The Write Stuff: Crafting a DNA Statement

Ron Green

April 25, 2017

Ron GreenApril 25, 2017

A "DNA statement" is the most compact description you can create for a device or product that mentions or implies everything of substance.

The DNA in the docs
Manuals, brochures, and the like invariably begin with some introductory statement. A variety of labels are used for this: Introduction, Overview, Summary, Abstract, etc. No matter what you call them, however, your first words are literally your starting point, and they are often the hardest.

When tackling a new manual, I go through an exercise I call "Crafting a DNA statement." In the same way that a single strand of DNA encapsulates all the information needed to grow a complete organism, a DNA statement attempts to capture a description with enough substance to extrapolate most or all of the material that follows.


(Source: Grey Flannel Graphics)

Two considerations motivate this approach: (1) How do I know I have everything? and (2) Is it organized in such a way as to be understood by the greatest number of people? This is where thinking in terms of DNA is helpful. The tightest narrative possible that still contains all the necessary threads of a topic represents a kind of blueprint. It provides a guide to expanding a topic and filling it out in a way that is logical and comprehensive. From the little acorn grows the mighty oak.

See if you agree with my attempt to craft a DNA statement for a potential product as follows:

Aladdin's Flying Carpet, Model III
Aladdin's Flying Carpet, Model III ("the carpet") is a personal transportation device that flies. Modeled after the fabled flying carpet, the Model III offers unprecedented flexibility and complete safety. The carpet can carry one or two adults at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour over virtually any terrain or distance. No skill is needed to operate the carpet. Piloted automatically by advanced computer and navigation technologies, the carpet responds to voice commands and will deliver its passengers to any specified destination or coordinates.

The carpet is the product of several recent advances in materials. It gets its lift from a flexible nano-hexalifter (ion propelled) base material, which is wedded to a dielectric elastomer "carpet" that "molds" to the occupants, thereby holding them securely. The carpet is powered by an array of ultra-low profile micro-fusion generators that are embedded in the fabric to distribute weight and balance evenly.

Despite the complex nature and construction of the carpet, it remains compact and easy to handle. Weighing only 35 pounds, the carpet can be rolled up and fits easily in the trunk of a car or the average closet. The carpet is designed to last up to 15 years with average use and requires no additional fuel or service during its lifetime.

Quite a mouthful
The above description begins by putting the most defining characteristic first: it flies. It then tries to frame the product in recognizable terms: yes, it looks like the famous flying carpet. After that, it begins to address a host of obvious questions: How far? How fast? How many people? What does it take to operate?

All of this begs the next obvious question: How does it work? The DNA introduces all major systems, describing such exotic components as a "nano-hexalifter" and "ultra-low profile micro-fusion generator" -- whatever the heck those things are. This implies the need for several deep technical manuals that expand on each of these systems in detail.

The statement then tries to anticipate the next set of concerns: With all those components, how does it feel? Is it big and bulky? What kind of fuel or service does it need? In addition to technical system docs, there will need to be a set of user-oriented materials: descriptions of the interface, command and navigation controls, safety and emergency information, plus handling and storage.

A valuable exercise
Crafting a good DNA statement is challenging, and will take some effort to get it right. It must be accurate as well, so you shouldn't hesitate to re-visit it. If, later in the body of your material, something is revealed that's not traceable to the DNA, you must go back and rework it. (For example, in the flying carpet, ion propulsion systems typically require high voltages. If it turns out some exotic superconductor/insulator power distribution is part of the system, it had better be mentioned in the DNA.)

A DNA statement is meant to be compact yet complete. Here's an example breakdown of one that's only three sentences.

Crafting a DNA statement is a very valuable exercise. It serves as a sort of blueprint for the rest of the document and provides clues for the development of further materials. It won't address every issue, and most likely it will pose many questions, but a good DNA statement helps insure that they're all good questions.

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