Wisdom & war stories from the trenches

I heart my tablet PC

Lenovo ThinkPad X Series TabletPC

Figuring out the right way to capture information during user and stakeholder interviews can be tricky. I like to capture as much information as possible because I’m never sure what will turn out to be important later on. Audio or video might seem to be ideal; however, recording makes subjects nervous, lessening the value of the interview. Besides, going back through the audio or video is extremely time consuming and therefore usually cost-prohibitive.

I touch-type very well, and so I have the uncanny ability to type an almost verbatim transcript of an interview while simultaneously keeping eye contact and participating in the conversation. This can come in handy during some kinds of meetings, such as internal meetings or during a kickoff with a client, when everyone involved understands and is invested in the process and I, as the naïve consultant, can be forgiven for wanting to capture every word.

This approach is much less successful in the context of a user interview, however. Not only is it kind of creepy, but the presence of a computer acts as a barrier to communication. It’s noisy, and the screen acts as an actual physical barrier between interviewer and interview subject. Furthermore, a computer is a complex, interactive device, so looking at the screen can be distracting for both interviewer and interviewee. Since we like to err on the side of a quality interview over perfect documentation, for a long time this has meant using a paper notebook for user interviews.

Enter the tablet PC.
For a little while now Cooper has been experimenting with the tablet PC in a variety of contexts. By far my favorite application of the device has been for user interviews. Using OneNote, I can handwrite my notes directly onto the tablet with the stylus. The awkwardness of a computer screen is avoided by folding the screen against the tablet. From the user perspective, it may be a little eccentric but it’s no more invasive than a paper notebook.

From my perspective, however, the tablet affords me important advantages. I can add, delete, or rearrange pages. I can create more room for notes in the middle of a page. Headings and labels become useful inroads into my notes. Sharing my notes with my team or client is a snap. It takes care of all the pesky housekeeping stuff like date- and time-stamping my notes. Best of all, because of the handwriting recognition feature, I can actually search my handwritten notes. While the recognition is far from perfect (as is my handwriting!), it’s a dramatic improvement over my paper notebook, which has never once responded well to a search request.

Also, in situations where audio recording is appropriate, OneNote has a great feature where it can synchronize audio recording with note-taking. This means that when you’re going back through your notes, you can hear what was recorded at the exact moment in time when you made that note. This makes audio recordings much more useful (you don’t have to go through and log them after the fact), and provides a great way of capturing information in settings where doing lots of writing may not be practical (such as a busy operating room in a hospital).

It’s not perfect, like that one time my design partner’s tablet let out a loud, warbling low-battery alarm in the middle of the control room at the California ISO, or when OneNote crashes right at a key moment in an interview. But all-in-all, it has proven to be an excellent balance between comfort for my interview subject, and digital goodness for me.

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