Why You Need a Design Document Template (& How to Create One)

People often ask if a design document template is necessary. In every case, the answer here is a resounding, yes. When working on any software project it is imperative that you work using a software design document. For that to work, you and your company need a template. This will save time at the front end and a whole world of pain at the back end of your project. For any budding developer who eventually wants to work directly with their own clients, it is good practice to set the rules early on in your career and stick with them. If you’re already on board with why you need a design document, download the template here.  A small disclaimer:  This is by no means the definitive design document. It might not contain everything you deem needed for your project, but it’s a good start. Most independent developers started working in-house for a company. Chances are, they progressed from testing to being part of a team, to maybe leading a team, before making that career-changing leap of faith, into freelance work. Before, you were dealing exclusively with people who had an intimate knowledge of the problems encountered in development. Now, all of a sudden you are dealing with people who have no idea what they even want half the time. This throws up a completely different set of issues. You are now the boss and the buck stops with you.

Planning Your Software Design Document Template

The main point here is to design something that you find easy to work with and your client finds easy to understand. The most impeccable template ever created is negated if the client cannot understand it. At a later date, they will pull you up on something simply because they weren’t on the right page at the start. A good software design document template should enable you to capture the system architecture, data and detail design, hardware and software design. Also needed are any external interface designs and human-machine interfaces. Of course, whatever you create has to function properly and here your template can set out questions to which you will need answers. Obvious questions are:
  • What is the purpose of the application, and how efficiently does it work?
  • How will any possible failure conditions be handled?
  • What is executed at first use after installation?
  • What would be the limitations if the user creates entries like bookmarks?
Whilst these ideas can be quite broad, they can be designed to be as thorough as necessary. The devil is more often than not in the detail. Any misunderstandings or errors here will mean much more work further down the line.

What Should Be in Your Design Document Template

Download the workable template here. Simply click File->Make a copy or Download as…

1: Introduction

This should explain the purpose of the document and show an overview. It needs to define the scope of it and if there is a relationship to other documents. Methodology (such as Agile or Scrum), techniques, and policy directives need to be explained as do the main players and contacts.

2: Scenarios

Here you describe some potential real-life scenarios of people actually using your product. How are they using it? When? What problem are they solving? Make this as realistic as you can.

3: Overview of the Design

This section covers any background information and describes the evolution of the system. Technology and applications can also be explained. Processes used and any constraints and risks are covered along with any issues and dependencies.

4: The Scope of the Job

It is important to set this out at the very beginning of the project to prevent issues arriving later on. Design decisions and the functionality of the system is important and needs to be defined. For the user, it is imperative that they understand the characteristics, problems, and objectives. In this section, you may also explain the software interfaces, constraints in design, data analysis, and output specifications. With regards to data, you should cover the conversion, validation, migration, and transformation, clearly.

5: System Design

The architecture, interaction and data structures need explaining, as does the database and approaches towards procedures.

6: Design in Detail

Normally split into 4 subsections, this is where you explain the system structure, components, interface, and modules.

7: User Interface

Describe the user interface explaining the screen images, objects and actions, and design rules. The availability of components and the interface development also need to be covered.

8: Non-Functional Requirements

Set out in full the performance, security, any necessary licensing, language and any other possible requirements.

9: Explanation of Testing Used

It is absolutely imperative that the client fully understands the extent to which you have tested the product. Your plan objectives, strategies, systems, and performances have to be shown to be thoroughly checked. All aspects of the design process should be covered up to and including beta testing. Show the schedule and functionality of the document along with resources and responsibilities.

10: Deliverables

Laying out a firm procedure at the starting off point saves a lot of time later on. He did she did, gets you nowhere. A timetable of strict deliverables does.

Set Milestones to Determine Progress

Your design document template should always state clear milestones. This is a two-way street and determines that both you and your client provide the necessary information and results on time. From your point of view, this should also include a payment schedule. This is imperative for your cash-flow and will build trust between the two parties. A good design document template enables you to create better applications and develop them more efficiently. Regardless of whether it’s an Android app or a back-end application, it should consist of written descriptions, images, charts, graphs and other information. All this should be pertinent to each part of the development. It helps to organise the features within the software and explains how those features fit together.

The Main Benefits of Using a Thorough Design Document Template

1: Use Your Design Document Template to Demonstrate Your Successes

Everyone enjoys telling others of their successes. What better way to do it than to show a fully-documented example of your design decisions and projects. Future stakeholders in you and your company will be impressed by the professionalism and commitment to excellence. You can demonstrate how wisely you spend clients’ money. As new clients come on board, you will be able to show them how they will be treated. Many companies like to demonstrate their success by providing case studies. Your documented design plan will give them exactly what they need to produce e-books and portfolio content. This will demonstrate that they are up to speed with the latest technologies and are paving the way for future works. Contained within your design document template, their content teams will have everything necessary to produce properly researched documents.

2: Your Design Documentation Guarantees Replication of Good Results

Delivering changes to a team’s software that translates into increased efficiency, output and profit is hard work. This is important if you are busy developing strategies to bring the same success to other IT projects within your company. Great design documentation from one project can provide the framework for developing winning strategies for other projects. These are the necessary steps the design team and developers can take from the beginning. For example, the plan for one project can be the basis for many others. It will be less costly to explore future ideas in this format. Revisiting this stage of an earlier project can point the way for a later redesign, or for another team in your organisation to learn from your approach.

3: Your Design Document Keeps Everyone on the Same Page

It is crucial that all members of your team have a clear vision of where the end-game will be. Your design document will enable all your team to build correct functionalities and to fully understand the reasons behind every decision. It is imperative that no member of the team is out of step with customer needs. This becomes even more important on long term jobs. With possibly months of project work ahead of you, regular checks and balances need to be in place. If your team gets buried in the details, it’s important to return to high-level documentation to make sure every decision remains in step with customer needs.

4: Proper Design Documentation Keeps Everyone Happy

When working on large projects, problems have a habit of arriving at the worst possible moments. Just as you are at a crucial stage, something unexpected throws a spanner in the works. No amount of glossy presentation can make up for proper mapping. Your design document template will ensure that at these crucial times, everyone is pulling together in the right direction. Your wireframes will go a long way in explaining what the product is supposed to be. However, without clear documentation, a clear explanation will remain elusive. A well laid out wire frame is worth a dozen emails. Interactive wireframes look at the project from both the end user’s and the designer’s points of view.

5: Your Design Document Will Make People Believe in the Project

By focusing on people, your design document will ‘pop’ off the page in a much more engaging way than any dry technical data could ever do. In the early stages especially, it will gain stakeholder support for your project’s vision. Use a journey map to convey the full scope of the project. A clear customer journey map enables them to envisage how the end user receives the best benefit from the finished article. The only way to fully achieve this is by ensuring that your design document template is correct from the get-go.

6: A Design Documentation Gives a Project a Focus of Personas

During the discovery phase of any project, it is sometimes hard to understand design problems. By laying these out in advance, you circumvent them before they arise. Your plan will provide a creative tool that pushes the project along. Collaborating on documents is crucial and will steer the design process on the correct course. During the creation of personas, your team will get to know and understand potential users on a much deeper level. In turn, this creates a position in which designers can question assumptions regarding a product’s requirements. It gives them a broader view than simply looking at things from their own perspective. Well-designed personas complement the use of user stories, mapping, and prioritisation. Your template will give you a clearer focus on the requirements of the project. It is this that will drive the project forward.

7: Design Documentation Allays Fears and Confusion Between Client and Developer

This is self-explanatory. Nobody can ever benefit from confusion. It is imperative that all parties fully understand the responsibilities and roles of everyone involved.


You will see the advantages of creating an effective design document template immediately. Hours spent in advance of commencing a project will save you days later on in the development. You, your team, your clients, and the end users will all benefit from a properly mapped out template. It will enable you to keep your hands on the reins without constantly having to breathe down people’s necks. At the same time, it will ease fiscal responsibilities and requirements. Any project is like a journey into the unknown, it is far easier with a good map.
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