How to Write a Datasheet
The datasheet should be the perfect summary piece for your product. It should provide enough information to intrigue the reader enough to have them either want to evaluate your product or obtain more detailed information.
The datasheet is designed to be a listing of facts and figures. It should be presented with a factual tone and contain hard data. You do not want the datasheet to be a display of creative writing.
Datasheets are now so standardized for the computer industry that people have come to expect a given layout and the specific information listed below in the datasheet. Deviation from this standard format means that the reader may have a hard time finding the information they need. If they are looking at your datasheet next to your competitors then they might eliminate your product before even looking at it.
Understanding your target audience is imperative before writing a datasheet. If your audience is highly technical, they will not want to be bothered with a lot of words about the benefits of the product. They understand the technology and are looking for specific features. If your audience is less technical you will need to help them make the connection between a feature and what it will do for them.
The following is an example datasheet outline:
Description - Many people spend so much time entrenched in their product that they forget that other people don't automatically know their product. It is important to start the brochure or datasheet with a very concise description in order to put the features and benefits in context. If you have multiple products in your product line, make sure that each datasheet quickly differentiates each product from rest.
Visual Element - A picture, screen shot, or a diagram that shows either the components of the product or how the product fits in its environment should be on the front page.
Key benefits – A statement of the key benefits of the product. Three bullet points are ideal. If this is a technical audience list the three key features and their benefits.
Features and benefits and/or specifications - On the back should be a listing of features and benefits if it is a software package. If the product is hardware then specifications should be included. When writing up features and benefits keep your competitors in mind. Since your audience will probably be looking at your product alongside the competition, you will want to highlight the features that set your product apart from its top tier of competitors.
Requirements - List the software and hardware that is required to support your product.
Contact information - Have all your contact information at the bottom of the datasheet. Include all copyright and trademark information. I have noticed that Microsoft now puts some legalese at the end of their datasheets that says, "This datasheet is for informational purposes only. MICROSOFT MAKES NO WARRANTIES, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, IN THIS SUMMARY. Companies, names, and/or data used in screens and sample output are fictitious, unless otherwise noted." Though this may be a little drastic, you may want to check with your legal department to see if there are any disclaimers needed.
Datasheets are one page with information on both the front and the back. The front contains the description, key benefits, and a picture. The back has more detailed features and benefits, specifications, requirements, and contact information.
If you have multiple products in your product line, make sure that the layout of each datasheet is similar to give the appearance of a family.
You will probably want turn your datasheet over to an artist for final layout and design work.
Here is a basic process for writing datasheets:
Identify the target audience of the datasheet.
Gather features and benefits from your own use of the product, beta customer use, engineering, and other internal resources.
Boil down the benefits to the most important three for your product.
Decide on the picture.
Assemble and write datasheet.
Review with internal resources.
Provide raw materials to an artist for layout.
Review every draft that comes back, especially blue lines. Have a second person review the blue line. It is easy to miss the same error several times. A fresh set of eyes is always helpful.
Because it is now so easy to write a datasheet and print it on a laser printer (or even send to your local printer), many people are writing and handing out datasheets without going through a formal printing process. The downside of this is that the datasheet is often not reviewed by a professional writer and the layout is not designed by a professional designer. Under these circumstances, I feel obligated to add a section on the very basics of grammar and design. The following are some key points to remember:
Use bullets whenever possible to list features or benefits
Create bullets with consistent structure -- if your first bullet starts with a verb, then all bullets should start with a verb
Keep text to a minimum -- remember that this is a summary. Create technical white papers for backup if necessary
Use a serif font (a font with those little lines at the top and bottom) for the body of the datasheet. It is easier for the eye to read blocks of text with a serif font
If you don't have any training in design and you need to do a layout yourself, it is worthwhile to read Robin William's wonderful book Non-Designer's Design Book.