Tutorial: Project documentation for the hobbyist

  1. jes1510's Avatar
    jes1510 jes1510 is offline Johnny-5

    Project documentation for the hobbyist

    Estimated Time
    15 minutes
    Skills Required
    Parts Required
    Tools Required
    Notebook (spiral bound works fine but no black cover)
    Permanent marker
    Have you ever built a project and went back to do something with it a year later, only to discover you had no idea how something you built works? Are you working on several projects at once and have to spend valuable time figuring out where you where when you put down the screwdriver last? Have you ever started a project only to drop it only because it seems way too complicated? If so then you may want to consider using a simple project management scheme to keep track of things and save that valuable time and hair.

    You don't need much in the way of materials to keep track of a project. Usually a simple notebook and pen are sufficient. I typically use the cheap spiral bound notebooks. They will usually go on sale around the time that school starts and can be had for as little as 10 cents each. I will buy them 10 at a time and store them in a closet. I also have to admit that I'm a bit of a pen snob. I buy the nicer pens that write well and you don't have to fight when writing a quick note. A cup to keep the pens near your workstation will be helpful.

    Project management is not a process, it's a mindset. If you can overcome the "I'm just going to make this small mod so I don't need to write it down" mentality then you are most of the way there. It takes just a bit of discipline. We always complain when someone doesn't comment their code and we have to try to figure out what they were doing. Why should we do any different when building the hardware?

    The Notebook

    No, not the movie. It costs less than a dollar and it will be the heart of the documentation. I keep one notebook per project. Some projects are just a few pages in the notebook, while others span a couple of books. Keeping all of the notes for one project in one book will keep everything together and you don't have to dig through pages of other projects to find that formula you used for a circuit. I write the name or a short description of the project on the cover of the notebook in permanent marker so I will avoid books with black covers. I also use a variety of covers as it makes it easy to associate the project with a cover color.

    Just Do it
    At the beginning of every project I will write down the requirements of the project on the first couple of pages. This is usually a bunch of brief descriptions that describe what the project is supposed to do and how you may get there. It's not a detailed design at this point but rather an idea of what the design is supposed to do and perhaps some notes about the technology used. I use a lot of fragmented sentences in an outline style format. It doesn't have to be pretty but it does need to be intelligible.

    Next you will start the actual design. I do this in sections so that a complex project is manageable. A large biped robot could be broken down into things like legs, arms, torso, and head. I label the section at the top of the page on the notebook and sometimes date it. This section is still a high level design that is nothing but sketches and rough ideas. Block diagrams are great for the electronics design.

    Finally, take those rough sketches and turn them into real drawings. The block diagram of the electronics should be made into a real schematic. Always add part numbers and ordering information to the schematic. It makes it much easier to order the parts when you have the vendor information, part number, and other information together. A Bill of Materials may be useful but is usually not required for simple projects. If you have drawn a schematic then include the math formulas involved and write out the solutions. I usually even write out the steps to the solution. It makes it a lot easier to go back and see what is happening if there is a problem with the math.

    Uh, What about my computer?

    Computerized files can easily be migrated into this scheme. Many hobbyists are using complex CAD packages for the electronics and mechanical design. That's great but always keep all notes leading up to the final design in that notebook. It is also useful to write down the file names and locations of applicable files for future reference. I occasionally will print out a document or diagram that applies to a project and staple it to a page in the notebook. It may seem redundant but it does make it easier if your workbench is not near the computer and you need the dimension of that one last bracket. A manila style folder is great for keeping everything together if there are multiple printouts. Don't forget to backup regularly!

    Now What?
    After the project is done, put the notebook and any other documentation in a safe place. I use a filing cabinet. It holds a ton of notebooks and they are easy to find. I guarantee you will never see it again if you just toss it on top of the workbench.

    The Result
    If you did things right with the documentation then you shouldn't have a problem jumping between projects. It should be easier to go back and see exactly why you used a #4 screw instead of a #6. You should also be able to spend a bit more time working on things and less time wondering where you were when you left off. It won't find your screwdriver though, that's a different topic.

Replies to Tutorial: Project documentation for the hobbyist
  1. Join Date
    Jan 2008
    Montreal, Canada

    Re: Project documentation for the hobbyist

    I did this for a couple of projects and it's really great. It's REALLY useful.

Closed Tutorial