One of the things that I've quickly found out when doing usability testing and field studies is that it's hard to keep up with the pace of what's going on and take sufficient notes.

How do you cope with this? Do you write in shorthand or use some other system that makes note-taking quicker? Do you just record everything and go through it later?

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    Currently reading "Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes" - will report back with any suggestions! – Nathanael Boehm Feb 12 '10 at 9:39

12 Answers 12


In usability tests I tend to produce an outline document of the timeline of the test before we start - so I can just note down what's happening in the right "chunk" of the timeline without having to note down the stage of the test or time. If space allows I sometimes do multiple users on the same paper - using different coloured pens for each. Makes it easy to spot similar problems in similar stages.

If appropriate I also try populate the timeline with checkboxes for things like task success/failure, routes taken, etc. - so it's harder to forget to note down essential details, and easier to find when you need to summarise.

With field studies I tend to prefer a stack of index cards clipped together over a notebook. I find it easier to use on the move (I found this reference which sounds similar to the way I use the cards). Two different coloured pens. One for what I recording what I actually see/hear. One for my interpretations/thoughts at the time.

I also try (and sometimes fail :-) to discipline myself to write up the notes again as soon as I can. Not necessarily type them up - but copy them out again in a neater form - and expand any abbreviations, etc. before I forget what the opaque acronym I scribbled down in the corner of the page actually meant.

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    The different colors for facts and interpretations seem like an excellent idea. Will try that next time. – Lisa Daske Feb 17 '10 at 8:15
  • +1 Preparing the form on which you'll take the notes in advance is essential. – Monica Cellio Feb 3 '12 at 15:57

In a usability test I focus on recording critical incidents and only take short notes speculating about why people have problems. Having a second person to record observations also helps. If you use a software like morae, you could set markers at interesting points in the video, so you don't have to go through everything later, I rarely have the time for that.

For field studies I find it important to prepare them really well, so I know exactly what it is that I want to find out. I then prepare a checklist of questions to guide me through interviews. If the project budget allows it, I take a second person with me that also knows as much as possible about the goals of the field study and whose job it is to write down every little detail while I ask lots and lots of questions.

Recording in field studies is a no-go, people don't like being recorded. This is even worse than in tests, where people seem to accept the fact that recording is part of the laboratory situation.

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  • I'm surprised you've had problems with people not wanting to be recorded during field studies. I can appreciate people being wary of screen recording (especially if this entails installing software on their computer) but when I carry out field studies I always record the session on a high quality digital voice recorder (with the participant's permission). I then have written transcripts made so I can analyse the data thoroughly. If you don't record the sessions I find I only note down the 'obvious' problems and miss all of the subtleties that are critical for a truly nuanced view. – David Travis Mar 18 '10 at 11:34

I have my own system of symbols and icons - a visual language designed to facilitate memory recall rather than explicitly capture all knowledge. Just have to make sure I write up the notes within 24 hours afterwards. Looks a bit like Egyptian hieroglyphics.

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  • What do the symbols represent? User actions? – Philip Morton Feb 10 '10 at 12:30
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    That's hillarious – Glen Lipka Feb 10 '10 at 17:35
  • They can represent anything - it's just a type of shorthand except I don't know shorthand, and symbols can capture ideas when you don't have time to commit observations to textual descriptions. They might indicate user actions, interface responses, timings, perceived emotional responses ... but I often use a similar system for taking notes in meetings so its usage is pretty broad. – Nathanael Boehm Feb 12 '10 at 9:39
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    I would love to see an example of that shorthand -- I just work with words, underlining and arrows, maybe smileys :-) – Lisa Daske Feb 17 '10 at 8:13

Why do I seem like the only user experience professional who prefers to use his laptop to write down notes? :\

Seriously, I can't write that fast (not fast enough to keep up with participants in a usability tests anyway), so, since I'm a touch typist, I just put my laptop on my lap and start typing away with symbols and all. After I'm done, I could basically copy/paste or just refine what I typed instead of having to move my notes from paper (which gets really tiresome over time).

I'd only use paper for throw-away stuff like coming up with new design ideas. Anything else is digital.

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  • Half (or more) of my notes are lines, sketches, drawings, and other squiggles. YMMV (and obviously has :-) ). – Monica Cellio Feb 3 '12 at 15:58

If it's a usability test, you should try using Morae's data logging tool. It helps you turn each note into a time-coded 'pointer' into the participant video. It's like the Livescribe pen but with video. You give each observation a unique code (e.g. "X" for usability problem, "N" for negative comment, "B" for bug) and (optionally) type a longer note. Later, you can search for your observations by type (e.g. "Show me all the 'X' usability issues"). You can then export them to Excel, add a couple of columns ('priority', 'possible fix') and submit this as a preliminary report.

I personally find written notes a poor substitute, since I make fewer observations when I need to write them down and I don't have the context to remember the point I was making.

Techsmith has a good video on data logging with Morae and I've written about exporting your data to Excel and creating a report.

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When I run usability tests, I run it with a facilitator and a note taker in the same room as the participant. In an observation room, I sit members of our project team and the client team.

The Facilitator
When I am the facilitator, I concentrate solely on watching what the participant is doing on screen, with their hands, and any other gesturing that will give me insight in to how they are feeling. This allows me to ask objective questions and learn insights. As the facilitator I do not record any notes. However, I use Silverback which allows me to record the facial expressions of the participant and record the screen. It also allows me, through the use of an Apple Remote, to mark points of interest along the timeline of the video capture. This is very useful for skipping to points of significance.

The Note Taker
Have a colleague come in to the session with you armed with a table which has all of the questions that you are going to ask. For each question, the table should capture the overall success rate:

 1. Easy
 2. Medium
 3. Hard
 4. Assist
 5. Fail

You also want to capture types of issues and the severity of those issues:

 1. Minor
 2. Moderate
 3. Severe
 4. Critical

Another column will capture any notes, but this is secondary to capturing the overall success and issues along with severity.

The Observers
The observers should be active observers. I get each of the observers to write down issues that they have seen the participant coming up against on post-it notes. One issue per note. I also encourage the observers to note these down after they have observed the test. This relies on recall, but this way you capture the issues that are really hot for the observer. This also encourages the observer to actively observe the test, rather than have their head down and taking notes.

There are normally a number of people observing, so you will get some crossover in error capturing, but you will also get some niche captures too. If something has been captured multiple times, it is an obvious issue.

At the end of all the usability tests, you can use the KJ Method to group and prioritise all of the errors that have been captured. It is a great way to get the client team involved and to wrap up the day.

This is how you capture notes during a usability test. The facilitator facilitates, the note taker has a strategy before going in to the test environment, and you get the observers (including the client team) to capture usability issues, group them and prioritise.

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It's funny. I take notes, but I never go back and look at them. And if I look at them now, I can't even read or understand them. However, the taking of the notes, helps me remember naturally.

One person I know uses one of those pens that records audio while he writes. LiveScribe. He swears by it.

If it's critical to record everything then use LiveScribe or a Video camera. For me, I am usually looking for a few nuggets of wisdom or inspiration. Notes don't help with that.

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I record and then analyse afterwards.

The only notes I take are for issues I want to ask the user about during the actual testing sequence, where you have to catch them there and then.

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  • Likewise - I prefer, when possible, to record and then replay at leisure. – Jimmy Breck-McKye Feb 3 '12 at 14:49

One thing you can try, that I actually learned from military training courses, is to split your note page in half. Take quick notes of a few key words down the left, leaving plenty of space between lines.

Immediately after the session, go back and expand those keywords to the right, while you remember what they mean.

Not only does this get the notes down, but by reviewing them immediately, analyzing, and expanding, they often stick well enough that I don't need to look at them anymore.

If it works for my horrendous memory, it must be fairly applicable to people with standard sized memory slots. : )

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I haven't done it much, but I have found that writing thoughts and ideas down as quickly and scruffily as possible works, doing it while listening to the person. Then - critically - I will go and type them up, so that I can get down the notes AND my recollections of what I actually meant, The writing helps me both to remember things, and to jog my memory when I am typing up.

I doubt that it would work for a long, multi-person session, but there I would use a recorder of some sort. If it is a user doing something, videoing them is important, because it shoudl be non-intrusive, at least after the have settled down to the task.

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I type my notes out for sure. Spend some time and learn to type at a high rate and you will be able to take notes much faster than freehand (unless you are really good at short hand note taking).

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What always worked for me:

  • Take short notes and quotes in written format. Don't lose your attention from the subject - observation is key here;
  • I also take notes of relevant stuff in the AEIOU format (I keep a separate A5 sheet for each of the topics) that I find in the given context;
  • Voice record the whole thing - very important to check mood, context, etc;

Later I go through the material a develop a short summary and study about the immerson or session. It allows me to develop insights in the process. I find that during interviews and immersion it's more important to understand and pay attention then take notes of everything.

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