10 Tips On Engineering Notebooks

-February 02, 2016

In the article, Modernize your engineer's notebook, I discussed the basic features and capabilities a modern electronic notebook would need to meet the requirements of the average engineer. A lot of those who responded still preferred paper notebooks. Whichever type is used, though, (but especially electronic types) here are some tips to help get the most out of an engineering notebook.

Tip #1 -- Keep a notebook -- Yes, it seems strange that keeping a notebook would be the first tip about notebooks. 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 then, when the project heats up, the notebook is thrown to the curb. Hence the tip to keep the notebook. Gaining the discipline to continually keep notes is the key.

Tip #2 -- Create a table of contents -- Whether a paper or electronic notebook is being used, a table of contents can be a quick and efficient way to track the material stored in the notebook. In a paper notebook, leave the first few pages of the notebook empty so that the contents can be filled in as the notebook fills up. The use of an electronic notebook can simplify table of contents creation by instead allowing creation of 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; the engineers comfortable with an electronic notebook can create a direct link to the document. One of the interesting features about OneNote is that when an external document is embedded in this way the document's details get included in the notebook. Edits to the content in the notebook get propagated to the external file, providing a win-win for both notebook types.

Tip #4 -- Create 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 (and replicated) 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 -- One of my favorite advantages of using an electronic notebook is that it is easy to embed images, equations, and other content into the notebook with little to no effort. Video can be particularly helpful and it is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words but a video is priceless. Rather than hand writing the steps of procedure, for instance, simply record them. This will provide 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 with shrinking budgets. At times development can feel like a project has come to a slow crawl or stopped altogether. Looking back at the end of a month can sometimes feel like very little was being accomplished.

An engineering notebook that contains a daily log of discoveries and issues encountered that day provide a written record of the slow steps forward that can help make such reflections far easier. The daily log can help put what seem like only 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 -- One never knows though when seemingly incorrect information could be correct or show critical steps on the path to discovery. Engineers working with paper notebooks often record their notes in pen and if a mistake is made, strike through the erroneous information and place the correct information nearby. Sometimes they will also date the correction. This strikethrough approach helps preserve the original thinking as well as the later correction.

The use of an electronic notebook may tempt an engineer to simply overwrite or erase an error. Rather than erasing or removing information in an electronic notebook, though, engineers should follow the best practices from a paper notebook. Simply add strikethrough to the font and then use strikethrough on an error and 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. A table of contents helps, but the use of an electronic notebook 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. This is a capability that no paper notebook that I’m aware of can do.

Tip #9 -- Use password protection on critical sections and notes -- Another 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.


Many of the traditional best practices from a paper notebook carry over to an electronic notebook. And, as with any advancement in technology, new best practices arise. 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.

What best practices would you add?

Jacob Beningo is principal consultant at Beningo Engineering, an embedded software consulting company. Jacob has experience developing, reviewing and critiquing drivers, frameworks and application code for companies requiring robust and scalable firmware. Jacob is actively involved in improving the general understanding of embedded software development through workshops, webinars and blogging. Feel free to contact him at jacob@beningo.com, at his website www.beningo.com, and sign-up for his monthly Embedded Bytes Newsletter here.

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