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Note taking and making sense of your research

Use this page to understand the steps involved in note-taking and finding out what your research means.

Note taking

There are two sides to getting note-taking right.

Who will take notes and how?

  • Who will be doing the interviews? If possible there should be two people. One should carry out the interview and the other should make notes. You may also want a recording for back up. If you're doing online interviews on your own, you should record the sessions so you can make notes later.
  • If you are recording your sessions, how will you record them? Will you use your video conferencing software built-in recording feature or a handheld device like a dictaphone?
  • If you want to record will you use a transcription service to take notes or write them up yourself by listening? You can get free plans to software that will give you a transcript of a small number of whole conversations.

This will give you one continuous narrative. You will need to go through and break it up into smaller pieces. This will often still be quicker than manually transcribing notes from recordings.

  • Where will you store your notes? Store your notes somewhere everyone working on this research will have access.
  • Is that storage GDPR compliant? You will need to let your participants know what you decide in advance and get their consent.
  • When will you delete your notes?

What do the notes cover?

You want your notes to be:

  • unbiased (or aware of possible bias)
  • useful and useable.

You don't need a record of everything that's said during the interview.

Instead focus on the following.

  • Direct quotes of what the participant said when it increases your understanding of the problem you're working on.
  • Researcher observations about tone/feelings conveyed etc - making clear that these are observations.
  • Keeping things in 'bite size' pieces (post it notes - real or virtual - help keep your research notes manageable).
  • Keeping the research as ‘raw’ as possible - resist the impulse to interpret what someone said. If you do, make it very clear that it is a researcher observation.

Aim for a set of fairly detached notes. Note-taking is not the best place to start drawing conclusions. You'll do that after you’ve done all your interviews and have a bigger picture.

Making sense of your research

You can start making sense of your research with only a small number of interviews. Three interviews will show patterns emerging. Five interviews may be enough to move onto another stage of the project.

Plan your analysis session

Do your analysis as soon as you can after your research. You want the sessions to be fresh in your mind.

Don’t try and process research on your own. It’s much easier to reduce bias and make sure you have a genuine analysis when you work with a team.

You could involve:

  • front-line staff or volunteers
  • a representative of the people you’re trying to help
  • people from your digital team
  • in-house developers or agency technical partners.

How to analyse your notes

Extract information

Go back over your interview notes. Pull out any relevant items that help you understand the problem you're trying to solve better. Include things that help you answer any of your user research goals.

You want these items in an individual, movable format.

  • Use post-it notes (online or virtual).
  • Use cards in project management software that allows you to gather cards in lanes or lists.

If you’re working with people who are only comfortable using word processing tools:

  • use bullet point lists

You may add some additional thoughts of your own as you go. If you do, make sure that it's clear that they're from the researcher's perspective.

Group information together

Look at your collection of notes and start to move them into groupings. Don’t start with titles for those groupings. It is best to cluster things that feel like they belong together first, then name afterwards. Sometimes you will decide to put a note in more than one group.

Draw your conclusions

Now you have grouped your themes together, ask the following questions.

  • What challenges are the participants facing? What do they need? Do you need to consider them as different groups of people or are their needs similar enough?
  • What situation are they in when they face those challenges? This can be about who they are, where they are or how they feel.
  • How are they trying to solve those challenges? Are these solutions working? You probably won’t need to create a solution to challenges they are already solving by themselves.
  • Have you answered the questions you had at the beginning of this project? Go back to your goals and list of questions you want answered. Do you have what you need to move your project forward?

You’ll often find people in the digital world calling your conclusion, a 'user need' or a 'user story'. You can write your conclusions in this structure if you want.

Throughout the analysis process, it is easy to let your own bias influence your conclusions. Read our article on unconscious bias and how to mitigate it.

Share your conclusions

You'll want to keep a record of the conclusions and insights you found. This doesn’t have to be a fancy report. We recommend using slides with each slide documenting a conclusion you’ve found.

The user research process can leave the participants isolated from your work after the interview. Follow best practice from user engagement and make sure you share what you're doing next with your participants.

Use the government’s user research teams top tips on presentations.

Last reviewed: 02 March 2021

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 02 March 2021

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