9 tips to improve your note-taking skills

Qualitative user research is just as important a part of rounding out your user research as quantitative. But unlike quantitative research, the data insights can only be as good as the note-taking. This can mean that the way you do your note-taking may have a huge impact on the insights that are taken from the data. We’ll take a look at what qualitative research is, the methods for recording notes in the session and some tips on making sure your notes are robust.

What is qualitative research

Quantitative research such as card sorting or tree testing looks at the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of users who want to use your product, qualitative research looks into the why.

Making the most of your users research means you shouldn’t only look at what or how users want to experience your product but also why they made those decisions. This depth of knowledge and understanding can ultimately enrich the user experience (UX) and improve your product engagement.

The type of qualitative research that we’ll be talking about is primarily in-person interviews with participants. It includes behavioural observations while completing set tasks and responding to a set of questions relating to the product.

When interviewing participants it is important to have a script, and to stick to that script. This will help drive the interview and ensure you get to the bottom of ‘why’ users are making decisions. Your focus should be on your participant, noticing spoken responses as well as how they are behaving. To this end, it can be useful to have a second person present, whose sole role is note-taking. Video or audio recording a session can be a sure way to review your session in the future, ensuring you don’t miss anything.

Note-taking methods

Pen and paper

While digital tools dominate our usability testing methods, handwritten notes or post-its can still be useful to capture what is happening in a group. This method works the best one-on-one or for smaller groups with a limited amount of data. Trying to make notes with larger groups can quickly become unwieldy.

Benefits

  • The information can be collected in the moment and at the time.
  • With the physical nature of writing with pen and paper you are more likely to take fuller notes as your brain is engaged with the process.
  • No keyboard noise. Not having the physical barrier of the laptop can also help to relax the interviewee.

Downsides

  • The data can’t be quickly collated into a digital format.
  • A lot of work needs to happen after the session to enter the information into a digital format that can sort and store the information for future analysis, sharing and search.

Text editor or spreadsheet

Using a text editor like Word or Google doc can be a quicker way to add the information into a digital format (skipping the step between pen and paper to digital).

Benefits

  • The information and data can be entered quickly and accurately.
  • No need to enter the information into another format after the session.
  • Data can be searched quickly.

Downsides

  • The sound of the keyboard could be distracting.
  • Taking notes digitally can be less engaging for the note taker.

Qualitative research tool

Using a dedicated qualitative research tool can facilitate and accelerate the interpretation of your data. A dedicated qualitative research tool, like Reframer, combines the advantages of a digital tool with special features for data analysis.

Benefits

  • Speeding up the analysis process.
  • Removing the need to copy data into other formats.
  • Making analysis, search and storing of the data swift and accurate.
  • Ability to add audio or video recordings directly into the data, keeping everything in one place.
  • Sharing notes and data is easy and quick and can include stakeholders throughout the process.
  • Consistency across note-taking, with a reliable and consistent format.

Downsides of using a research tool are:

While there are benefits to all of three of these methods, note-taking in general can be quite off-putting when undertaking user research.

To help take the pain out of the process, and ease the collection of information, we’ve got 6 tips for making the most of Reframer.

During the session it is vital to take quality notes, and the outcome of your data, and ultimately insights will rely on these. And there is an art to taking the right notes. These notes can be taken directly by you, the interviewer, or a dedicated note taker could be used. Using a qualitative research tool can ensure that the notes that are taken are consistent and easy to manage. Using a qualitative research tool, Reframer, doesn’t rely on the same person taking the notes each time, helping the data output be consistent.

9 tips to help you take great notes

Whether you are taking notes, manually or digitally there are a few tricks to help you take better notes, resulting in better data, and ultimately better insights. It can be valuable to have one person facilitating the interview, and able to focus on the participant, while the other is the notetaker, leaving you both to focus on your role is for the session.

Here’s nine tips to make sure that your note-taking is as good as it can be:

  1. Record your sessions (audio or video): If you can, record the audio and/or video of your session. You’ll be able to listen or watch the session later and pick up on anything you may have missed. Loading into Reframer is quick and easy, and means that the notes and the audio/video are kept together, timestamped and shared easily.
  2. Note down timestamps during the session: Make a note of the time whenever something interesting happens. This will help you to jump back into the recording later and listen or watch the part again.
  3. Capture your observations during the session: Capturing observations during the session will allow a fuller understanding of behavioural observations as well as spoken responses. Reframer can help make this simpler with tags that can be quickly added at the time to make note-taking simpler.
  4. Make a note of everything — even if it doesn’t seem to matter: Sometimes even the smallest things can have a significant impact on how a participant performs in a usability test. Note down if they’re having trouble with the laptop or device, for example.
  5. Stay true to the facts: Make sure you take the position of an objective observer and don’t make assumptions about how the participant’s thinking or feeling. If you do want to add conclusions or possible explanations of behavior clearly indicate this.
  6. Be consistent with your format: Be consistent about your note taking perspective (1st or 3rd person), the style (bullet points vs. floating text) and the format of the timestamps. Clearly differentiate quotes from observations. This becomes simpler with the use of Reframer, meaning you can focus on the session.
  7. Carefully paraphrase: Making sure that your notes are clear, and capture what is said and happening in the session is important. It’s just as important not to write it down word for word, or to infer what you believe is happening.
  8. Highlight missed or incomplete parts: Using time-stamping can become very useful when it comes to noting where there may be missed or incomplete sections. This allows post analysis to quickly find where information is missing and check against audio or video files to fill in the blanks.
  9. Recap after your session: Take time as soon as possible to review the session, while it is still fresh in your mind. Make edits, add missed parts and details. Using a qualitative research tool can mean that you can quickly review the audio or video and add tags and detail to sections quickly and easily. This makes review time quicker and capturing detail easier.

Wrap up

You want to get started with your qualitative research but it all feels a little tricky. Through the Optimal Workshop platform and with our Reframer tool you can get started quickly, and we can help guide you through the process of getting your research underway.

Worried about finding participants? We have that sorted too. With 50+ million quality participants at your fingertips.

Originally published at https://blog.optimalworkshop.com on September 10, 2021.

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Optimal Workshop

Quickly and easily test anything from website architecture to design prototypes with our suite of specialized user research tools 🚀