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What content should a data sheet contain?

We’ve looked at what a data sheet is and what a data sheet is for, so it’s about time we moved on to what should go in one. As you might imagine, plenty of readers had ideas on this when I asked.

While a few companies believe there’s no place for sales or marketing on their data sheets, I think the majority accept that such a policy represents a missed opportunity. There should be no assumption in the age of do-it-yourself online research that anyone finding a data sheet will already have seen the sales brochure. So start with the benefits of the product, as you would with any sales document – keep the list brief, bulleted and compelling to users who might well be more experienced engineers than you.

Other general items to consider at the start of the data sheet would be any features worth highlighting (probably to justify the benefit claims); basic operational information; and application examples. One reader suggested a brief ‘product definition’ on the first page, saying: “I rarely see this on most high tech datasheets, and I think it’s crucial. It orients your reader to your product and provides context for the rest of the datasheet.”

Already there might be a template taking shape, and this too can be important. Keeping data sheets extremely consistent across a product range enables readers to spot the differences between models more easily. There’s no need to slavishly make data sheets conform to a corporate template, however – it’s the content which counts. I once sat in on a discussion which tried to determine which three of a product’s five main features and benefits should go on the data sheet, because that was what the corporate template allowed for. Madness.

If a model covers a specific performance range, do not miss the opportunity to point out the other models which cover different performance ranges. Never assume that a prospect finding your data sheet for the 10 widgets/second model, but who is looking for a product to process 20 widgets/second, will spend the time hunting for your faster model. Finding an appropriate model from another manufacturer could be easier.

Good photography is important. Prospects are human, and they will make judgements based on what they see. I’ve remarked before about the absurdity of corporate literature worth tens of thousands of pounds being ruined by thinking you can “get away with” not spending 5% of the budget on a decent photographer. No gimmicks though – this is a data sheet. An in-situ application shot can also play its part. Just ask yourself: would it help somebody determine if this product was right for them?

All this, and we’re only now getting on to the technical specifications themselves. Here it’s time for the hard engineering data, and proper dimensional drawings. Several readers remarked on how some data sheets make it difficult to work out even the most fundamental dimensions. If a drawing is produced in a vector graphics format, readers can zoom into a PDF version of the document. Links to online 3D models are also appreciated, but remember that readers of the paper document will have to type in the link, so just create a simple link to an index page on your site where the drawing can be selected. Your website manager will be able to create a short link such as “/drawings”.

Key specifications would typically include performance, perhaps with relevant graphs; mechanical specifications including colour, finish and installation; electrical specifications; and environmental specifications. This of course is the heart of the document. Don’t forget all the relevant approvals. Some prospects will now want to get in touch and work out the exact product they need, but others will want to do the work themselves, so explain the part numbering system thoroughly.

To end the data sheet, you need a comprehensive “next steps” section. The document will be viewed in isolation. Don’t make it hard for the reader: a single website address for “further information” is not good enough. However much detail you’ve included, prospects will have further questions, so give them all possible ways of connecting to sympathetic engineers – don’t make it seem like the only option now is to talk to a salesman.

It’s also sensible (although obvious) to point out that the data was correct at a certain date, but that there may have been changes in the meantime. This is an opportunity to date the document and perhaps give it an issue number. There’s no need to be pompous or to resort to legal jargon about “reserving rights”, however.

Next: Useful and unusual additions to your data sheets

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