Imagine building a house one room at a time, without blueprints, instead of on a solid foundation. You decide, arbitrarily, to build the kitchen first. But you forget that you also need a bathroom off the kitchen, so you go back and tack that on. Then comes a bedroom above the kitchen, and so on. That would be the most nonfunctional, nonsensical, chaotic house ever built. 

You wouldn’t build a house without blueprints, etc. So why would you build digital products that way?

As a product owner or manager, it’s your job to ensure products are built from solid foundations. And part of constructing an effective foundation is organizing design documents. 

What Are Design Documents?

Design documents are simply the source files you’re using to inform your final product and its assets. In a way, design documents come together to form a mood board that sets the stage for what’s to come at each point in development. 

These documents might include:

  • Wireframes 
  • UX flows
  • UI comp pages
  • User task outlines
  • User and/or stakeholder interview notes

You’ll use your design documents to communicate project details — from typography to button color to other design inputs and everything in between — to everyone who touches the project.

The Key Value of Effective Design Documents

Since design documents reach everyone involved in a given project, it’s crucial that each team can understand them easily. Design, development, business — each of these groups needs to be able to follow design documents to complete their tasks on time.

The problem, however, is that each team often has its own language and its own way of doing things. 

Enter design documents.

Screenshot of the design document organization for this article.

The key value of well-organized design documents is that they provide a consistent framework for all three (and more) teams. As your project is passed from team to team, you won’t need to worry about snags in development. You can rest assured that your design documents are communicating in terms everyone understands. 

How to Ensure Design Document Consistency

If your design documents don’t consistently call out that dropdown menu by the same agreed-upon name, your teams will spend valuable time just deciphering what’s being referred to from document to document. 

Example of consistent 'component' naming in the Sketch design document created for this article.
Consistent 'component' naming in the Sketch design document.

Design document success hinges on consistent nomenclature. To some, this may not seem like a big deal but in reality, consistent naming conventions sustain interdepartmental communication.

Consider a simple dropdown menu on a form where you can select from a list of set options, such as choosing your state when entering a shipping address. We’ve all seen these hundreds of times. Behind the scenes, a developer might call that feature a dropdown, a designer might call it a selector, and yet another developer might call it a select box. 

That’s a small example causing big chaos. Picture an entire design document system — from parent folders down to single button names — that doesn’t maintain nomenclature throughout. How would you ever make any project progress?

Here’s the bottom line: Your nomenclature should be so airtight that a new designer could step into a role on your project tomorrow and follow the logical structure of your design documents. 

How Design Documents Build Stakeholder Trust

Design documents are about more than just efficient interdepartmental communication. Stakeholders also scrutinize design documents as they review project milestones and sign off on strategy. 

As the product owner, you’re the one in charge of these stakeholder meetings. You must get the green light on your project strategy to move forward. But here’s the catch: Your strategy isn’t going to get approval if it’s not compelling. And it won’t be compelling if your design documents are an incoherent mess. Without that green light, you might get blamed for the project’s slow speed. 

Consistent, organized design documents, on the other hand, instill confidence in your strategy. When you present stakeholders with clear documentation, they’ll be assured you’re capable of executing your plan. You’ll get that green light right away — and we all know the importance of quick iteration and speed to market

Using Design Documents to Communicate Stakeholder Desires to Your Team 

Your to-dos flow from stakeholders, too. Because ultimately, you’re trying to meet their business goals as well as technical requirements. Design documents help you take your stakeholder directives and translate them to your teams for execution. 

Let’s say a stakeholder comes to you with a user issue they want to solve. Namely, users are getting stuck trying to reset their passwords on your app. You’re tasked with taking that pain point downstream to your designers. 

Design documents, in this case, can set clear expectations for how you plan to meet that user need. In this case, how you’ll make changing passwords easier. Once everyone is aligned, you can quickly move forward with the actual work of solving the problem. Moreover, you’ll have those docs to reference in case you need to re-align on the task down the line.

When your teams have a clear understanding of their expectations, communicated through your design documents, you can more easily meet stakeholder goals.  

The Big Picture: You Need a Design System 

We’ve been discussing structuring your design documents. And it’s true that well-organized design documents inform efficient design by aligning teams and stakeholders.  

But effective, clean design documents should exist within a bigger structure — a design system. 

At its core, a design system is a series of design components for you and your team to reuse. If consistent nomenclature keeps confusion at bay, imagine what consistent everything could do. A design system provides you with an entire visual and technical language that everyone understands and uses to communicate effectively — and, yes, consistently. 

Atomic Design
Design Systems help you to manage design at scale

You’ll save so much development time because your team won’t have to reinvent the wheel with every project or ask repetitive questions because they’re tripped up by small design tasks. Additionally, when everyone’s working from the same design documents and templates, your users will have a better, more seamless experience with your product. And that’s the ultimate goal, right?

Effective design documents go a long way to make your team more productive. But if you’re still after maximum team efficiency and consistency, you need the whole foundation of a design system.

Interested in implementing a design system? Let’s talk.