Picture this; you get back to the office after days of on-site observations and interviews (i.e. ethnographic research) with piles and piles of notes. You feel proud of the data you gathered, yet overwhelmed with the number of pages that you have to go through and analyze.
When doing ethnographic research, note taking is a vital aspect of the process especially in settings where taking videos and photos may be inappropriate and/or intrusive. In this blog post, we share what we learned about a method of note taking that we utilized in a recent ethnographic study and its benefits.
Our healthcare user research included visiting a number of different sites such as clinics, access centers, and physicians’ offices. For 12 days, we shadowed physicians in different contexts while they went about their day.
When preparing for the research, we knew that we would end up with a ton of valuable information. To protect patients’ privacy, we could not audio or video record most of the observations, so it was extremely important that we captured clear notes.
The Field kit
We created a researcher’s field kit that we printed and bound for each observation day and brought with us onsite. The purpose of the field kit was to ensure that our observation notes were structured to be able to get useful information out of them in a timely manner. We included a page with fields for the date of the observation, the session number, the location, and the names of the researchers that were present on site. This was useful for quick reference.
The kit also included an outline of the day, a list of tasks to observe for, interview questions, and an observation guide – all bound in one place. Each section has tab dividers on them for easy navigation while on site, which allowed us to jump between the different sections quickly.
For the observation guide, we used the AEIOU framework, which is a method to code and structure observations during ethnographic studies. In the field kit, we had sections representing each AEIOU element for categorizing our notes;
A: Activities are goal-directed sets of actions/things which people want to accomplish. (e.g. the physician reviewed lab results for a patient)
E: Environments include the entire arena where activities take place (e.g. a quiet room with a patient bed).
I: Interactions are between a person and someone or something else, and are the building blocks of activities (e.g. the physician examining the patient)
O: Objects are building blocks of the environment or key elements sometimes put to complex or unintended uses, thus changing their function, meaning and context. For example, a cart to wheel around a laptop, a whiteboard, printed documents, etc.
U: Users are the consumers or the people providing the behaviors, preferences, and needs (e.g. Medical assistants, patients, nurses, etc.)
(Christina Wasson, quoting E-Lab, 1977)
We also included a section for notes and questions on the top right. This is where we documented things to explore further or outstanding questions at the end of the onsite observations. After a long day of observations, having the questions in one place made it easier for us to remember what items required action. Another thing that we found particularly useful was including space for pain points and key moments. When analyzing the data, it was easy to go back and see what pain points or delights each physician faced while we were observing them.
We did find that sometimes, we would add pain points in the activities section. However, tagging it with a little icon was very useful to quickly spot the pain point when analyzing the data.
At the end of this research, some sections, such as ‘Activities’, had a lot more notes than other sections, such as ‘Environment’. Initially, we had allocated the same amount of space for each section, but we learned it’s useful to include more space for the ‘Activities’ section, especially when you’re observing in one location for a long period of time.
Carefully prepping for ethnographic research can go a long way in getting more focused data and can ease analysis. Understanding the goal of the research, and coming up with a structured way to take notes during observations, can give you more valuable information and data that’s easier to sort through.
Make Your Own
We’ve found the field kit so useful for this project that we’ve included a copy of the file for you to use as a template for your own projects. Simply enter your email below and we will send you a copy of the template.
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