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BlogInterviewing & Research Skills

Why You Really Need a Notetaker for Moderated Research Sessions

There's huge value in bringing a notetaker to user interviews, and it's not hard to make it happen.

Erin May

If you’re trying to run moderated user research sessions without a notetaker, I’d like to make the case that you should really reconsider things. 

When I first joined User Interviews, I ran my first official user interview on my second or third day on the job. I used our platform to find researchers willing to talk to me about our marketing website, sent them a link to a Google Hangout, built a moderator guide, and proceeded to chat with each participant for 30-45 minutes. It was a wonderful experience and I learned a ton about user research, user researchers, and how we could improve our marketing website all at once. Not a bad day’s work. 

But you don’t know what you don’t know, and it didn’t occur to me immediately that having a notetaker would be possible or advantageous. I knew transcription was out of the question, because lean startup, and so I did what I do and made do. But most researchers have notetakers in their sessions, at least sometimes, and there’s a reason why.

From our 2020 State of User Research Report


It’s certainly not impossible to talk to someone and take notes at the same time. But it is far from ideal. To me, the biggest issue is eye contact. Yes, if you don’t have a note taker you can and should say “Hey, if I’m looking off screen or you hear typing, I’m just taking notes about our session” and everyone will say no problem and understand. But, a huge part of the value of moderated research is the ability to make a connection with another human being, to hear and see what they are really saying, to note that at the time (like, in your brain), and to adjust your follow up questions and approach in reaction to what your participant is telling you. This is quite challenging when you’re shuffling between a Google Doc and Zoom app, making eye contact perhaps 60% of the time if you’re a good touch typist and multitasker.

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The other major issue is presence. It’s well documented that everyone is bad at multitasking. The best research moderators are able to guide a conversation to reveal maximum insight. This is very difficult to do when you’re also playing stenographer for yourself. Your job as moderator is to hit all your learning objectives, to unpack the why under the why under the why. There’s a lot of art in that, and your best chance of success is being fully attuned to the interview itself. 

How to find a notetaker

Let’s say you’re on board with my rationale here—if you aren’t, please hit me up on Twitter; always down for a friendly debate—but you’re wondering where to find a whole other person to join your session? I’m going to make the assumption that if you’re in a larger organization/research team, this isn’t a problem for you. Could be wrong. If you’re in an organization where research is stretched thin, where you’re a person who does research (PwDR) and not a dedicated researcher, or for whatever reason finding someone to join each of your research sessions seems like a tall order, here are a few tips. 

1. Show some research wins; people will want to join

This may be a bit chicken and egg if you’re early in research at your organization. Maybe you do what I did and take your own notes at first, or use a transcription service (more on that below)—progress over perfection all day. You share your insights and make them interesting and attractive to others and people want to be part of it. Or perhaps research is already viewed as very cool and useful within your team and you don’t need to focus on that part. In any case, you want to be “out there” championing the research that has been done, insights that have been learned, impact that has been had. People want to be part of cool initiatives that drive results. 

2. Make it easy

In life, can’t overemphasize enough how important it is to make things easy for people if you’re asking for their help. I’m huge on automation. Spend a lot of time thinking about what matters and why, and very little time making it happen on a recurring basis. Here’s a method for building out a recurring research practice in just 2 hours

Something we do at User Interviews is set up a Zap to search our research session confirmation emails for keywords that then push confirmed research sessions to our #research-at-ui Slack channel. Anyone in the channel can then add an emoji indicating they’d like to join as a note taker. The moderator then adds them to the calendar invite. Et voilà. 

We get these messages in Slack and people ✏️ to sign up.

Another way you can do it is to have a notetaker (or 2 or 3) lined up for a given study. If you use User Interviews, you can add them as a collaborator to your project, view their calendar alongside yours (they’ll need to sync their calendar as a one-time thing if they have not), and easily plan your sessions in app that way. Soon you’ll be able to invite them directly to attend a session too. For now, you’ll want to add them to your calendar invite once sessions are confirmed. 

No, JH and I should probably not try to coordinate our research sessions together.

From there, the notetaker shows up to the session, makes a copy of whatever the moderator template is for the study, joins the study, and takes notes as verbatim as possible. Read much more about taking good notes in a user research session. 

3. Show what’s in it for them

While taking notes for your study might seem like community service no one would want to do, if you’ve done a decent job of building up the value of user research in your organization, and have made it easy for them to join the session, you’re most the way there. The bonus is that your notetaker will get to learn something about your customers by being in the session, without the hassle of having to set up the study themselves. 

Shameless plug: studies are seriously way less of a hassle to run if you use User Interviews. Get three free participants with this link

Everyone wants to get closer to their customers: executives, engineers, designers, marketers, operations, entry level individual contributors, everybody. Note taking makes it easy for everyone to get a sweet hit of that beautiful, beautiful customer insight without the effort, or perhaps perceived risk of letting “just anyone” talk to a customer. The more people in your organization connecting with customers, learning from your customers, the better. Can I get an amen?! 🙏

But what about transcription?

We’re fans of transcription at User Interviews. Many of our clients use services like Rev or Otter.ai to turn their user interviews into searchable, taggable, nuggetizable text. 

The disadvantages of transcription are cost, depending on your budget, quality, depending on your budget and how much you care about taking notes in a particular format, and time—you might wait a day more to get your notes back. Additionally, you lose the ability to share user research across your organization, one notetaker at a time. 

The advantages of transcription are that you don’t need another human to get thorough notes from your interviews, and some services come with additional benefits closely tied to insight management. 

In cases where transcription is a good solution for your needs, we still love the idea of welcoming observers throughout your team to join in sessions to get closer to customers. 

In sum, notetakers are great, taking notes is easy, everyone wins, and you should think about adding notetakers to your moderated user research sessions if you aren’t already.

Erin May

VP, Growth & Marketing

Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.

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