A user researcher taking notes in an interview

User research note taking - how to get it right from the start

Let’s clear up a common misconception right from the beginning. Good note taking is not to be equated with the ability to type or write fast. Viewing note taking as the mere production of words and sentences fails to acknowledge where the actual work happens.

The core skill of note taking is transforming a mass of observations into a digestible representation of text. In short: It’s more an effort of the brain than the hand(s). That’s why being good at typing doesn’t automatically make you a good note taker. It’s a skill that requires training and practice.

In this article you will learn about the importance of good note taking during user research, how to prepare for the best results, which tool to chose and concrete writing tips including examples.

Hint: This post makes a perfect quick start guide for colleagues who join research sessions as first-time note takers. Save it as a bookmark to have it handy when needed. Download the PDF with note taking tips here and feel free to share it.

Typing notes on a laptop

Why good note taking is important

High quality note taking lays the foundation for your research project. Often notes are the sole basis for data analysis and thus the ingredients we use to form insights. And just like in cooking, if the ingredients are subpar how can the outcomes be any good?

Done right, note taking will make the rest of the project run smoothly and produce solid results. Here are there properties that high-quality notes should have:

Complete

After putting in the effort to conduct the study it’s extremely frustrating to discover that important data is lacking because it wasn’t captured properly. At best, incomplete notes can be complemented based on the recording - at the expense of additional work. At worst, there is no recording or time to re-listen, which means you are unable to properly answer certain research questions.

Fact-based

Only if notes accurately represent what happened are they a reliable basis for analysis. As described in the introduction, note taking is primarily a mental activity of converting observations into condensed text. This conversion is prone to errors and bias. It's important to be mindful of that, since bias in notes may go undetected and can ultimately result in wrong conclusions and decisions.
„It is of highest importance that the note-taker writes down what is said and not their interpretation. As a researcher, I need the original wording. Interpretation comes later.“
Photo of Nina Schacht
Freelance Qualitative Researcher

Formatted

Good notes come in a format that requires little effort to work with in the next stages, particularly data analysis and insight sharing. Concretely this means high information density so notes are quick and easy to read, consistency to allow comparisons across participants and a proper scannability to let you quickly find elements like quotes that are handy for a presentation.

Insufficient quality in notes often reveals itself only in later stages of the project when they can’t be adjusted easily. Thus getting it right from the start will pay off later.

With the properties of good notes in mind, let’s talk about how to achieve this. There are two aspects to consider to make note taking successful: The preparation and the writing itself.

The preparation

Before getting started with the actual note taking there are a few things to think of. Preparation includes thinking about tools, an appropriate format and who is contributing. There is no one perfect setup. What works best depends on the particular study.

As a general guidance it helps to think about the exact usage of the notes in the further steps of the project and adjust the approach accordingly. Is there a presentation to management or clients planned? Then taking timestamps to mark representative video clips is helpful. Do you want to do an online synthesis workshops with colleagues from different locations? Then it’s easier to take notes in a digital tool that allows to give everyone access instead of using post-its.

There are two recommendations that always hold independent of the study:

Session recording

Firstly, if at all possible, make a recording of the research session. The recording serves as a backup in case something happens to the notes and allows relistening parts that were missed. In addition, playing clips of recordings is a great way to convey key points when sharing results with stakeholders. Check the possibility of recording with the participants up front and get a consent.

Note taker

Secondly, get a dedicated note taker to join the session. This lets the facilitator fully focus on the participant. It is also a good way to involve the team (e.g. designers, product managers or other stakeholders) in the research early on, making it easier to build a common understanding. Make sure to give first-time note takers a short intro on how to do it properly, for example using this guide.
Writing notes on a piece of paper

These were the general recommendations that apply to any study. Now let's cover some aspects that are not generalizable and depend on the type of research as well as the intended use of the notes.

Research environment

For studies with direct contact to the participant, for instance in a lab or in the participant’s natural environment, consider how note taking may influence answers or behavior. Especially the noise of a clicking keyboard can be a distraction and may remind participants that they are observed. Bringing a laptop to a field study which requires changing location a lot can be impractical as well. This doesn't apply to remote settings or labe environments with separate rooms, thus using a computer is fine.

Live vs. post session note taking

Usually note taking happens live during the research session to avoid the effort of re-listening the recording. It also allows to identify missing parts and get clarification on these before the session ends. However, live note taking may not be possible if note takers are unavailable or the impact on the participant would be too great. In these cases notes are taken after the session with the help of the recording.

Timestamps

A timestamp is a marker that connects a section in the notes to the respective time in the recorded file. This helps to find a sequence in the audio or video file faster, for example if notes are incomplete or to select highlight clips for the presentation. While there are specialized tools that allow taking notes with timestamps automatically, any text editor is sufficient to do this. A common practice is to include the time in squared brackets before a sentence or paragraph as in the example below. How timestamps can be visualised. It is not necessary that every note has a timestamp. Using them on parts that make good clips or where notes are incomplete is sufficient.

Format

Choosing the right format facilitates consistency and comparability of observations. The table format is ideal for usability tests where the spectrum of possible responses is limited. Having the question or task in the row and the participants in the columns allows for quick comparison of results in one view. A spreadsheet suited to analyse usability tests For interviews or ethnography studies a regular text format in chronological order is more suitable. Floating text is better suited for analysing interviews and ethnographic studies

3 tools for note taking in user research

Now that we have covered the basics, let's look at three tools to use for note taking and their respective advantages and disadvantages.

Tool 1: Pen and paper

Although digital tools dominate our daily work, the classic way of handwritten note taking on a notepad or post-its can still be useful. This approach generally works best for smaller studies with a limited amount of data. For larger projects, an increasing number of sheets or post-its quickly become difficult to manage.

Affinity mapping with analog postit-notes

Pro

Helps to make sense of data as brain is more engaged while writing
No distracting keyboard noise
Cheap (depending on how many post-its you use)
Easy to get started

Con

Analog format doesn’t permit search and makes collaboration with distributed teams difficult
Handwriting may be difficult to read
Can’t be directly linked to media files like images or recordings
Difficult to archive for future use

Tool 2: Text editor or spreadsheet

Coming to digital tools, your standard text editor (like Word or Google Docs) or spreadsheet tool can can be used for note taking as well. While taking notes in a text editor is convenient, analyzing data is cumbersome and usually requires to copy the notes into a different tool. Spreadsheets are better suited for analysis, but also not ideal. Both types of tools make using media files practically impossible.

User research notes in Google Docs
User research notes in Google Docs in chronological order along the example of a semi-structured interview.

Pro

Digital format permits search and collaboration among distributed teams
Easy to get started
Cheap or free

Con

Difficult to analyze notes in text files; both don’t work well with media files
Keyboard noise may be distracting for participant
Digital note taking requires less engagement of the brain

Tool 3: User research software

The purpose of a dedicated user research tool is to facilitate and accelerate the synthesis of user research data. It combines the advantages of a digital tool with special features for data analysis. Taking notes in such a tool allows to immediately analyze them without any further effort to copy data to another tool. In addition, some of these tools act as a research repository allowing to archive notes and findings for future use.

User research note taking in Condens
Condens allows to take notes simultaneously with colleagues, store them by participant, add media files in context and tag sections of text to facilitate analysis.

Pro

Allows to do data analysis directly on the notes
Notes are stored contextually (e.g. by participant), providing structure and permitting easy segmentation
Digital format permits search and collaboration among distributed teams
Media files like images or recordings can be placed in context of notes

Con

Tools are subject to a fee
Keyboard noise may be distracting for participant
Setup required (creating account, inviting colleagues etc.)
Digital note taking requires less engagement of the brain

Do’s and Don’ts for good note taking

And finally, here are some concrete tips on how to write and format notes well. There is a short PDF version of the tips available for download which is great for sharing with colleagues.

1. Stay true to the facts

Take the position of an objective observer and don’t make assumptions about the participant’s thinking or feeling. In case you want to add conclusions or possible explanations of behavior clearly indicate them as such.

Do

Participant breathes heavily and pauses after seeing the new menu structure.
Participant states that she tried the autocorrect feature once and it worked well.

Don't

Participant dislikes the new menu structure. He has trouble navigating and can’t find what he is looking for.
The autocorrect feature works well for the participant.

2. Stick to a consistent format

Be consistent about the note taking perspective (1st person or 3rd person), the style (bullet points vs. floating text) and the format of timestamps. Clearly differentiate quotes from observations. A common format is to take notes in the 3rd person view, to use quotes for direct speech when appropriate and to use timestamps in squared brackets.

Do

[12:38] Participant looks at the new menu structure. “I’m looking for the invoices tab which used to be here.”
[19:89] “I assume you can export the file here.” Clicks export button. “Now that was easy.”

Don't

(12:38) Participant looks at the new menu structure. I’m looking for the invoices tab which used to be here.
[19:89] I assume you can export the file here.
  • Clicks export button.
  • Now that was easy.

3. Carefully paraphrase

Notes are not a word for word transcript. The value is in documenting the session in a condensed form that makes it easy to read through again. It’s ok to leave out filling words or parts that the participant reformulates, unless that original formulation is of interest. While paraphrasing be careful not to interpret or leave out important information.

Do

“I’m looking for the invoices tab which used to be here.”

Don't

“I’m, you know, looking for the, like that, invoices button … the invoices tab. I remember that this button used to be here, you know.”

4. Highlight missed or incomplete parts

You might not have sufficient time to capture everything that is said, for example during a fast-paced conversation. Don’t worry, that’s what the recording is for. Simply make a note with the timestamp and revisit that part after the session. If there is no recording, you can ask the participant to repeat what they said.

It might also happen that certain aspects aren’t covered, for instance because a conversation took a turn. Here is where the note taker can support the facilitator to identify incomplete parts. It’s common that facilitators ask note takers if they have any additional question for the participant at the end of a session. This is where you can get the missing pieces of information & prove your value as a note taker.

Do

Participant states that she hasn’t used the new search feature yet, because [missing - 15:22]
There are several reasons why she was confused. The copy wasn’t descriptive enough. [reasons incomplete]

Don't

Participant states that she hasn’t used the new search feature yet.
There are several reasons why she was confused. The copy wasn’t descriptive enough.

5. Watch for the unspoken

The participant’s body language or emotional reaction can provide additional information beyond what is said or consciously done. Such reactions could be a deep breath before an answer, crossed arms or signs of excitement. While it’s important not to overinterpret these signals, it’s worth to capture them.

Do

Participant leans forward in excitement. “Yes, network security is an important topic for us.”

Don't

“Yes, network security is an important topic for us.”

6. Recap after the session

When the research session is over, take some time to review your notes while your memory is fresh. Fill gaps, adapt formulations and add paragraphs or headlines that help to scan the notes quickly. Also take time to discuss perceptions of the session with colleagues. Note down ideas as these can be the starting points for data analysis.

Now that you made it until the end of this article you know everything you need to take great user research notes. The best way to improve your skills at this point is plenty of practice. It helps to try different approaches to see what works well, but make sure to have a recording as a backup.

Done with note taking? Read the next article about analyzing user interviews.


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