Taking better notes for better sensemaking

Dan Szuc

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This post makes suggestions for practitioners as part of observing users during UX interviews, particularly in how they interact with designs to prompt conversations with users. It also looks at how practitioners take notes, how notes are constructed, and how they can be better organized to help with sensemaking, which is all part of communicating results clearly to improve user designs over time.

Observing people leads towards understanding

Observing people is an important part of the UX practice.

It requires practitioners to be well-versed in the possible issues at hand such as:

  • Understanding the users being interviewed
  • Knowing which questions to ask in order to dive more deeply into what the real frustrations, needs, motivations, behaviours, and emotions are at play
  • Knowing how to link up previous observations as part of continuous learning
  • Determining what it all might mean for improving designs

It also means that practitioners need to be proficient in listening, asking the right questions and being able to translate what is being heard — not just into raw notes, but what it could mean overall.

Observing people should also involve how we work with others in a team—people responsible for development, project management, product management, marketing, analytics and content, to name a few—and the role the other team members can also play in note-taking and sensemaking.

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So we can think of observation and note-taking as a team sport, where we all bring various perspectives and “lenses” to the data.

Your lens for collecting stories

Before conducting user research, it helps to remember what it means to be human and the qualities that are necessary to gain a clear view into users’ lives.

Think of this less as research and more as a relationship. Getting to know people takes time. With every visit we make to users, we see how their user experience changes. Often, when the main driver is to meet research goals or ensure that a person matches the recruitment criteria, we only get to hear from people during brief one- or two-hour blocks of time.

Forming a relationship with a person means viewing that person as an equal: a human being who can contribute actively to these conversations.

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Seeking truth in the stories

If we care enough to have empathetic conversations with our customers, we can better and more deeply understand their lives. This will reveal truths about how they use our current products and identify gaps in functionality that we can explore when designing future products.

This is absolutely not about leading people to tell us what we want to hear, nor framing our discussions with constraints to guide customers, nor primarily focusing on business goals or political benefits to our project team.

It’s about how a design can truly match what people need now—perhaps even in the future.

Preparing to take better notes

In studying the user research plan and discussion guide, better note preparation involves establishing:

  • The topics we wish to explore, which may be driven by previous research and discussions with other team members prior to conducting the UX session
  • A template to take notes in
  • The issues you wish to investigate more deeply during the interviews
  • A “note anatomy” that could help transfer your findings into key observations and insights comprising:
    • quotes
    • keywords
    • themes
    • patterns
    • frustrations
    • “wow” or positive moments, and
    • gaps in knowledge

Consider writing notes grounded in the user’s context so that your ideas are clearer upon review.

Create a way to transfer the notes into a physical form—such as sticky notes—that can be used for sorting, and thus help with sensemaking. When notes are in a physical form we are able to immerse ourselves in the data—apply different questions, perspectives, opportunities and constraints that enable us to discover which notes require focusing for now and which notes may be put aside for future plans.

A better note-taking template

Taking good notes requires practice.

It often involves a juggling act: staying present with the user and actively listening to what they share with you under the domain of study, yet taking enough useful notes to help with better sensemaking.

When I reflect on the first interviews I observed almost 25 years ago, I remember spending most of my time trying to transcribe as much as I could. I was not entirely sure on what I should be listening out for and what I should be focusing on.

With practice, you become better attuned as to what needs noting, what it could mean for the design, and what additional questions should be asked in order to reveal more about an item.

Over time, you become more confident about not sticking to a discussion guide word for word and instead learn how to redirect  and begin sensemaking on the fly.

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I have witnessed several forms of note-taking: writing with a pen, using a .txt file or spreadsheet, sketching rough notes to remember key moments in a user interview, and employing sticky notes.

In reviewing the different ways of note-taking, the following sections should be present to help you focus on the user while taking better notes:

  • A brief description of the user being interviewed—the person’s background and anything interesting you’ve gained from the meet and greet
  • Core questions you’d like answered—some may be part of your discussion guide but these can also be new questions that carry over from previous interviews
  • Core frustrations or issues the user may face when interacting with the design or as part of using a product or service
  • “Wow” moments or positives—it’s easy to just note frustrations without prompting for the positive experiences
  • Quotes—these can be very revealing so it’s important to capture the emotion and stories to which these quotes may refer
  • Summary of 5–10 takeaways—after the session, what were the takeaways and keywords that capture the essence of the interview? What potential themes are forming from interview to interview that aid in writing an observations and insights summary

When allocating notes to these sections it’s important to listen for quotes and stories. Ask the user to repeat points if you feel you need further clarification when writing up your notes at the end of the user interview. Summarising your notes helps move stories from observations to insights, creating better sensemaking.

Better sensemaking

It’s nice to be able to see and move data around physically, connecting it across different spaces to better understand what it’s telling you. This is all part of presenting the story to the business.

When developing insights from your observations, consider the following:

  • Mixing data bits around—move the data around on the wall and try connecting them in different ways
  • Structuring—loosely structure bits of data into groups that map to your deliverables; for example, personas, journeys, assumptions, and design goals
  • Telling stories around the data bits—stand up and present stories around the bits of data. Challenge your observations and insights as necessary
  • Identifying gaps—look for gaps in your data that may require further investigation with users or the business

Questions to consider:

  • What tools do you use to take notes?
  • What frustrations or positives have you experienced in using these tools?
  • How do you immerse yourself in data in order to perform better sensemaking?
  • What are the ways you synthesize data to inform design?
  • How do you keep a log of the notes over time to inform tactical and strategic product design decisions?

Thanks and acknowledgements

Josephine Wong and Michael Davis-Burchat for contributing to this article. For more see Deeper Understanding: Stories, Observations, and Insights.

Dan Szuc
  • Dan Szuc
  • Dan is a principal consultant at Apogee, as well as the co-founder of the UX Hong Kong conference. He has been involved in the UX field for over 20 years, and has been based in Hong Kong for over 18 years. Dan has lectured about usability, user-centred design, and user experience globally. He co-wrote The Usability Kit, an implementation guide providing best practices and guidelines for usability teams, and he holds a Bachelor of Science in Information Management from Melbourne University in Australia.

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