A step-by-step guide to user research note taking

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User research note taking is the process of recording information while conducting user research studies such as customer interviews, usability tests, stakeholder interviews, ethnographic studies, contextual inquiries, etc. It’s important to take notes during user research sessions because it allows you to keep track of what you learned from each session, and what you need to do next.

Why take notes when we have recordings?

Recording user research sessions is great! But it’s not easy to access information stored in recordings and transcriptions. A 15 minute long audio recording transcribes to ~2500 words, whereas, the key learnings from the same conversation can be summarised in a few sentences, and you don’t have to listen to several minutes of playback.

Taking notes during the research sessions can help you keep track of what to ask next, which topics have been covered, which one’s to follow up on, as well as, gives you the ability to record non-verbal observations, add your reflections, and make sure that you’ve gathered the required information.

Even though transcription services have become quick and affordable, note taking remains to be an important and valuable part of user research — it greatly improves the speed of analysis, gives you an idea of what to look out for while playing back recordings, and makes it easy to keep track of, and refer back to learnings.

How to take notes during user research

#1 Familiarise yourself with the research topic

The hardest part about taking notes during research sessions is that it requires you to listen, make observations, and record information simultaneously. This takes significant cognitive effort, and practise — making easy to miss out on key points without adequate preparation.

While there’s no single solution — familiarity with the research topic, and a structured framework to take notes can help reduce the cognitive effort. Familiarity with the topic means that information gathered “makes sense” more easily, and a structured framework gives you the ability to quickly record relevant information without getting overwhelmed.

Good note takers are able to take notes in a way that is easy to understand and remember. And taking notes in a structured, and intentional manner, makes it easier to summarise key learnings for stakeholders, as well as, ensures that the key research questions are covered during each session.

#2 Prepare a discussion guide with blank spaces‍

Prepare a discussion guide. A discussion guide is a set of questions and topics that you would like to discuss with a participant during your research session. It typically consists of an introduction, warm-up questions, research questions and a debrief. You can use it a reference tool to help facilitate conversation. And by leaving blank spaces between between questions, you can take note of key points that that come up during the session more easily.

If you are conducting research that is more observational in nature, consider familiarising yourself with note taking frameworks for design research such as AEIOU and POEMS — both of which are frameworks that can help you take more structured notes.

AEIOU stands for Activities, Environments, Interactions, Objects, and Users.

  • Activities includes actions with specific goals in mind, and the processes performed to achieve them.
  • Environments details the context and characteristics of the space where activities are being observed.
  • Interactions includes both interpersonal and person-artifact interactions. Proximity and space may also play an important role within these relationships.
  • Objects catalogues the items within the environment and how they are used. It is important to note both the central and peripheral uses of objects and how people harness them to conduct their activities.
  • Users includes the people within the environment that are being observed. Key information includes their values and biases, behaviors, needs and relationships.

POEMS stands for People, Objects, Environments, Messages, and Services.

  • People — The demographics, roles, behavioral traits, and quantity of people in the environment
  • Objects — The items the people are interacting with, including furniture, devices, machines, appliances, tools, etc.
  • Environments — Observations about the architecture, lighting, furniture, temperature, atmosphere, etc.
  • Messages — The tone of the language or commonly used phrases in tag lines, social/professional interactions, and/or environmental messages
  • Services — All services, apps, tools, and frameworks used

#3 Practise active listening during the research session

In an ideal scenario, it’s best to have at least one person being assigned the role of a dedicated note-taker. This makes it easy for the note taker to focus on keeping a record of what’s being discussed, while freeing up the moderator to guide the conversation.

In case there are multiple observers involved in the session, be sure to ask everyone to take notes individually. Each person will have a different perception, and pick up on information that’s more familiar, and relevant to them. This is great because it gives you the ability to synthesise a more complete set of observations from the session.

In scenarios where you’re conducting the research session alone, you can try the following to make some extra time for note taking, without breaking the flow of the session:

  • rephrase what you hear from the participant — this shows them that you’re actively listening to the conversation, and acts as a prompt to elaborate their perspective.
  • get comfortable with long pauses — which may feel uncomfortable at first, but it allows the participant to gather their thoughts as well
  • ask for an example — this can be really helpful because it gives you more time in the same context making it easier to recall the point, even if you aren’t able take note of it in detail.

But don’t stress about it too much, because you can always record the session (with permission) and refer back to points that you may miss out.

#4 Elaborate your notes right after each research session

Immediately after each session take 10 mins to review the discussion guide and add notes you may have missed out on during the session. Elaborate the points you’ve written down in a way that anyone who read your notes is able to understand what you learned from the session. And add quotes to keep verbatims separate from your observations or remarks about the session.

If there were multiple observers involved in the session, do a debrief to review learnings from the session, clarify any points that are unclear or interpreted differently by any of the observers. Synthesise everyone’s observations in a shared document, format its content and disseminate the notes so everyone walks away with the same picture of what they learned.

#5 Be intentional in how you store your notes

The purpose of note-taking is to keep track of what you learn. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to how you store your notes after your research sessions. You can keep you user research notes organised by following a consistent naming convention, and folder structure to the data that you gather from each research session.

eg: [research topic] / [moderator]_[participant]_[date] / [note-taker]_[file_name]

However, the more user research you do, the more you learn, the harder it gets to keep track of learnings from previous sessions. Imagine having to search for “the thing that person said that time..” in your notion, google drive, or your dropbox folder.

Keep track of what you learn from your user research

To get the most value out of your research notes, you can consider adopting a dedicated solution for your user research that makes it easy to organise learnings in your notes, and share them with your team. By organising learnings from each session into buckets, you can start finding patterns in what’s common across your research sessions.

See out how epiphany can help you keep track of your learnings from user research and make them available for decision-making.



A step-by-step guide to user research note taking was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.