How to take great notes during user testing sessions

Taking notes during user testing sessions is hard. Things move quickly. You've got to listen, write and watch for the whole 60 - 90 minutes. It's hard. Did I mention it's hard? It's really hard.

I've developed some strategies that help me take great notes during a session. These tips help to make analysis and synthesis quicker and easier.
  1. Create a shorthand system so note taking is quicker.
    Before you head into the sessions, choose some shorthand codes to use. For example, if I know some of the test will focus on an advanced search interface, I'd use "AS" within my notes. If I'm testing an information architecture, I'd number each IA category so I can avoid writing out the full category label every time.

  2. Use one A4 page for each task.
    You've probably planned to run tasks with users during the testing session. Before the session, create an A4 page for each task with the task printed at the top. As you run testing sessions with each user, put all your notes for each task on a single page. When you come to analysis, all your notes for each task are togehter on one page. I used to take notes by particpant, rather than task. Notes by task works much, much better.

  3. Use different coloured pens.
    Take enough different coloured pens with you to the testing sessions so you can use one per participant. This helps you later on to see who did what and who said what. My favourite pens are Uniball Eye (available in black, blue, red, pink, light blue, light green...I love them).

  4. Capture quotes from participants.
    Quotes straight from the horses mouth are like gold. I use them in presentations to clients, documentation and team meetings. During user testing, keep your ears open for quotable quotes. Then jot them down. I usually put quote marks around them so later on I can find them quickly in my notes.
Here's an example that brings it all together. These are notes I took recently during user testing of an information architecture prototype. I used a shorthand system, an A4 page per task, different coloured pens and quote marks around quotes. Take a look:

Please share. How do you take notes during user testing sessions? What little "tricks" do you use to help yourself? Let me know in the comments below.

About Suze Ingram

I'm a User Experience consultant from Sydney, Australia. I'm passionate about designing better user experiences that engage customers, empower employees and bring real benefits for businesses. If you'd like to know more, drop me a line at

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Amir said...

One trick I use when testing wireframes is I print each wireframe on a single A4 and take notes on them. It makes it easy as its contextual and i can sometimes even draw on them instead of writing. I also use the different colour pen for each user. Good trick.

Lisa said...

Great idea to use different coloured pens - I'm going to try that!

I also use a similar trick of numbering the tasks, then writing the task number in my notes. As for capturing quotes, I can't write fast enough. I like Silverback but it's not always ideal, so depending on what's being tested, recording the audio + written observation works great for me.

Lisa Rex said...

That last comment came from me!

angusf said...

Thanks for this post Suze, it helped me take better notes in sessions yesterday.

One problem I found is that each of my tasks resulted in many more notes & quotes for each user than in your example.

I will have to use a page per user per task or alternatively break tasks down into smaller "steps", but I fear that could result in an unmanageable sheaf of paper. Especially if the application being tested allows different approaches to completing a task.

The different colours for different users worked well, thanks again.

Nick said...

Hello Suze,

Thanks for sharing these tips. I hadn't thought about the different colours, but I'll definitely give them a go during my next usability session.

You're right about the participant versus task method. Notes-by-task requires a bit more fiddling during the evaluation, but is much simpler when revisiting your notes. Notes-by-participant is easier during the session, but much more grief to analyse afterwards.

One thing that I find a big help is to frontload my note-taking template with a quick list of problems that I expect to emerge (there are always obvious issues that crop up during the evaluation sessions). I can then just tick these off as they occur rather than writing them down in full.

Something that I picked up from elsewhere is to create a grid of issues by participant on a whiteboard in the observation room. (The initial issues are the same as the ones in my note-taking template. Others that emerge are added as they occur.) These can be marked off in the interval between sessions. It soon becomes obvious where the pain points are and what's working well and that gives you a real head start on your reporting.

Getting any observers involved is another way of increasing the coverage of your notes. Greg Bell has a great template to help include observers in his Usability 2.0 presentation