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Flat designs to website specification - a checklist

Date: 2014-03-29 16:00
category:Code
tags:work
summary:Agencies often provide flat designs to web developers as a specification, but these only scratch the surface of a true website functional specification. This is a check-list of features which can be fleshed out to start the journey towards a full functional spec.
scm_path:content/1403-spec-checklist.rst

Isolated design has problems

Since many web projects are approached from the visual aspect, often the seen elements are designed first. This can be fine if it's integrated with well thought out feedback from developers, but can create more work for the project if it's completed and signed off in isolation.

  • Results in more development work when a design might have some serious development implications when compared to a slightly different solution that could also have been acceptable.
  • Work estimates will be less accurate since the flat designs just start to scratch the surface of the development required - they are not a full specification.
  • Can lead to frustration within the design team as they are asked to redesign elements during the production process that they thought were already signed off.
  • Potentially leads to uncertainty with the client if 'signed off' designs are presented again for sign off with changes that were not previously foreseen.

How to use this checklist

Next time you see a software project being discussed just via flat designs, let your alarm bells ring. Open up conversation about the features on this list to break down the isolation that the design team is operating in.

For Developers

This basic list can start a journey of specification exploration. Start to ask questions about all these features before you agree on a specification or timeline since some of these items can become heavy or project effecting.

This list is very back-end focused, but hopefully can be helpful for front-enders too.

For Website owners

If you're being asked to sign off a project on flat designs alone, then it might be beneficial to check that the team you're working with have these aspects of the development on their radar. They might not have the answer to them yet, but should have a plan to find them.

For Designers

You are often stuck in the middle of the process. Continue to involve your development team, they will be able to point out things that will require more effort to build before your client signs off the visuals, saving the project work in the long term.

You can help to ensure you get good value feedback by asking them questions about items on this checklist - ensure they're not lulled into a false sense of "it'll be easy" by your fantastic design work!

The Checklist

The following details are often missing from flat web designs, but should be provided in a full specification.

  • Page titles - Standard and often missed by designers that use a generic image of a web browser frame to wrap their designs. Loved by content managers and search engines. Do they have a format and can be auto-generated? Does the content database need an extra field?
  • Hidden HTML data - What about all the data in the HTML <head>? Meta description, icon, Facebook data? Also for each image what will be the <img> alt tag?
  • URLs - Also missed by designers when using generic browser frames, what are the URLs of each page being shown? Remember to check the URLs of pages that have pagination.
  • Data field requirements - Designs often show the 'best case' for content, but ensuring good data is entering the database is essential for a successful web project. What are the limits - shortest names? Longest ones? Are spaces allowed? Should content be trimmed? Emails should be validated, but on what level? Semantically, or with a request to a DNS or mail server?
  • Form fields, validation and error messages - If you're looking at a design that shows a web form, are there are error messages in the design? Expanding on the requirements for the data above, what will happen to the form when invalid data is entered? How will fields be flagged for errors? Which data elements will be sent back to the form and which will be cleaned out? Are there any fields (like address) that need to be localised?
  • User sign up requirements - If the site will be accepting registrations, what will users need to provide to register? Email address? User name (how long)? Are there any blocked words in user names (like 'admin', the project brand name or profanities)? Password (how long)? Are there any password strength requirements? How will users reset their passwords?
  • Transactional emails - What emails will need to be sent by the system? What is their content and design? Can users manage these notifications?
  • Security - Will the site have any functions that will protect the data of its users? For example, will the user login page throttle access on multiple incorrect passwords? Will there be 'https' required?
  • Private data - Since flat designs will show the public end user view of a project, what data is hidden from the user but essential for the project? Latest login dates? Number of logins? IP address of last visit or registration? Banned, active, subscriber flags? Active or dormant flags on content?
  • Click and hover behaviours - What will happen when elements like links are hovered? Are there any menus functions that are hidden behind clicks? Are there any titles to be shown when the user hovers an item?
  • Error pages - What is the design for the 404 page? What about 503 and any other error pages? Will there need to be a holding page when the site is being updated and is offline?
  • Analytics configuration - How should the analytics be configured to track behaviours on the site? Is it required? Will a simple configuration suffice or will there need to be funnels and or events configured? Analytics can be complex enough to require as much work as the original build out of a project, so ensuring that the specification is defined and covers the business needs early is a benefit.
  • Translation requirements - Will any of the content in the designs require translation? This also effects the items mentioned above in the checklist. Remember that any image elements that have been prepared that contain text will need to be generated in each target language - will each of those translated texts fit within the design?

Feedback and thoughts

I hope that the list above helps someone who's working through the design of a site. Any time that I've worked on a project where developers and stakeholders have been involved in the design stages early on have always been successful.

If there are items you think should be added you can contribute on GitHub.

Thanks for reading.