“If I build this, will it delight you?”
Time spent building a spec that gets a ‘yes’ to this question is always time well spent. The spec describes what victory feels like, not necessarily every element of what's to be built.
A spec is an agreement before the agreement, it moves the difficult job of getting in sync with your client from the end of the process to the beginning.
Creatives of every stripe are so happy to get the assignment, so eager to get to work that we often forget to agree on what we’re setting out to do in the first place. It's fun to nod your head and say, "I understand," but even something as simple as cooking dinner deserves a few more moments of interaction before the knives are sharpened and the oven is turned on.
“I’ll know it when I see it,” is reserved for crown princes, government agencies and well-funded startups. People who can afford to do it twice. Everyone else should use a spec.
I’m not suggesting that there’s no room for exploratory work. Of course there is. But even exploratory work deserves a spec. Don’t tell me the answers in advance, but I certainly want to know the questions.
Writing a spec is a kind of mind reading, which is why it’s so difficult. One half of the partnership has to take the time to not only specifically and precisely write down what’s expected and what the measurements and boundaries are, but then must do the challenging and risky work of engaging with the other half of the team to agree on that spec. Disagreements here are cheap, disagreements later cost a fortune.
The fear, of course, is that the spec will end the project, that without a lot of sunk costs on the table, a spec alone is too easy to renege on. In my experience, the most successful freelancers are also the most successful spec writers. Yes, there's some risk in clearly and vividly making your promises while the client/partner/boss still has time to back out. But professionals take that risk every day.
I have no doubt that one could have boiled down the spec for the Taj Mahal to, “a big white marble house” but somehow, I don’t think it would have ended as well.