Tools – 10 Engineering Notebook Best Practices

In the article, “Transitioning to a Modern Day Engineering Notebook“, I discussed the basic features and capabilities a modern electronic notebook would need to meet the requirements of the average engineer. In order to get the most out of an engineering notebook, here are ten tips engineers should consider.

Tip #1 – Keep a notebook

Yes, it seems strange that keeping a notebook would be the first tip but many engineers, especially firmware and embedded software engineers, rarely seem to keep notebooks. Engineers that do keep a notebook often start a project strong, keeping diligent notes and recording every thought but when the project heats up the notebook is thrown to the curb. Gaining the discipline to keep notes is therefore the first tip.

Tip #2 – Create a table of contents

Whether a paper or electronic notebook is being used, leaving space to create a table of contents can be a quick and efficient way to track the contents of material stored in the notebook. In a paper notebook, engineers must leave the first few pages of the notebook empty so that the contains can later be filled in. The use of an electronic notebook can simplify table of contents creation by instead allowing a dynamically linked table of contents that is clickable and easily organized.

Tip #3 – Embed external documents

Many electronic notebook programs allow users to embed external documents such as Excel spreadsheets. Team members who are uncomfortable with an electronic notebook can use Excel and the engineers comfortable an electronic notebook can create a link to the document. One of the interesting features about OneNote is that when an external document is embedded in such a way the details of the document are included in the notebook and edits to the content are propagated to the external file, providing a win-win for both notebook types.

Tip #4 – Create notebook templates

There are plenty of engineering tasks, diagrams and drawings that are used repeatedly during a typical design cycle. When keeping a notebook, especially an electronic notebook, it can be helpful to create page or section templates that can be easily accessed to speed-up the documentation process. A great example of this would be a project management template or a static analyzer setup checklist. When that same type of task or process presents itself, an engineer needs to simply load the template and hit the ground running.

Tip #5 – Insert Video, Images, Equations and other content

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words but a video is priceless. One of my favorite advantages of using an electronic notebook is that it is easy to embed video, images, equations and other content into the notebook with little to no effort. Rather than hand writing the steps or procedure they could instead be recorded, providing the future version of the engineer or other engineers an understanding of where an idea came from or how a reduction to practice was accomplished.

Tip #6 – Keep a daily log

Being an engineer can sometimes be frustrating. There is a constant pressure to deliver more and more complex systems in shorter time-frames and shrinking budgets. At times development can feel like it has come to a slow crawl or stopped altogether. At the end of a month, a look back can sometimes feel like very little was being accomplished. An engineering notebook that contains a daily log with discoveries and issues encountered can help make such reflections far easier by providing a written record of the slow steps forward. The daily log can help put what seem like minor successes into perspective and help to boost a development teams’ self-esteem and outlook on a project.

Tip #7 – Never erase or remove anything

Engineers working with paper notebooks often record their notes in pen. If a mistake is made, the information is simply stricken through, and the correct information placed nearby. The use of an electronic notebook may tempt an engineer to erase information rather than simply strike it through. One never knows though when seemingly incorrect information could be correct or show critical steps on the path to discovery. Rather than erasing or removing information in an electronic notebook, engineers should follow the best practices from a paper notebook and simply add strikethrough to the font and then fill in the correct information. An engineer can even add a comment and date the strikethrough just like with a paper notebook.

Tip #8 – Take advantage of OCR search

Early in my career when I was required to keep a paper notebook it used to drive me crazy when I needed to find something. I used to fill up notebooks at an incredible pace and trying to find a note from just a few months back could turn into a time-consuming and irritating endeavor. The use of an electronic notebook on the other hand makes everything searchable and far easier to find. One of the coolest features about most of the electronic search capabilities is that they can even perform OCR search. That means a photo could be taken of a hand-written note and the writing in the image will still be searchable. A capability that no paper notebook that I’m aware of can do.

Tip #9 – Use password protection on critical sections and notes

One of the advantages an electronic notebook has over a paper notebook is that an electronic notebook can be encrypted. Many notebook programs allow users to encrypt single notes, sections of the notebook or the entire notebook itself. Engineers can select from a number of encryption algorithms that make the probability of hacking into the information utterly zero. Paper notebooks on the other hand can’t be encrypted. The only way to protect a paper notebook is to place it in a safe which for a large team could be quite costly.

Tip #10 Use quad ruled background or paper

Note taking, or meeting doodling, always seems much easier when there is a grid on the paper. The use of quad ruled paper is critical to spacing notes appropriately and eases the drawing process. Many paper based notebooks come automatically with quad ruling but electronic notebooks are simply blank and white. If a developer is using a tablet and wants to free-hand draw, the drawing can come off poorly and look like something a toddler might bring home from school. In order to improve spacing and give an electronic notebook the same feel as a paper notebook, an engineer can change the background of the electronic notebook to be quad ruled, just like paper.

Conclusions

The transition from a paper notebook to an electronic notebook can take a while to get used to. Many of the traditional best practices from a paper notebook carry over to an electronic notebook. As with any advancement in technology comes new best practices and in this article we’ve briefly touched on some tips that can help an engineer stay organized whether they are using paper or electronic notes.

7 thoughts on “Tools – 10 Engineering Notebook Best Practices”

  1. Sounds just like Microsoft OneNote to me.
    OneNote does all those things.
    I found that if multiple users share a Notebook, then each individuals entry is tagged for them, thus identifying the contributor.

    1. Thanks for the comment. A lot of these features are in OneNote (which is what I have been using). I think these features are key though for a modern notebook. Many other tools have similar features but not all.

  2. Well timed article. This is something I have been working on being better at. I am currently transitioning from paper to digital and found that it is all about finding the right tools that fit your flow the best to help re-enforce notetaking.

    For example we use office 365 at our company but for whatever reason loading onenote in a browser on site is painfully slow. This led me to use it less frequently. I use linux daily and switched to an application called cherrytree that I have found to be pretty good. It does not have the free flowing placement that one note does, but it is local and very fast. It also has a timestamp hotkey which office 365 one note does not have, a huge plus in my book.

    The other thing I have found is that taking a time slot at the end of the day or the start of the next day is critical for keeping track of where you are on a project, especially if you are doing a large amount of time slicing in your roles.

    Regards,
    Matt

  3. Jacob:
    You provide a number of very thoughtful tips here and I agree with them all. I’m curious that you did not provide a list of sources by which one could obtain an ‘engineering’ workbook. Many years ago I jumped on the LiveScribe bandwagon. As an FAE, now with ST Micro (formerly with NXP, Philips, Cirrus Logic and others) I carry the pen and the smaller moleskin notebook into customer meetings. There are the 8.5×11 ring binders for the lab. All of it is archived electronically and works quite well with Evernote. I touch hundreds of customers a year and a design cycle can stretch over 3 years, so I feel your pain in trying to find just the right design note, but this scheme has been my remedy. The toughest tool has been to find a good waveform input tool. I see as the top graphic you have such a thing. Do you mind sharing what this tool is? Thanks for the great article.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Unfortunately I don’t have any special tool. That waveform was snipped out of a datasheet and then I used OneNote to annotate. In my notebook, I also will pull screen captures from a scope and do a similar thing but I don’t have a special tool that does it. I have hand-drawn waveforms as well on my iPad with a stylus.

      I hope this helps but its unfortunately not a special tool.

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