Taking notes while moderating user interviews is an important and underrated skill for UX researchers. This episode provides tips on taking great notes during UX research.Sponsored by Watch City Research
This podcast is brought to you by Watch City Research, your user research partner. Check out watchcityresearch.com for insightful blog posts and to learn more about our UX research services. Hi everyone and welcome to another episode of the 97 UX Things podcast. Dan Berlin here, your host and book editor. This week I'll be discussing best practices for taking notes during user interviews and usability studies. Thank you to Ms. Hughes, my eighth grade English teacher for the title of this week's episode Notes on Taking Notes. For some reason that particular lesson stuck in my mind over the years and it turned out to be really useful in my professional and academic life. With easy access to transcriptions and the advent of AI that summarizes video content. It seems like we're approaching a golden age of research automation. But at risk of sounding like a Luddite. I'm here to tell you that taking verbatim notes while moderating research is one of the most important tactical skills a researcher should learn. With practice, anyone can take fast, accurate notes while maintaining eye contact with study participants... while also coming up with the next question to ask. These mental and physical gymnastics are my absolute favorite part of being a UX researcher. There's nothing more satisfying than moderating a great session and asking insightful probing questions, all while the participants verbatim responses flow from your fingertips into your notes. Over the years, I've noticed that many people tend to take bulleted summarized notes while moderating a session. This necessarily takes additional brain power and shifts your focus away from what the participant is saying. Instead of summarizing on the fly, taking raw unprocessed notes frees up your working memory so you can pay closer attention to the participant. Before digging into the tactical side of good note taking and perfecting this craft. Let's take a moment to consider why it's important and how it can improve your research. The first and most important reason is that the act of taking notes, whether handwritten or typed, helps put the participants' responses into your mind, even if it's the firehose of information that happens during a research session. Taking notes necessarily puts the information into your working memory for a split second, which allows a pathway for those important bits to make it into your longer term memory, which facilitates learning and understanding. When you're later reading through your notes, these will jump out to you more easily and improve your analysis. The second reason has to do with analysis time. If you aren't taking live notes, that means you're probably watching the session videos and taking notes after the fact. This necessarily at least doubles the time it takes to do the analysis. Since you first have to go watch all the sessions in full again, before you can dig into any actual analysis. Save yourself that precious time by learning to take notes during the session. The third reason that live note taking during user interviews is beneficial is that it shows participants you're actively listening and interested in what they're saying. Relatedly, it also keeps you on your toes and hopefully actively listening. A researcher has to be "on" during the time spent interviewing a study participant and that active engagement while typing, and not just observing, keeps researchers in the moment and is a useful aid to stay "on" for that entire hour. A final reason taking live notes is beneficial is you can easily switch between your notes and a back channel with session observers without the participant catching on. If you're only sporadically typing and looking at your screen, participants may pick up that you are chatting with someone else, which could distract them and make them stop talking. If you are pretty much always typing throughout the entire session though, participants will think what they're saying is interesting to you and continue speaking. Let's now turn our attention to the technical side of taking great notes, which all starts with a solid interview guide. To facilitate note taking that will ease your analysis process, your interview guide should section questions by topic. This not only ensures a smooth, relevant conversation with participants, but also allows you to organize your notes by topic. Your interview guide should also number the questions so you can easily refer back to them. There's much more that goes into a solid interview guide but that will have to wait for its own podcast episode. Once you've structured your interview guide, it's time to prepare your notes mechanism. The method you use to capture notes is a highly personal choice. And there are many different possibilities to choose from. Microsoft Word, Excel OneNote Google Docs, qualitative data analysis software or even paper and pen. My suggestion is to try different pieces of software until you find the one that allows you to take the quickest notes with the fewest errors and minimizes the need for mouse clicks. It's also nice when the software automatically saves your document. I tend to save my notes by hitting Ctrl S repeatedly throughout the session almost unconsciously. Personally, I like to keep it simple and use word for most studies. Before the study, I'll make a Word template that has section headers from the interview guide for each participant. When doing analysis, having section notes allows you to easily read about a certain topic across participants. It also simply makes reading through your notes easier similar to how reading a chapter book is easier than reading a giant blob of text.0 If using Excel, you can list each task or question across the top of your worksheet and start a new row for each participant. Just remember to hide the previous participants as you go so you don't accidentally write over their data. This method is especially useful if you want to track discrete pieces of data for each participant such as usability metrics, like pass fail number of hints provided or ease of use scales. To take notes directly in Excel, you should become adept at using carriage return within a cell which is Alt Enter for PCs and option control return for Macs. Also, keep in mind that cells have a character limit of just over 32,000 characters. Let's move on to some best practices for the study sessions. During the study introduction, where you inform the participant about study goals and what to expect during the session, be sure to tell them that you'll be taking notes. They may not be familiar with how research works, and you don't want the participant to think that you're sitting there answering emails. Also, don't be afraid to tell a participant that you're catching up on your notes, especially when conducting remote research. It's sometimes good to take that moment to capture a great quote, and it also gives the participant a moment to think when conducting in person research. Keep your laptop at a lower level to ensure it doesn't get between you and the participant too much. Taking fast accurate notes while maintaining eye contact with the participant to keep them talking is indeed an acquired skill and takes patience. A component of this is learning to touch type. That is, using the raised nubs on the F and J keys on your keyboard to tell your index fingers where they should be and otherwise never looking at the keyboard while you converse with study participants. There are plenty of free websites out there that will help increase your words per minute. So keep practicing and challenging yourself to increase that count so you can take lightning quick, accurate notes during interviews. Another way to increase typing speed is to get a mechanical keyboard where the key action tends to be much faster than typical keyboards. Yes, these are much noisier, but most conferencing applications allow you to set a hotkey to mute yourself. Since getting my mechanical keyboard I've become very adept at quickly hit hitting Alt A so my mic is only on when I'm talking. Next comes the trickiest part, taking your lightning quick notes while actively listening to the participants, watching what they're doing, and plotting your next question. The best way to improve this skill is to conduct many interview sessions and perform a self critique by watching some session videos. While painful, this process can really help improve your moderation skills. Finally, some best practices for taking actionable and rigorous research notes. Your goal is to capture the participants' important comments as verbatim as possible, while also documenting where they go in an interface if you're conducting a usability study. If the participant says something particularly interesting, capture it in caps or or bold so you can easily come back to it later. Also write down the time that participants say key quotes to make pulling video clips a little easier. If you ask a follow up question that other participants didn't get. Consider writing down at least a portion of the question so you have the context during analysis. When conducting a usability study, use your own system to document clicks in the course of capturing verbatim comments. For example, I'll use square brackets and all caps to indicate where someone clicked. Those are all the notes on taking notes that I have for y'all. I hope you found this episode useful and thanks for listening to the 97 UX things podcast. The 97 UX Things podcast is a companion to the book 97 Things Every UX Practitioner Should Know published by O'Reilly and all book royalties go to UX nonprofits. The theme music is Iron Lung by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, and I'm your host and book editor Dan Berlin. Please remember to find the needs in your community and fill them with your best work. Thanks for listening.