1. Engineers and their Need for Technical Communication
2. Communication Pitfalls of Graduating Engineers
3. The Report Design Process

3.1 Audience Analysis
3.2 Structuring the Report
3.3 Writing the Report
4. Summary

1. Engineers and their Need for Technical Communication

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, etc.

"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:

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 communication needs?

In industry, professional engineers must write for a large, diverse audience.

Several common misconceptions about engineering communication are:

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.

  1. Analyze the problem to determine what the issues are that need to be 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 needs.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  1. You should first determine the audiences for your report and determine their informational needs (i.e., define the objectives of the report).
    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 decision-making process.

  2. 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 audience:

    You also need a more detailed discussion, for use by people who must implement your recommendations or who must evaluate your approach from different perspectives. This section consists of:

  3. 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.
  4. 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:

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 report.

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 audience. 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 three options:

  1. Write for the common denominator, which has a high probability of satisfying no one;
  2. 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
  3. Write a report with different components addressing the different audiences.

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:

  1. 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
  2. a discussion component, which describes in more detail:

Thus, the opening component is for the primary audience. They want to know:

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 look like:

I      The problem and the solution.
II     The criteria used to evaluate the evidence
III   The evidence/support for the assertion/solution
IV   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 look like:

  1. The organization discovers a technical problem;
  2. The task as assigned or taken by you;
  3. You define the specific technical questions to be investigated or the tasks to be performed;
  4. You determine how to answer the questions, i.e., what equipment and procedures to use;
  5. You perform the investigation;
  6. You collect and tabulate the results;
  7. You analyze the results and draw conclusions;
  8. You formulate recommendations based on your conclusions; and
  9. 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 in stage 9)

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
III.B Methods

IV Discussion of Results (addresses stages 6 and 7)

V Synthesis (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 several paragraphs.

4. Summary

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:

  1. Analyze your audience and determine the purpose of your report.
  2. Structure the report to consist of a general component and a detailed discussion component. You can structure the detailed component according to:
  3. Write each section so that it begins with a general description of the more detailed information that follows.

James Garrett modified by Susan Finger <sfinger@ri.cmu.edu>