Tips, tricks, workflow, and how not to get bogged down by it all.

OneNote for Interaction Designers, Part 3: Research and Presentation

OneNote is, as you’ve seen in the prior posts (OneNote for Interaction Designers and OneNote for Interaction Designers: the Nuts and Bolts, awesome for design meetings. But it’s also useful in research and client presentations, too.

How we use it in research

[From the video, slightly edited:] Having a laptop open in a research interview puts a barrier between you and the person you’re interviewing, and the typing can be quite distracting and intimidating for the interviewee. But typed notes are searchable, making for very useful reference when you’re synthesizing your notes. OneNote is a nice compromise. With a Tablet in slate mode, we remove the physical barrier of the laptop, and as long as you have the pen in a “Create Handwriting” mode, you can later go back and search your notes as if they were typed. (The handwriting recognition is pretty amazing.)

We sometimes have interviews by phone, and in these cases we often type notes. OneNote can go back and forth pretty seamlessly between handwriting and text, so it keeps all notes in one place. Also I find the quick-keys for adding tags to notes to be very useful when typing. You can tag questions you have, comments for follow-up, and ideas you generate, all with the quick stroke of a key.

For really important meetings, we can also use the audio recording features, which gives the ability to later go back and click on a piece of handwriting to hear what was being said at the time. Unfortunately you have to be using an external microphone for this, or all you hear is the tap-tap-tapping of the stylus hitting the slate surface instead of insightful interview conversation.

And I should note that research is not where OneNote shines the most. There are a few competing tools, like the LiveScribe Echo SmartPen and even pen and paper and that are giving it a run for its money. But as long as we’re outfitting our designers with the Tablet, OneNote is a fine tool to use during research.

Design Presentations

Presenting to stakeholders directly in OneNote—in lieu of more formal presentation software—helps convey the idea that these are ideas in progress and open to iteration. OneNote has a semi-hidden tool for making such a presentation easy.

[From the video, slightly edited:] When sharing OneNote drawings directly with a client, we’ll launch GotoMeeting or some other web meeting software and share the program. We’ll have a conversation via phone, and use OneNote’s “John Madden” mode to draw the client’s attention to the thing we’re discussing. (I think the official name is “Use Pen as Pointer” but nobody around here calls it that) which makes marks that automatically disappear after about six seconds. We’ll circle things of importance and reinforce connections between screens using that mode.

Though we’re really focused on the content of these meetings, the first time clients see us interacting with OneNote, they’re often wowed enough to ask us how we’re doing it. And we’ve converted several clients to using similar setups once they see it in action.

Stuff you have to overcome

[From the video:] OneNote is not perfect for our purposes. Not yet, anyway. To use it in your practice, there are a few things you have to overcome. (Note for this section I’m talking about the current version at the time of this writing. The Windows 8 version is in pre-release beta, but isn’t fleshed out enough for us to know which of these problems will be solved on its actual release.)

Admittedly, we are not the target users for this program. (It’s meant for&emdash;surprise&emdash;taking notes, not design. Microsoft! Call us. We’ll help you redesign this sucker.) That means there are several things you have to overcome to make it work for design’s purposes.

Moving graphics by themselves snaps them to an invisible grid, and there’s nothing you can do about it, unless you have a drawn line as part of the selection. To gain the ability to move graphics down to the pixel, if you don’t already have a hand drawn line to include in your selection, you have to make one and then erase or delete it.

It has crummy layer control. In fact, you can’t control the layers of handwritten lines at all, unless you happen to have a graphic selected with it. So you have to get used to having a small graphic available at all times.

You can’t lock anything in place. This makes it frustrating when you just want to select some lines that sit amidst a bunch of other stuff. Other than turning your background into a graphic using Snag-It, there’s no good workaround for this. You just have to become an expert selector.

It doesn’t know “symbols” like in Illustrator or Fireworks, so if you make a change on a drawing that affects all other drawings, you have some work ahead of you to synch them all up.

It tries to do its best to distinguish between handwriting (words) and drawings, but sometimes it gets it wrong, and moving what it thinks is text can result in very strange results as it tries to rearrange the rest of your “text.” The only way to avoid this is to switch to “Create Drawings” only

Thanks, OneNote

Despite these shortcomings, OneNote in the setup described above is the best tool we have for getting early design ideas out in the world fast so the team can evaluate and iterate them. There’s a learning curve, but once up to speed, our designers tend not to look back. Clients love it, too, as it’s novel, and of course they certainly appreciate our ability to save them money by not trying to iterate the same ideas in more expensive and time-consuming media. Until a better setup comes along, this is how we’ll be doing design sketches.


Cooper thinks hard about how it is we do what we do, but it’s just our way. Had different experiences or workarounds for some of the problems? Let us know in the comments below. We love to hear it.

Join the Conversation