Data collecting: Tips and tricks for taking notes

A common mistake people make when they’re new to conducting usability tests is taking verbatim notes.

Note taking for summative tests can be pretty straightforward. For those you should have benchmark data that you’re comparing against or at least clear success criteria. In that case, data collecting could (and probably should) be done mostly by the recording software (such as Morae). But for formative or exploratory tests, note taking can be more complex.

Why is it so tempting to write down everything?

Interesting things keep happening! Just last week I was the note taker for a summative test in which I noticed (after about 30 sessions), that women and men seemed to be holding the stylus for marking what we were testing differently and that it seemed that difference was causing a specific category of errors.

But the test wasn’t about using the hardware. This issue wasn’t something we had listed in our test plan as a measure. It was interesting, but not something we could investigate for this test. We will include it as an incidental observation in the report as something to research later.

Note taking don’ts

  • Don’t take notes yourself if you are moderating the session if you can help it.
  • Don’t take verbatim notes. Ever. If you want that, record the sessions and get transcripts. (Or do what Steve Krug does, and listen to the recordings and re-dictate them into a speech recognition application.)
  • Don’t take notes on anything that doesn’t line up with your research questions.
  • Don’t take notes on anything that you aren’t going to report on (either because you don’t have time or it isn’t in the scope of the test).


Tips and tricks

  • DO get observers to take notes. This is, in part, what observers are for. Give them specific things to look for. Some usability specialists like to get observer notes on large sticky notes, which is handy for the debriefing sessions.
  • DO create pick lists, use screen shots, or draw trails. For example, for one study, I was trying to track a path through a web site to see if the IA worked. I printed out the first 3 levels of IA in nested lists in 2 columns so it fit on one page of a legal sized sheet of paper. Then I used colored highlighters to draw arrows from one topic label to the next as the participant moved through the site, numbering as I went. It was reasonably easy to transfer this data to Excel spreadsheets later to do further analysis.
  • DO get participants to take notes for you. If the session is very formative, get the participants to mark up wireframes, screen flows, or other paper widgets to show where they had issues. For example, you might want to find out if a flow of screens matches the process a user typically follows. Start the session asking the participant to draw a boxes-and-arrows diagram of their process. At the end of the session, ask the participant to revise the diagram to a) get any refinements they may have forgotten, b) see gaps between their process and how the application works, or c) some variation or combination of a and b.
  • DO think backward from the report. If you have written a test plan, you should be able to use that as a basis for the final report. What are you going to report on? (Hint: the answers to your research questions, using the measures you said you were going to collect.)

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