Taking notes on user research sessions should go beyond asking observers to write down everything they see. Structuring notes drive impact beyond a single session or study.

An octopus playing with LEGO, digital art
An octopus playing with LEGO, digital art, generated with DALL-E

☕ Structuring research notes

User research is the bread and butter for most design teams. Whether they have dedicated researchers or generalist designers doing research, most design processes need insights from users to produce great results.

The benefits of doing research go beyond single projects, great insights inform multiple projects and allow the whole team to learn together. This doesn’t happen by chance, there is more to be done besides sharing the conclusions of a study. How the research is conducted, specifically how notes are taken has a large impact on how the output of a study can build the team’s knowledge. Teams need to be strategic in how they structure their note-taking.

In the past few years, the emerging tool category for user research repositories (most prominently Dovetail and Aurelius) seemingly took care of a lot of the details of note-taking and analysis. It’s plug and play, uploaded transcripts are broken down and analyzed by the system. With this, note-taking seemingly takes a backseat. But unfortunately, this also means attention, focus, curation, and interpretation also take a backseat. While auto-analyzing is more efficient, teams are losing some of the effectiveness of having great user research notes.

Structuring notes strategically helps the team to get more out of a session or study. It’s also more respectful of users’ time spent on sessions. To have structured notes, the researcher who defines what needs to be captured must be deliberate. Also, the note-takers need to understand what they need to write down - so they need more instructions besides “write down everything” or “write down things you think matter”.

The structure also doesn’t need to be strict or formal or overly sophisticated, just an aligned way of storing types of concepts across sessions and studies. The best is to focus on the types of objects we capture (for example if it’s a fact we observe or an interpretation), or the qualities from the users’ perspectives (for example at one point I tried using empathy maps as note taking templates, which seemingly worked well for untrained observers).

When notes across studies and researchers have aligned structures that also drives the notes having aligned concepts and terminology, and ultimately helps drive a common overall knowledge about the users for the team.

🍪 Things to snack on

I love the approach of Will Myddelton, using What, So What, Now What? to structure research notes. His approach gives a good differentiation between facts, our interpretation of said facts, and what they mean. This makes notes both more actionable and better connected to observed facts. It also seems to help non-researcher observers to take better notes, as they get more clarity on what things they need to look out for.

In Data collecting: Tips and tricks for taking notes Dana Chisnell argues that taking verbatim notes is never a good idea - transcripts are better for that. Transcripts are more accurate, and less biased and allow the researcher and observers to focus on more important things. Note-taking should be aligned with research questions, and it’s always a good idea to ask observers and even participants to take notes for the researcher - who should be focused on leading the session.

Arnav Kumar talks about the importance of taking structured notes in A step-by-step guide to user research note taking. Structure comes not only from how the notes are written, the interviewer should understand the needed structure by preparing from the topic, actively working toward the structure with active listening, and during note review. Effective notes are best made by establishing guides. These may use note-taking frameworks, such as AEIOU (Activities, Environments, Interactions, Objects, and Users) and POEMS (People, Objects, Environments, Messages, and Services).

If there are multiple observers, it becomes Group Notetaking for User Research. Susan Farrell describes two ways of capturing notes (chronological and topical) and gives some pointers on how to choose between them. She also describes how to debrief after each session to collect insights, giving structure to notes in a mini-workshop that also helps the observers to think about what they just saw.