DESIGNING TECHNICAL REPORTS
1. Engineers and their Need for Technical
2. Communication Pitfalls of Graduating
3. The Report Design Process
- 3.1 Audience Analysis
Structuring the Report
- 3.3 Writing the Report
1. Engineers and their Need for Technical
Engineers are problem solvers, but they are not normally the
implementors of their solutions. To be an effective problem solver, an
engineer's solution must be communicated to those who make decisions
about which solution to implement and to those who must implement the
solution. Engineers often find themselves within a large
organizational structure, such as a design firm with several layers of
decision-making management. As one moves up through the layers, the
managers have less and less understanding of the technical details and
less and less time for reading reports. Thus, it is vitally important
for engineers to communicate effectively. Engineers spend on average
2/5 of their time in communication, i.e., they spend 2 days out
of 5 communicating to peers, superiors, laymen, the public,
- "An engineer who can't communicate is in trouble"
- "If you can't tell them what you are doing, they'll hire someone
else who can."
- The primary means of communication in large organizations are technical
reports, which have several vital organizational functions:
- communication of technical information to others within the organization
who need the information to carry out their jobs;
- communication of the activities of a company to outside observers;
- communication of the activities of one division to another division
within the same company; (Other divisions are often considered relative
- communication to your superiors and their superiors about what you
are doing and why you are doing it.
2. Communication Pitfalls of Graduating Engineers
Engineering graduates are usually ill-equipped to cope with the
communication requirements described above. Why? In college, students
write for an audience of one -- their professor. What are her
- She wants to know how much of the material you've grasped and is
interested in all of the details;
- She knows the assignment and most likely is at least as, or more,
familiar with the solution(s) than you are; and
- She will not act on your report other than to give you a grade.
In industry, professional engineers must write for a large, diverse
- They have different informational needs and expectations for a report;
- They are likely to be much less familiar with the technical details;
- They may act on, or be affected by, the report.
Several common misconceptions about engineering communication are:
- The person to whom the report is sent or addressed is the audience
of the report;
- The audience will be a group of specialists as familiar with, and
interested in, the technical details as you are;
- The report has a finite period of use;
- The author or audience is always available for reference;
- The audience is familiar with the assignment;
- The audience has been involved in daily discussions;
- The audience awaits the report; and
- The audience has time to read the entire report.
3. The Process of Designing Reports
Engineering students must learn to approach the writing of a report
in much the
same way they approach other problems.
Q: How do engineers solve problems?
- Suppose you have been hired by a new airline. You have been assigned
the task of designing a network of airline routes (between a finite number
of possible cities) that serves the needs of the customers and is
profitable to the airline. What would you do?
A: Engineers follow these steps iteratively.
- Analyze the problem to determine what the issues are that need to
addressed and what influences, or is influenced by, the solution you select.
The problem for the airline route planner is to develop a set of
routes on which the airline can make money. However, if the airline
is non-responsive to their customers, their market may evaporate and
the profitability of the airline will erode. Thus, the problem is to
find a network of routes that makes the best use of the available
airplanes purchased by the airline and that satisfies the customer
- Design, or develop, a set of solutions by decomposing the problem into
smaller pieces and addressing each smaller problem considering the overall
objectives and the interrelations of the subproblems. As part of this step,
you must generate alternative solutions, each of which may satisfy the
conflicting objectives in different ways.
For the airline example, you must determine what affects overall customer
satisfaction as one subpart of this problem. Another task is to generate
several different sets of routes that carry some or all of the passengers
with the airline's available planes and have different profit amounts.
- Evaluate the designs for how well they meet the objectives
and modify them to meet those objectives which are not satisfied.
Evaluation involves determining the profit and level of customer
service provided by each of the possible designs and selecting the
best one, where the definition of best depends on the attitudes of the
airline management. They may be willing to sacrifice some customer
satisfaction for profit, or they may be willing to sacrifice short
term profits to increase their market share.
Thus, the design of a report should proceed along parallel lines.
- You should first determine the audiences for your report and determine
their informational needs (i.e., define the objectives of the
For example, high-level management may want only a summary of your top
three designs considered and your final recommendations. Other
divisions within the airline, such as maintenance, may want more
details to see if their perspectives were considered during the
- Systematically design the basic structure of the report to
meet these informational objectives, by identifying the major parts of
the report and their informational objectives (i.e.,
develop a solution);
For most technical reports within a larger organization, you need an
initial section that provides a summary for the decision-making
executives who will read your report -- appropriately called an
executive summary. It is also known as an abstract or forward.
Its function is to summarize what is important to the decision-making
- the purpose of the study and of the report,
- the approach taken (high-level description), and
- the conclusions and recommendations.
You also need a more detailed discussion, for use by people who must
your recommendations or who must evaluate your approach from different
perspectives. This section consists of:
- an introduction, which contains a detailed problem statement,
- a discussion of the approach taken and the issues considered possible
and organized according to those members of the report's audience,
- a description of the results obtained, and
- a detailed discussion of the conclusions of the investigation and
the recommendations on actions that should be taken.
- Implement the design of your report by writing and editing the sections
of the report for which information objectives have been defined
(i.e., implement your solution).
While writing the different
sections, remember who your intended readers
are and use an appropriate amount of detail and terminology.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of the report in meeting your initially
specified informational objectives and modify the report if
deficiencies are found (i.e., evaluate and modify). An outside
reader is invaluable in this state. Once you become immersed in a
problem, you often take for granted knowledge that most people do not
have. For this class, you will be required to have a classmate read
your report and give you critical feedback on how well you have
communicated your ideas.
Whenever you sit down to communicate in a professional environment, ask
yourself the following questions:
- Who will read this report and what is their technical understanding
of the problem and the solution?
- What do they want to know about the problem and about the proposed
- What do I, as the author, want to accomplish? What is my purpose
in writing this report?
This process is known as audience analysis.
3.1 Audience Analysis
Exactly how you do audience analysis is not so important as just doing
it; i.e., you must think about who your audience is and what
they want and need to know. You can use the following matrix for
performing a rudimentary audience analysis:
| Information Needs
|| Technical Level
The primary audience consists of the people who
will make a decision based on this report. The secondary
audience consists of those people who must implement the
recommendations after the decisions have been made. The secondary
audience also includes those whose actions will be influenced by the
Knowing the technical level of your intended audience is extremely
important. This knowledge helps you determine the level of
terminology and problem description to use in different parts of the
document. As an example, consider the airline problem again.
Who is likely to be the primary audience?
The president, or CEO, of the airline. If not him, a high ranking
official within the company. His information needs are basically of a
managerial nature -- what is the big picture, what is it going to cost
and how are the customers going to react? His background may be
technical, but his job requires him to look at more than the technical
aspects of problems and solutions. He may not appreciate being
bombarded with technical jargon, but he may want some relevant, but
limited detailed technical content. When your primary audience is a
single person, you may be able to tailor the parts of the report to
respond directly to this person's needs.
Who is likely to be the secondary audience?
The president, or his staff, may also be part of the secondary
The labor groups within the company will be likely audience members
interested in how the routes selected impact on their jobs;
i.e., where will the jobs be and what are their
classifications? Marketing and sales people will be interested in the
details of which markets are included and excluded and why and what
the potential for sales in different areas are so that they may build
up appropriate levels of personnel. All of these groups likely have
minimal technical background, but may be interested in the details.
Thus, the report will have to spend a lot of time explaining some of
the technical details in everyday language.
3.2 Structuring the Report
How do you write a report if one part of your audience only wants to
see high-level summaries and another wants to see details? You have
- Write for the common denominator, which has a high probability of
satisfying no one;
- Write more than one version of your report, analyze who is asking
for the report, and determine which report they should receive. This
is inefficient and time consuming; or
- Write a report with different components addressing the different
The last solution is almost always best. You can satisfy several
different audiences and do not have to worry about omitting
information that some people may want. For most technical reports, a
two component report structure should be sufficient to meet the
information needs of the primary and secondary audience:
- an opening component, in which a summary of the purposes, results,
conclusions, and recommendations are given at a more general, high-level
of detail; and
- a discussion component, which describes in more detail:
- the purpose of the investigation,
- the approach(s) taken,
- the results procured,
- the conclusions and recommendations offered, and
- any other information that would be of interest to the secondary
Thus, the opening component is for the primary audience. They
want to know:
- Why was the investigation performed?
- What is the significance of this problem?
- How can the results be used?
- What will it cost?
- What are the implications? For the company? For different departments?
- What should happen next? Who is responsible?
The discussion component of your report is for the secondary audiences
and should be aimed at their information needs and technical level of
understanding. The secondary audience may be your peers. This
section may assume a high level of technical understanding and
terminology. You can structure the discussion component in several
possible ways depending on the perspective you take in writing it.
You may structure your report based on the purpose of the
investigation; that is, in terms of the rhetorical purpose of
the writer. This is the most effective way to communicate if the
solution, not the solution process, is most important to you secondary
audience. A discussion structure based on rhetorical purpose might
- I The problem and the solution.
The criteria used to evaluate the evidence
- III The evidence/support for the assertion/solution
A restatement of the conclusions and recommendations
You may structure your report based on the intellectual problem solving
process. This structure is effective if your secondary audience is interested
in your problem-solving process; however, it is less effective if they are
interested in your solution. The nine stages of the problem solving process
- The organization discovers a technical problem;
- The task as assigned or taken by you;
- You define the specific technical questions to be
investigated or the tasks to be performed;
- You determine how to answer the questions, i.e.,
what equipment and procedures to use;
- You perform the investigation;
- You collect and tabulate the results;
- You analyze the results and draw conclusions;
- You formulate recommendations based on your conclusions; and
- You write the report to create organizational
responses to solve the problem.
A structure based on problem solving process might look like:
- I. Introduction (addresses stages 1 and 2)
- I.A The problem
I.B The objective
I.C The structure of
the report (a forecast of the structure you used
II Background (addresses stage 3)
- II.A Previous Work
II.B Specific Work to be Performed
III Experimental Procedure (addresses stages 4 and 5)
- III.A Materials
IV Discussion of Results (addresses stages 6 and 7)
(addresses stage 8)
- V.A Problem Restated
V.B Summary of Results
- V.C Recommendations
Finally, you may structure your report based on subject matter. You
can align your sections and subsections with the various systems and
subsystems within the design. A section structure based on subject
matter might look like:
- I Introduction
- I.A The Mission Explained
I.B The Problem
- I.C Overall Procedure
- II Launch Vehicle Check
- II.A Payload
II.B Separation System
- III Satellite Check
- III.A Sensors
III.B Attitude Control System
- III.C Power Supply System
III.D Communication System
- III.E Thermal Protection System
- IV Conclusions of Systems Tests
3.3 Writing the Report
When writing the sections and subsections of the report after having
decided the major sections and subsections that will be in it, you
should follow the same concepts used for structuring the whole report.
You should write each section going from the general to the
particular. Thus, the beginning each section is a general
description of the greater detail to come at the end of the section.
Again, this supports the selective reading habits of your audience.
Some of the sections may be only of general interest to certain people
and they may only want to read the first paragraph to get an overview
of the section's information content. The general part of a section
may be as short as one sentence that serves to summarize the
information content of the section. For larger sections, it may be
Engineers are not number crunchers; they are problem solvers. Good
engineers not only find creative solutions to technical problems, they
communicate their solutions to others and persuade them to use their
solutions. To write an effective technical report, you should:
- Analyze your audience and determine the purpose of your report.
- Structure the report to consist of a general component and a detailed
discussion component. You can structure the detailed component according
- rhetorical purpose,
- problem solving process, or
- subject matter.
- Write each section so that it begins with a general description
more detailed information that follows.
James Garrett modified