:
- Functionality: A succinct reiteration of the features and functions that must be included in the product at launch.
- Usability: The expected level of sophistication of the product’s design and UX at launch.
- Reliability: The product’s consistency, as measured by its functional success rate.
- Performance: Measures of speed and efficiency for core product features.
- Supportability: The frequency and intensity of maintenance required by the product.
5. Project Scope
This is the all-important section in which you define what the upcoming product should not include.
This can simply be a list of out-of-scope features, making it easy for all stakeholders to stay within the scope of the project at all times. However, you might include an additional section in which you explain why a feature was omitted — and potentially how it may be implemented in the future.
6. Project Timeline
Your product requirements document should include a general timeline for the upcoming project.
At this point, you aren’t looking to nail down specific dates and deadlines. Rather, the goal here is to define how long certain processes and development phases should take based on the known information. From there, you can begin creating a rough sequence of events for development to follow along the way to completion.
(Note that this timeline will be fleshed-out and finalized within the subsequent business requirements document.)
7. Wireframes and Mockups
As necessary, you can attach any illustrations, mockups, or sketches you’ve created to showcase core features and functions of your product.
These don’t need to be flawless designs or measured-out blueprints — at least not initially. For the moment, you’re simply looking to get your ideas “on paper” for all stakeholders to see.
(You’ll then add your actual product blueprints and other documents to this section at a later date — if only for posterity.)
Steps to Creating an Effective Product Requirements Document
While product requirements documents are relatively straightforward, creating them is still an involved and intensive process that can easily go off-track if you aren’t careful.
So, you need to approach the creation of your PRDs strategically and methodically in order to make the most of them.
Here’s what the process should look like.
1. Consult the MRD and Other Collected Data
As the focus shifts toward your PRD, you’ll already have a ton of data and information about the overall initiative at the ready.
And it’s of critical importance that you refer to this data as you create your PRD. Again, you don’t want to end up creating a product that doesn’t align with your user’s needs or your business goals.
More than just tying your PRD to certain marketing opportunities or business goals, this will also allow you to prioritize your efforts based on the data you have in hand. Similarly, diving deep into your collective data can help you identify features to leave out of the current iteration.
This is why a comprehensive knowledge management system with a centralized knowledge base is essential. By making use of a knowledge base, you’ll easily be able to access any data possessed by your team in order to make your PRD more accurate and complete.
(And, as new information becomes available, you can just as easily make the appropriate updates to your PRD and any other documentation stored in your knowledge base software.)
2. Use a Template to Create Your PRD Draft
As routine as creating PRDs will become, you don’t want to start from scratch every time you create one.
Instead, you want to create an “official” PRD template for your team to start with moving forward. While this template should at least include the sections we discussed above, you might decide to reorganize them or add others as needed.
You may need to adjust your template for individual projects based on your circumstances. That said, you shouldn’t stray too far from the template that’s proven to work for your team thus far.
At any rate, these templates can also be stored within your internal knowledge base for instant access — and to make iterative improvements to the documents over time.
3. Collaborate With Stakeholders Throughout
We’ve talked about the importance of team alignment a few times.
Now, let’s quickly lay out the key ways you’ll collaborate with other stakeholders as you create your PRD.
You’ll again refer to your marketing team to get a full understanding of the current opportunity, the customer’s needs and expectations, and key value points the product should touch on.
As you create and finalize your PRD, you’ll also touch base with your marketing team (and MRD) to ensure your plan hits all of these points effectively and efficiently.
Design should step in as your wireframes and mockups come more into focus, and as you begin to finalize a given product requirements document.
Though your design team can add more illustrations and artifacts to the doc when necessary, their focus at this point should be more on fleshing out any design notes and need-to-know product specifications.
You’ll then involve engineering to assess the practicality of your design, and to get a better understanding of what will actually be possible to create.
This stage can potentially require some back-and-forth involving all stakeholders mentioned thus far as you fine-tune your design to perfection.
While some of your project team may have been involved throughout this entire process, you’ll now bring everyone into the fold.
- Deliver the PRD to all project team members for review
- Collect any feedback you have from them
- Discuss this feedback with the right stakeholders, and make changes to the doc as appropriate
Now, you might not actually implement every suggestion made. Still, you should always document your dev team’s feedback, as it may come in handy for future product iterations.
4. Store PRD for Easy Retrieval and Iteration
Speaking of the future…
Once your product requirements document is complete, you’ll need to ensure all stakeholders can access it whenever and wherever they need to.
Throughout planning and development, all parties will need to refer back to the PRD and other documentation to maintain focus and alignment. As discussed earlier, teams may also add information, artifacts, and other data to certain sections of the document over time.
Upon completion of a project, the accompanying PRD should then be stored more permanently within your archives. From there, teams can easily retrieve it for a variety of purposes, such as:
- Creating a new PRD for a future product iteration
- Creating a PRD for a related but separate product
- Reviewing your team’s processes and performance re: product development
Manage Your Product Requirements Documents with Helpjuice
Looking for a way to keep your PRDs and related documentation secure, accessible, and easily updatable?
Look no further.
With Helpjuice’s knowledge base software, you can start creating your organization’s Single Source of Truth in minutes — and have your requirements documents right where you need them from then on.
Ready to get started?
Try Helpjuice free for 14 days now!