Call Us at 800.215.5080
Connect twitter linkedin rss

Taking Notes During Qualitative Research Now, Can Make Your Life Easier Later


When I was in sixth grade, we had a semester-long class about effective note taking. I thought it was to prepare us for high school, even college, but I never really thought that it would extend into my professional life. Admittedly, I do not remember a great deal from that class, but after leading and observing a number of focus groups, I have become well aware that effective note taking can save you both time and headaches.

It is important to take effective notes in the back-room during focus groups because:

  • Sitting in a dark room with unlimited access to sugar and coma-inducing sweets (especially when sitting through multiple groups) can cause one to zone-out.  Note taking keeps you engaged.
  • Without a structure, notes can become jumbled and lose context, thus, the headache when it comes time to decipher what you wrote.
  • Most importantly, taking notes saves you time in the long run, because you do not have to go back through transcripts/audio/video to try and find context for random sentences. And it makes for an effective debrief, a very important post-group session between the moderator and client.

Whether you are an academic student or a student of your consumer, everyone’s note taking styles are different.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

(Feel free to mix, match, or create variations)

  • Use the sections of the discussion guide to create a “shell”. The shell can be created in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or any other program of your fancy. Create this shell prior to the groups, and as you are viewing, take notes in each of the relevant sections you’ve created.
  • Create a shell using your objectives. If you have a list of objectives, use each objective as a new heading, page, or section of your shell. As you are listening to the groups, take notes under the objective that the point of discussion is addressing. This can also be a great way to gauge areas where you may be getting more information and areas where you may be lacking, which allows you to give the moderator feedback between groups on areas to probe further.

Play with Post-It Notes:

Take three colors of Post-It notes and designate one color “AHAs”, one color “Confirmations”, and one color “Concerns.” Limit yourself to one idea per Post-It note:

  • AHAs – Surprises, moments of clarity, new insights.
  • Confirmations – Insights that you knew from previous research that have now been confirmed by respondents.
  • Concerns – Areas that cause concern to you (can be insights that do not jive with what you have heard in the past, etc.).

The Post-It note method makes for a great debrief as you (and your other back-room colleagues) can review your notes and discuss, as a group, at the end of the session.

Make it yours:

They way you choose to take notes can vary from others just as your medium can vary.

  • Old School: Pen and paper.
  • New(er) School: PowerPoint, Excel, Word, OneNote or other computer-based programs.
  • Tech Savvy: Apps for note taking.
  • Uber Tech Savvy: LiveScribe pen (view demonstrations here and here).

No matter how you do it, taking effective notes in the back room simply requires a little preparedness and can go a long way in maintaining your sanity. Who knew sixth grade theory could extend to the business world!

Have you seen or used other effective ways of note taking/managing information while viewing focus groups? Do you have additional tips you can share with us?

  1. Market Research: 8 Proactive Moves to Make in the Early Stages of a Product Test
  • Anonymous

    Very helpful ideas, Natalie! 

    Over time, I’ve gravitated to a spreadsheet looking format, with the discussion guide elements down the left column and 8 to 10 columns for each of the people in the focus group. While we obviously aggregate comments and look for themes, it’s been helpful to track comments by respondent. It readily shows whether some members are over or under-participating and can also be a help in spotting potential biases or recurring themes from certain participants.

  • Natalie George

    I’ve never tried the spreadsheet format before – that’s a great idea!  It sounds like it’s not only a great way to track participation and recurring themes from certain participants but also could potentially show recurring themes between subgroups (i.e., men and women, older/younger, etc.).