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The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing
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Section 2.8.1


Specifications are design outlines. They describe the structure, parts, performance, packaging, and delivery of an object or process in enough detail to enable a second party to construct the object or process. Specifications are widely used by contracting organizations as procurement documents. In this role, they legally bind the subcontractor to produce and deliver the object or process within the described guidelines. In general, it is better to design with and buy proven off-the-shelf technology, which is easy to order and test, than to go into the specification and custom-building situation.

Specifications often include details of designs, dimensions, materials, performance, schedules, methods, and tests. The level of detail in a specification will vary according to how much freedom the specifier wants the maker to have in making design decisions. The writer of a specification must carefully study the requirements of a situation to determine what the key performance requirements for the specified technology should be. Specifications must be very detailed in calling out the exact way in which key items should be constructed and tested. However, the more specific the specifier is, the fewer options the builder has and the more expensive the item to be produced. Hence, detail and performance must carefully be weighed against cost.

A specification could be a plan for

a manufactured implement, such as a telephone

the subsystem of an industrial product, such as an airplane

a military item, such as a helmet

a computer program for maintaining a physician's records

a commercial contract, such as a house fire alarm system

Specifications generally contain requirements for many of the following items:

Purpose and scope

Design overview

Functional description


Performance requirements




The spec sheet is a very brief specification that identifies key standards followed in the design of a tool or process. Spec sheets accompany many electrical items and are useful for repairing and replacing parts of the item.

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