Fortunately, we convinced our client to do the recordings themselves, so they could keep the recordings in their possession at all times. They agreed to allow us to listen to the recordings later in their offices. This eased their security concerns and made our research much easier. It allowed us to focus on what we were observing in the moment and rely on listening to the recordings later to capture detailed notes.
The Difficulty of Capturing User Research
You have to juggle a lot during any user research session, even without the added job of capturing the experience for later analysis. Throughout each user research session, you’re setting participants’ expectations, guiding them to demonstrate tasks, keeping them on track, reminding them to think aloud, managing the pace of the session, and keeping an eye on the clock. You’re also tracking your own behavior, maintaining appropriate eye contact and body language, ensuring you use a neutral tone to avoid bias, and using your interpersonal skills to make participants feel at ease.
Throughout this process, you’re also trying to understand what you’re learning, assessing whether you’ve received the information you need, determining what else you need to cover, and deciding where to take the session next. In the back of your mind, you’re keeping track of the questions and topics you had planned to cover, while remaining flexible and responsive to the natural flow of participant feedback.
Methods of Capturing Information During User Research
As if all of those competing demands on your attention weren’t enough, you also have to capture the information you receive from participants in enough detail to make sense of it later. There are various methods of doing this that you can use, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
Taking Handwritten Notes
Handwritten notes are the most basic and low-tech method of capturing user research. Note-taking comes naturally to most people, and even when you’re recording sessions, it’s difficult not to take at least some notes.
However, things often happen too quickly during a research session for you to take accurate, complete notes that make sense when you read them later. Trying to write down everything would add to the already high cognitive burden of observing and managing the session. It’s extremely difficult to focus your attention equally on what you’re observing and taking detailed notes.
The Effect of Note-taking on Participants
Doing too much note-taking can affect the interpersonal dynamic between you, the facilitator of a session, and the participant. It’s difficult to maintain eye contact and encourage conversation when you’re focusing too much attention on capturing notes about the session. Note-taking can also contribute to a participant’s feeling of being tested or being the subject in an experiment.
Another important impact of note-taking is that it can bias participant behavior. Sudden, furious scribbling indicates to participants that they’ve just said something profound, while no note-taking implies that you’ve lost interest in what they have to say. Subtle cues like this can lead participants to try to please you by saying things they think you want to hear.
Note-Taking in Remote Sessions
It’s much easier to take notes when doing remote user research. Because participants are not in the same room with you, you don’t have to worry about eye contact, body language, or how your note-taking affects participants. This relieves part of your cognitive burden, enabling you to focus your attention on your computer screen and your notes.
Note-Taking in Structured Research
It’s much easier to take notes during structured research activities than more free-flowing or open-ended ones. For instance, usability testing has a narrow scope, uses predefined tasks and questions, and proceeds in a predictable order, making it very easy to take notes. You can add note-taking shortcuts to your discussion guide in advance of your research sessions by creating specific areas for quickly noting task successes or failures, common actions, errors, and other expected events. You can paraphrase especially interesting comments or describe key actions, and put a flag and timestamp next to them as a reminder to view them later in the recordings.
Note-Taking During Less-Structured Research
Other types of user research activities such as interviews, contextual inquiries, and ethnography are much less structured and predictable, which makes note-taking especially difficult. Unlike usability testing studies, you often don’t know exactly what you’ll be observing and talking about until you’re in the moment. Such sessions require a lot more thinking on your feet to understand what you’re seeing, ask the appropriate questions, and move the session in the appropriate direction. Since there’s no time to decide what is important for you to capture, it’s tempting to try to capture everything, then sort out what’s important for you to retain later.
Considering all of the difficulties of taking handwritten notes, it’s best for you to use some additional method of capturing your research.
For many people, typing notes on a notebook computer is certainly faster and easier than writing them by hand. But doing this in the same room with user research participants can be distracting and seem impersonal or even rude. While a tablet might be a less intrusive note-taking device than a notebook computer, most people find it too difficult to type quickly and accurately on a tablet. Adding a keyboard makes it easier to type on a tablet, but then you face the same problems as with a notebook computer. I’d like to have a tablet on which I could write notes using a stylus. That would be a great way to save paper and easily digitize my notes.
Involving a Separate Note-Taker
Splitting note-taking and facilitating between two people makes the people in both roles more effective. The note-taker can focus entirely on observing, listening, and documenting the situation, while the facilitator can focus on actively listening and observing the participant to better facilitate the session in the moment.
Of course, you need to have someone you can trust to take detailed and accurate notes. It’s important to choose someone who is observant, knows what is important to focus on, and can write quickly. Since it’s usually difficult to understand someone else’s notes, it’s best to have that person type them up afterward, filling in the additional detail that is necessary to make them understandable to others.
There’s no way of capturing user research sessions more comprehensively than to record them, then listen to the recordings later and type up your notes from the recordings. Recording audio is especially useful for more unstructured and unpredictable methods of user research such as interviews and contextual inquiries, for which note-taking is more difficult. If you know you’ll have time to listen to the recordings later, you can minimize your note-taking, allowing you to focus on the sessions.
Listening to the recordings is especially important when you’re dealing with complex subject matter. I often find that I don’t completely understand what I’ve observed until I go through the sessions again by listening to the audio recordings. Hearing things a second time reveals what you missed the during the sessions and gives you a deeper understanding of your findings.
And regardless of whether you take handwritten notes, it’s always good to have audio recordings as a backup. Even when you won’t have time to listen to an entire set of recordings, it’s nice to have them available in case you want to go back and review particular parts of the sessions.