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BEST Practice #5: Formally Document Everything as it Happens

Few students actually want to spend time documenting what they’ve done. After all “why dwell on the past?” But the truth is, if it isn’t worth documenting, then it probably isn’t worth doing.
Practical advantages that documentation brings.

  • Every team is required to submit a design notebook. Documenting everything, as you go, changes that task from a chore into a breeze.
  • Having a record of every past decision keeps your team moving forward instead of forgetful repetition of past discussions.
  • Having a record of every meeting and decision brings newcomers and absent members up to speed with no critical gaps.
  • Documenting it as it happens is the best way to keep things from falling through the cracks.
  • Formally documenting even the “less preferred” ideas provides you a set of alternatives when your chosen ideas runs into problems during the testing phase (ouch…it happens more often than you might think).

If a stranger can’t interpret it, then the documentation isn’t good enough.
Chicken scratch on an untitled, undated, unlabeled piece of paper is unlikely to convey anything to a new reader…and, unless you only have one person on your team, there will always be a new reader at some point. The document must be self-explanatory without the author vocally explaining details to the reader. Sketches should be made with clear lines, even if you have to redo them to get it right. All elements on the sketch should be labeled with arrows and clear writing. Draw multiple views of the item if necessary to show all parts.


Adopt a standard for every document.
Every document should have a title, date, and author. The authorship is less about recognition and more about accountability. In addition to a title, a short description of what the item is and how it relates to other items may be useful. For example, the title of a sketch might be “linkage”. The description “This linkage is the interconnection between the manipulator and the elbow. It is essential for producing parallel motion between the manipulator and base.”

Now, that’s the kind of documentation that makes the notebook editors’ jobs easy. Especially, if you standardize the information so the editors know exactly where on the page to look for each piece of information.

By the way, there is no reason why you can’t have a single format for everything, sketches, meeting minutes, testing results, and even expert interviews.


Use the documentation to focus and reflect.
The documentation shouldn’t be viewed as simply a required deliverable at the end of the season. It can be use to re-focus a team e.g., “Look, not only is this the decision we made last time, but these were the factors in that decision.” The documentation should help reflect and increase learning, e.g., “Recall this step in the process? What do we know now that we should have recognized then?”

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