A Designer’s Guide to Taking Great Notes
Boost your note taking skills for more impactful design research.
Good note-taking is not to be equated with the ability to type or write fast. As someone who has both terrible handwriting and a typing speed of only around 40 wpm, I might be the least likely candidate for a note-taking role. But those skills, while helpful, aren’t essential to excellent note-taking.
During the three years I was employed as a professional notetaker, I found that the core skill of note-taking is transforming a series of observations into digestible text — it’s more an effort of the brain than the hand. It truly doesn’t matter if you’re writing by hand or typing — done right, note-taking will help make the rest of the project run smoothly and produce solid results.
In my role as a Product Designer, I now find that great note-taking is so important for user research in order to solve usability problems and to gain insights from an outside perspective on the experience you may not have otherwise gathered. Here are a few key tactics and principles to help bring your note-taking to the next level.
Do more than record
Note-taking helps you, not just later but in the now, to consider what is taking place critically and comprehensively. You can and should record your research sessions and, in fact, even transcribe them. The recording serves as a backup of the notes you take during the session, and you can reference it to pull participant quotes that convey key points to stakeholders.
But taking notes during a session can help you focus and keep track of the conversation at hand — what to ask next, what you’re observing from participants visually and verbally, and your immediate reactions and reflection. When using both recordings and note-taking together, you have a bulletproof formula for keeping track of all essential data.
Use a framework
The act of taking thoughtful and efficient notes is essential in design research, but it can be a tricky skill to master. Preparing a note-taking framework in advance is the best strategy. Here’s why:
- It guides you through the study, so you won’t forget to take notes on any important topic.
- You can easily pull up a comment or observation after the session is over.
- It helps compare reactions and comments between participants.
- It makes it easier to calculate quantitative data.
- It allows you to be an active listener, focusing on what the user is saying and not what you should be writing.
One helpful note-taking framework that I like to use is the AEIOU framework, which 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. Includes observations about the layout, aesthetic, etc.
- Interactions. Includes both interpersonal and person-artifact interactions. Proximity and space may also play an important role within these relationships.
- Objects. Catalogs 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.
In addition to this framework, you should be building your questions around a testing script. When you decide to run a user test, you do it because you have some critical questions regarding your product or service. For example, “Are my customers able to use feature X?” “How many usability issues does my website have?” “Are the forms easy to use?” Once you’ve prepared your framework and customized it to your project, you should have a rather excellent template ready to go for testing. Now it’s just a matter of filling it in.
Tips and tricks
To bring your notes up to that “oh-so respectable” level, here are a few tips to help you on your journey.
- Stay true to the facts. Don’t make assumptions about the participant’s thinking or feelings.
- Stick to a consistent format. The type of information you are recording and how you record it visually should be consistent.
- Carefully paraphrase. Be careful not to overinterpret participants or leave out pertinent details.
- Be a Sherlock. Pay close attention to body language. Reactions could be a deep breath before an answer, crossed arms, or signs of excitement. All might seem like nothing, but combined with verbal comments and user interactions, it might mean something big!
- Highlight missed or incomplete parts. If you miss something, make a note with the time stamp, and revisit that part after the session.
- Keep the ball rolling. Take time to review your notes after the session while your memory is fresh.
Good luck, and good notes!
Lucie Calloway (she/her) is a Product Designer at Postlight. Say hello at email@example.com.
Story published on Nov 2, 2022.