Should technical writers write system requirements?

Writing system requirements can be a daunting task. Most software products are built by teams of developers, and each component of the software may impose different requirements. The situation gets even more complicated if the system requirements must cover an entire product line. Combining all of this information into a comprehensive document is no simple matter.

So who is best equipped to handle such a task? Should technical writers write system requirements? Or should it be left to those who have more detailed knowledge of the software?

System requirements demand communication

From experience, I'd say that getting accurate requirements for each product or product component is the easy part. A good software engineer will be able to provide such details without much difficulty. They may need to chat a bit with others on their team to get the details right, but in the end they should be able to produce requirements for their code.

However, writing system requirements is really about organizing details from multiple developers or product teams into a complete final document that everyone agrees on. This can be a project management nightmare.

Often system requirements will need to be reviewed multiple times by people from many different development teams. Review comments from one team may conflict with those from another team, and getting a definitive answer can be tough.

Your Sales department may voice concerns if the recommended requirements are too high for a significant number of customers. If the software will run on computers that fall below the recommended requirements, more customers can purchase the software. Customer Support will also have essential feedback based on user calls that conflict with the stated requirements.

Legal issues should be considered. If your software requirements mention operating systems or products from other vendors, you will need to include the appropriate copyright information when you mention those products. This task requires research skills.

Communication with your publications department or web team will be necessary when it comes time to deliver the completed system requirements to your users.

System requirements are difficult because they impact almost every department in the organization.

So who would want such a task?

Writing system requirements is about gathering information, organizing it into a comprehensible document, ensuring that everyone agrees on the content, and then handling any pre-publishing tasks before handing it over to the appropriate people for delivery to your customers.

Isn't that what technical writers do every day?

Most technical writing departments will have established relationships with all of the departments necessary to produce system requirements. And an experienced technical writer will have the skills necessary to combine complex technical information into a user-friendly document, handle the politics of a messy review process, and prepare the document for delivery.

Should technical writers write system requirements? Absolutely. But they should do so using feedback from the appropriate people.

System requirements demand a team effort, but they are still documents. And documents are what we do best.

For more tips on writing software documents, see 22 tips for writing software documentation users will actually read.