User research notes are the building blocks of customer insights. Without useful and effective note-taking, we can’t hope to uncover true user needs and deliver an experience that solves their problem or meets those needs.
This post is a recap of our webinar with special guest Bethany Stolle, Design Research Lead at Blackboard. Read the post below to view the slides and full recording of our session!
Why Do User Research Notes Matter So Much?
They’re a Foundational User Research Skill
Research notes are the building blocks for analysis and synthesis, and they live on live on as a record of research for people who weren’t part of the study. What we capture shapes the way we understand a user, their experience, and a problem.
While a session may be recorded, the notes are more accessible and contribute to a larger body of understanding. Our insights and actions should always tie back to a record of research via notes.
Note Taking Basics
Roles & Responsibilities
The facilitator moderates the session, building rapport, managing time, and being flexible enough to respond to the participant while keeping the research objectives in mind.
The notetaker documents the session, capturing statements, actions, and environments through notes and photos to enable sense making. The notetaker supports the facilitator throughout the session as appropriate (but stays out of the way).
Note Taking Considerations
It’s important for the note taker to prepare before meeting with users. These are all important questions that inform tactical decisions for session documentation.
1. What kind of study is this? (generative or evaluative, specific method)
2. Where will the research take place? (in-person, remote, stationary, walking)
3. Who is taking notes? (designated note-taker vs. facilitator, experience level, comfort with note taking tools)
4. What evidence do we need for synthesis and traceability? (transcript, highlights, measurements, etc.)
Notes with a Purpose
Notes aren’t just a nice-to-have thing to make it look like we’re listening to users, they’re more than just a personal record of what happened. We need to be able to do something with them.
We have different workflows with our notes depending on the project or type of research. For example, if we’re doing a remote moderated usability test, we may use the testing platform to take notes that are automatically time-stamped, and then we export those and work with them in a Mural synthesis template, an Aurelius project, or as print-outs we manipulate in physical space around us. But knowing what we plan to do with the data helps us make sure we’re collecting the right data in the first place and in a format that we can work with.
Unhelpful user research notes:
• Lacks context
• Hard to differentiate between observation, quote, and interpretation
• Doesn’t tie back to participant
• Unclear connection to research task or line of questioning
• No tags or categories
In the above example, it’s difficult for anyone who wasn’t involved in the research firsthand to make sense of what we learned. The notes don’t provide much context, and I’m not clear what was a quote from interviewees, versus an interpretation or observation made by the researcher.
I also don’t know which participant said what, or what questions they were responding to. The notes also lack categories and tags that could provide context or enable connections across the study.
These notes are slightly better, but the notes don’t quite stand up on their own. They do include tags that provide limited context, like the task or the participant’s role. And the note taker documented actions during the usability study in addition to what participants said.
With some effort, I could sort them chronologically or triangulate with the spreadsheet and video to get a more complete picture, but the notes alone don’t quite deliver the value we need.
This is a more rich set of notes. In general, each card with a note can be understood on its own or put into context and connected with other participants thanks to tags.
Not everything will or should call for super-detailed, transcript-like notes. There’s a spectrum to consider in light of the research project and logistics.
If you’re running a quick series of usability tests on a small feature, you may be just fine capturing task success/failure rates, scores, and participant highlights.
But if you’re doing ethnographic research to inform a future-of vision for an organization that may be controversial, you probably need to be more detailed in your note taking approach.
Note Taking Frameworks
1. What are your research objectives?
In addition to the research methodology and context for the study, consider how you can best take notes to track against your research objectives.
2. Who are the stakeholders?
If others beyond Research and Design have a stake in the project, consider the degree of evidence you need to give your findings credibility. Especially if stakeholders won’t be part of the research sessions or sense making process.
3. What will transfer observations into insights and action?
Consider what kind of data and level of detail you want to work with to inform a path forward and have confidence in your findings.
The two primary approaches to note taking are chronological (recording the session in order from start to finish) and topical (organizing notes by thematic categories as you go.)
Chronological can be great for a contextual inquiry where you’re observing users as they go through their workflows, and you want to track step by step actions. It can also be great for a usability test when you’re watching participants complete tasks in a specific order, or for a structured interview that progresses through topics in a scaffolded way.
Say you’re in a research session that includes multiple participants. Or perhaps asking users to evaluate high-level product or feature concepts. Maybe you have multiple notetakers watching the participant from behind the glass or through a screen.
In those cases, it may make more sense to capture and group notes topically rather than sequentially.
Types of User Research Notes
Regardless of note taking method, here are some things to listen and watch for as you capture notes:
“Wow” or positive moments
Gaps in knowledge
Analysis & Synthesis for UX Research
Analysis is the breaking-down and understanding individual parts of a problem.
Synthesis is bringing it together into a whole and understanding relationships/dynamics that are shared.
Note taking needs to serve both. The ability to see and understand individual pieces, but also make connections and identify trends, themes, and insights.
When referring to insights, we’re using Jon Kolko’s definition of an insight which is “a provocative statement of truth about human behavior, that may be wrong but is stated as fact”
So, what leaps might we make to identify insights that ground and inspire solutions and opportunities for design….while also being able to maintain discrete notes and utterances.
1. User research isn’t user research if there aren’t notes!
2. Create a note taking strategy before sessions begin.
3. Take notes with the end(s) in mind.
4. Experiment with frameworks to find what works for you and the project at hand.
5. Finish strong—debrief, share, analyze/synthesize, and store.