Note-taking for Customer Research Sessions;  The ‘How-to?’ and ‘Why?’.

28 Mar, 2019
3 Min Read RXP Services

Note-taking for Customer Research Sessions;  The ‘How-to?’ and ‘Why?’.


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As more organisations are adopting human-centred design, they have become more aware about the significance of putting the needs of users at the centre of the design processes.

We are emotional and social human beings. We rely on value systems. We want to belong. Experience and emotion is what drives people to buy or use a product rather than the technology. When we design, we should design for emotions, and having a strong practice of empathy helps us craft thoughtful experiences. Through working closely with humans, it is a set of research techniques that enable us to define these emotional touch-points. Have you ever been on a holiday in a beautiful country at a nice resort and observed how everything is seamless and makes you feel special and bonds you to those memories of the places and the service? It only makes it better if you had the same experience while booking the holiday end to end.

At my job, we plan and conduct user-centred research through our Design Practice with the real users of our product-service-systems. Our research empowers us with insights over assumptions and gives us a competitive advantage to design products and deliver services for our clients, that have been through a rigorous process of research and testing. That means there would be better adoption by intended users.

When we conduct customer research, the researcher/moderator runs the session and a note-taker is observing and taking notes. There might be an additional observer, but it is recommended not to overwhelm the participants with more than that. Note-taking for customer research is different from note taking for meeting minutes or even workshops. Audio is often recorded with informed consent but note-takers are used where possible to speed up the next step of synthesis.

Here is my tried and tested set of guidelines to be an excellent note-taker. This is targeted to people who are new to design and user research but can be used by anyone. I am only focussing on the research session part of the design process.

Record ALL the notes, not just the ones specific to your product

The moderator and note-taker are responsible to make the participant comfortable enough to be able to share their experiences and pain points freely. They can do so by their dress sense and body language being approachable. When we defer our judgement, we can accept users as humans and not mere consumers of our products. We have synthesis methods like affinity diagramming to create themes and derive business needs later, but this is where you have to give the user time to express and hear them out.

Recording notes about general information about the user and their needs generates new opportunities and may perhaps shape your product roadmap. You will find that this helps to shape the value proposition and create your marketing strategy and requirements.

You should certainly take photos of any activities (e.g. card sort) and use them as referrals in your notes adding reasoning behind them. Take notes of things that may not seem too important to the user (for example if they say it in passing or a side comment, even a facial expression). This can be useful information if you see the same pattern with many user interviews of a particular background. This is an example of a finding.

Record verbatim over conclusions

You may be the unicorn UX designer or a gun developer, or a ninja business analyst. But in this 90 min session, your job as the main note-taker is to record verbatim (exactly quotes of what they said) and observations (what they did). If you make conclusions while typing and are using them to define the next task of your job, then there is no space for analysis and synthesis. The preference for verbatim is to ensure we can recreate the reasoning behind why certain words were used. Verbatim also helps us record the answers to open-ended questions and helps to spin a story from the user in first person so we can empathise with them.

There is a completely separate step for synthesis. Synthesis is a way of sense making with several techniques for patterns arising out of verbatim. This is where findings, insights and conclusions come up. Researchers and designers should not skip either of these steps.

Understand the contexts of your users

An essential skill of a note-taker is quite obviously listening, watching and writing/typing at the same time. Actively listening more and talking and interrupting less — If we do not listen to people’s stories, we cannot ever understand them and appreciate their context and we will only be focussed on our product. Organisations may think that there is only ever one user journey, but every user has a different use case or scenario that prevents them from going through this journey. As such, customer journeys are often non-standardised.

Listening and understanding the context or situation of one (or twelve) particular user in a project broadens our perspective of what diversity would be out there in the real world. It helps us create permutations and combinations of steps that could go wrong and allows us to cater for those. An output of this activity helps us shape personas and behavioural archetypes that can even be product-agnostic.

Keep track of the pain points

Keep an eye and an ear out for moments of frustration, anger, delay and eye-rolls. These are pain points. Some shy users may not always talk about the pain points until the researcher probes them to articulate them.

Techniques such as 5-Whys can let you know the root cause from a customer’s perspective, so watch out when the researcher hangs on to a particular topic. During synthesis and the next steps, it is our analytical skills that would be used to drill down into these pain points and find out what the gaps are from the company/product offering.

Similarly, the reverse of pain points i.e. delight points should be noted as these are experiences we want to keep or recreate.

Record biases and decouple them from research

As my colleague has written here acknowledge biases in your notes as assumptions or questions rather than observations.

Before doing any customer session, the researcher/moderator and note-taker should catch-up, even if, for a few minutes and get to know each other. If they can discuss their backgrounds and prior experience in customer research, its a great step. While moderators are often trained researchers, note-takers could be developers, designers or technology specialists. They could be business analysts or even product owners. They could be coming from diversity of age, nationality, religions, value systems, etc. They could be academia, sales oriented or industry practitioners.

For example, we were doing research on people’s behaviors in spending and saving. Our note-taker’s bias against young people that they were poor at saving meant that they had already concluded that this person would never be able to buy a house. However, we found out that they have a pattern of smart saving and smart spending which shattered previous assumptions.

De-brief, storing and sharing outcomes

After a session ends, ensure you de-brief with the researcher. De-brief allows you to discuss key takeaways, next steps and lets you pivot or persevere interview approach in the subsequent sessions; lets researchers discuss if they’ve found similar stories in other projects they’ve done. This can be an organic informal activity.
Research notes are not the end of the work because they are only raw data. It is great if the note-taker is involved in synthesis stage

It is rarely a good idea to only keep ‘customer interview’ notes, in other words, raw data, and use them directly as ‘Research Outcomes’ to share with your stakeholders. Firstly, as the ethics principles go, de-identify the user. Confidentiality becomes especially important in the case of employee-experience transformation projects where the users are working with each other. Secondly, nobody really finds good value in raw data and it is too difficult to make sense of. Always share your synthesised outcomes in the form of prioritised pain points, findings and insights to tell the story to your team and business stakeholders.

Mitali Desai

Experience and Service Design Consultant