Save time in analysis, and dedicate more attention to your participants, with these approaches to note-taking.
Taking notes during a 1:1 interview can be daunting.
How do you balance recording and cementing information—while also engaging fully with your participant?
Here are our favorite tactics for becoming a more effective note-taker.
What we get wrong about note-taking (and what to do instead)
In order to make your interview notes as effective as possible, you’ll want to understand better what you’ll use them for.
In other contexts, we often think of taking notes as a way to comprehensively record the conversation. But in the era of recording technology, we no longer need this mentality. In fact, trying to write everything down will hinder you, rather than help you.
That’s because in an interview, your most important job is to establish a connection with your participant and to collect quality data. Frantically scribbling notes on everything you hear will distract you from that goal.
Instead, picture interview notes as a cheat sheet that you’re writing for your future analysis.
In this model, you should concentrate on a streamlined set of note-taking priorities. Concentrate on cementing key points in your memory and on recording the locations of important moments that you can return to in the analysis phase.
How to take interview notes more effectively
It’s totally possible to be both an engaged interviewer and an effective note-taker. Here are some tips:
Get an observer
The best advice I can offer is to add a second person to your interview to observe and take notes. This immediately alleviates the issue of note-taking, since they can concentrate on taking more traditional, comprehensive notes and leave you to focus on the conversation. If you can in any way make this happen, do so! It will save you a lot of time and trouble down the road.
This may even be a great opportunity to train non-researchers in your company to observe and take notes. Taking notes is a familiar, low-pressure activity to many, so it can be a good entry point into the research process. Active participation can also generate buy-in to the findings that you’ll eventually uncover.
However, doubling up on interview times isn’t always a possibility, so it’s important to know how to field interview solo as well.
Organize your sub-sections
Timestamps are your best friend in an interview setting. They act as signposts to refer to when you come back later to dig through the mountain of data you just produced.
If you’ve written an effective interview guide, then your interview should be broken down into clear sections and subsections that will be consistent across your different participants. When you come to a stopping point between sections, take a moment during the conversational pause to record the time. (Or, if you’re in the dscout Live tool, bookmark it with a click).
You can also timestamp key questions that you’ll need to get back to quickly, or the beginnings and endings of hands-on activities.
These marks will act as an important guide when you are trying to jump between sections on the analysis side, and save you the trouble of scrubbing through an entire hour-long interview to find the one question you’re looking for.
Prioritize keywords ahead of time
Do some thought work before you begin your interviews. What key findings, phrases, or themes do you want to keep particular track of? When they come up in your interviews, jot down your keyword and a timestamp, and if there’s time, something to clue you in on what they said.
Priority ideas will vary based on your research questions and structures. They could include things like:
- Expressed desires
- Verbal or observed non-vebal pain points
- Themes carrying over from previous studies
- Surprising or unexpected findings
The list of what you’re looking for can be quite long if you have an observer whose job it is to record notes. But if it’s just you, be very intentional about the things you need to record. Maybe it’s just section headings and a few keywords, and the rest of your brain space should be for the conversation.
Verbatim quotes are the real meat of 1:1 interviews, and will be great data for you as you put together deliverables. But finding a great quote can be a pain if you have hours of data to sift through. If you hear someone say something eloquent or powerful, jot down a quick summary of the phrase and the timestamp (or bookmark it!).
Use a Brain Dump document
It’s hard to retain key information from interviews, especially if you are doing many in a row and you don’t have an observer to take notes. We suggest starting a “brain dump” document where you can record notes and summaries of all your interviews after the fact, so that the memory of what you just discussed doesn’t fall out the back of your brain in future interviews.
A “Brain Dump document” is a central document where notes and summaries of all your interviews can live side-by-side. Reserve 10-20 minutes after each interview where you can reflect on the conversation you just had and write down everything you remember. It will help with retaining information, and your future self will thank you for this extra guide!
To make a Brain Dump document, produce a lean template for recording key interview notes, and replicate it on a new page in the doc for each participant. My templates usually include the following:
- Interview details: Participant, interviewer and observer names, date.
- Interview summary: A one-sentence summary of the contents of the interview, so you can easily search and find the contents later. Think like the name of a Friends episode - “The one with the _____”
- 3-4 key questions: Noted questions or topics that we want to be able to compare later.
- Verbatims: Shorthand for the best quotes the participant produced, with time stamps, for easy finding later.
Three mediums for note-taking
One question you’ll want to consider before going into the field is where you want your notes to live. Here are three approaches you can consider. None of these are mutually exclusive; you can mix and match to suit your team.
Remove the details and probes from a copy of your interview guide, and create space for writing notes under each question. Print one for each participant. Use pen and paper to record notes in relevant spaces.
For many researchers, printed notes sheets are the most comfortable way to go, especially if you grew up taking notes by hand. Writing ideas down by hand increases recall, which will benefit you down the line. Hand writing can also feel more personable and less distracting than typing in the eyes of your participants.
However, handwriting has all the drawbacks of analog tools. It’s slow, it’s not easily organisable or searchable, and it will eventually have to be ported to your digital tool system to mesh with whatever else you’re doing.
If you’re the primary interviewer, handwriting may be a good place to start. Keep the number of things you want to keep track of to a minimum, and rely on keywords and timestamps to jog your memory. Use a separate system, like a synthesis doc or a spreadsheet, to take more comprehensive notes after interviews, and record as much as you can while still staying natural and conversational.
A spreadsheet may seem like a weird choice for qualitative note taking, but it can be a great format, especially for more structured evaluative interviews. This system works both for live note-taking during the interview and as an alternative to a Brain Dump document.
To make a spreadsheet for note taking, mark columns with key questions or themes that you want to capture. Then make one row for each participant. As the interview process progresses, mark down key timestamps and/or notes in each relevant column.
Feel free to use our example template for effective, spreadsheet based, note-taking.
This is a highly efficient way to take notes. If you’re consistent in your effort, then not only will you have complete notes done, but a good portion of initial analysis as well, since themes will already be visually organized and easily comparable. It’s also easy to tag data in this form and search for key themes, across multiple interviews at once.
However, this is an involved way of taking notes, and distracting if you’re a solo interviewer. It’s best if you have trained observers who can keep up in real time. This style also isn’t great for generative or free-form interviews, since the columns are generated from a more structured interview.
The key to making this system work is diligence. If you fall behind on this note-taking process, then it can easily get overwhelming. We suggest using this system with a notetaker and/or with ample time after each interview to fill in the missing pieces.
The dscout Live platform offers a robust note taking suite that should suit needs for both solo interviewers and interview teams. Two key features to utilize during Live interviews:
- Bookmarks which automatically save the time stamp and appear on the timeline at later dates
- A note-taking bar that logs notes and attaches them to the transcript at the time of note taking. Notes are also easily searchable within the platform.
There are a lot of benefits to working this way.
First of all, it’s collaborative. Primary interviewers and research observers can take notes simultaneously and they end up in the same place, which decreases the chance of having crossed wires or having to do work to merge different note taking styles down the way. Your notes also live in the same place as the interview itself; as a researcher it’s a rare treat to have all your analytical data live in a single tool.
There’s also the benefit of speed. Hand-writing timestamps (or even typing them) can still take time and attention away from the conversation at hand. dscout’s bookmark feature makes time stamping as fast as tapping the spacebar, which means you don’t have to draw any attention away from your interview.
Lastly, all your notes are searchable and taggable in platform, meaning that if you’re careful and consistent with your bookmarking strategies, you’ll be able to pull up mentions of key themes or insights easily during analysis—and be linked directly to the video and transcript of the moment.
If taking notes this way, be careful to use consistent keywords and bookmark labels across your interviews. That'll ensure you can pull up all the information you like, without it getting lost in the fray.