Collecting and storing information

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As explained in "The role of the Technical Communicator" the Technical Communicator is often required to render technical information in a more user-friendly, or more easily-accessible form. Although Technical Communicators may have some knowledge of the technical `thing' being documented, more often they will not. Technical Communicators first have to obtain this technical knowledge, before they can write about it. This chapter, therefore, looks at gathering information.

Things to consider:

  • Is the product or application to be documented available?
  • Who to contact for information / for drawings
  • Available documentation to work from

What information to gather

Background information

Technical Communicators may specialize in a specific industry, or for a specific product (or type of product). However, there will almost certainly be projects where you do not know very much at all about what is to be documented. In these cases, it may be necessary to gain an understanding of the basic concepts of the field. The exact information required will depend on precisely what is being documented.

For specific technologies (for example, catalytic converters, or digital imaging), look for introductory publications or general information manuals.

For specific industries, such as the automotive industry and the chemicals industry, look for trade journals or industry yearbooks. These should allow you to identify the scope and size of the industry, the primary focus(es) of the industry and the key players within the industry.

For specific products, such as SAP or the John Deere model 10 tractor, look for suitable marketing material. It is usually possible to obtain a product sheet, executive summary, or even reviews of the product. Normally, the manufacturer's Website, or marketing department is a good place to start looking (especially when documenting products for a third-party - that is, not for the manufacturer).

  • Obtain information on equipment/process being documented
  • Determine what terminology/symbols (standards) can/should be used. Consider also whether the users will understand these, or whether a key needs to be provided.
  • Check repurposability of information gathered. Obtain information in a form/depth that will cover all possible uses.

Where to find information

  • Actual equipment - watch it being manufactured/used; take sketches/photos/video; check parts that can't be seen later
  • People - users; manufacturers. Interview; tape if required
  • System designers/experts can provide good information. Try to get involved in product planning meetings and design review meetings.
  • Marketing/sales departments may have a better idea of the needs of the users.
  • In-house libraries (consider building up your own)
  • Specs, design drawings, etc. Consider re-drawing (gives good understanding) and re-use
  • Manufacturer's literature - check reason for warnings; go back to manufacturer if not clear (especially for components of system being documented - although they may not want to provide information for competitive reasons)
  • Previous literature - previous models; similar equipment (rewrite/redraw if required)
  • Related texts (in field; reference works; specialist libraries)

May need to check with the Publications Manager that you can approach the sources

Planning the collection of information

  • Decide what information is required (see above). Consider repurposability.
  • Start with the most general information, and work down to the lowest level of detail.
  • When arranging meetings, make sure person always knows what information is required, so that they can prepare.
  • Make sure you know exactly what to ask each person, so that you don't have to keep going back for more information.
  • Make sure you know enough about the subject to be able to understand the information received
  • Consider developing a plan/checklist so you can monitor the collection of the information.
  • If photos also needed, try to take along the photographer, so only one interruption made. Make sure permission is obtained for photos/video.
  • If information is required on components supplied by a remote (e.g. overseas) supplier, consider asking for the documentation to be sent ahead of the components, by air.

Collecting the information

  • In person - if need to see machinery
  • By letter - may take time, but often necessary for outside information. Also allows you to clarify what you want in your own mind
  • Telephone - for remote information
  • Fax - same as letter but faster.
  • e-mail - useful for ensuring record is kept.

May be useful to tell the providers of the information in which format you can accept it (especially for electronic information)

Check all information received for validity, accuracy, relevance

Make sure the supplier of the information knows what form you can accept it in (e.g. PC vs Mac).

Make arrangements to receive updates/changes to information received.

Examining equipment

Get to see equipment at the earliest stage - preferably as it is being assembled. Sketch it and if possible take photographs. See if it is possible to take away a sample (if small enough). Consider videoing the equipment - either during use, or during assembly/disassembly. This will be extremely useful for producing user instructions, and may also highlight potential problem areas.

Understand how the equipment is used (or assembled) - probably need to document this

Researching via the Internet

Much information available. But actually finding this information is often difficult. Also need to bear in mind that the Internet is largely unregulated, and does tend to be a soap-box for anyone who wants to let their (personal) opinions be known.

Always check to see if:

  • The author is known/trusted;
  • The site is known/trusted;

What is the purpose of the site (advertising vs research vs reviews) - ask who is paying for it, and what they expect to get in return; is there a hidden agenda?

Check the date;

Check for copyright;

Print the information you found - it may disappear. Also note the exact URL and date, in case you need to include it in a bibliography.

Use search engines. Try to find one particular to the information you are looking for (much like technical indexes in a library). [ has a list of most search engines.]

Use sensible searches (ANDs in the right order)

Ask in news groups for sources of information - then check these out.

Find specialist chat rooms (for your industry) - when asking, ask specific questions and provide context/background - explain what you want the information for (see topic on working with SMEs/interviews for more help)

Meetings and interviews

  • Be prepared for meetings/interviews. Do the background reading, and have a list of questions prepared.
  • Make sure you are asking the correct level of question (i.e. not asking designers general information, etc.).
  • State what information you require, and why you require it - this will give them the opportunity to proffer related information you may not have thought to ask for.
  • Show respect for authority
  • Don't feel subservient to experts - you are an expert in your field, just as they are in theirs.
  • Flattery can be an effective means of getting information out of experts (who may have a vested interest in making sure they have knowledge no-one else does), but you need to gauge very carefully whether this is effective. If the interviewee feels that you are being insincere they may just cut you off completely.
  • Consider taping, but ask permission first & explain that it is just for your own reference.
  • Consider requesting information at the highest level possible - the request will no doubt be passed down, but then becomes a request from 'above' and is more likely to get done.


  • Need to know when the information was published / correct - check the issue number and date (consider ensuring that updates to source information are communicated to you)
  • Should record the date and source of all information collected (some information may need to be returned to the sources)
  • Good filing is essential. Consider maintaining an index or a cross-reference.

Library searches

Sources of information:

  • Textbooks on the subject
  • Recent technical journals
  • Indexes (British Technology Index)
  • Computer databases / Telnet (also consider Internet)
  • Yearbooks - for specific trades or industries
  • Directories - names and details of key players in the trade/industry
  • Statistics - gathered by trade associations, government reports, etc.
  • Reports - e.g. government inquiries, market research companies, etc.
  • Company reports
  • Current Technology Index

Book classifications

  • Dewey Decimal Classification
  • Library of Congress Classification
  • International Standard Book Number (ISBN) - Always 10 digits - language/area, publisher, title, check-digit
  • Cataloging in Programme - run by the British Library - uses key words and an allocated reference number.
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