You have collected nominal data, that is, observations that cannot be quantified or put in any meaningful order. However, there are many useful ways to organize your notes so that they are helpful in the next phase of data analysis and synthesis. Debriefing with your team after an interview is a crucial step to making sense of field notes and capturing any insights or observations that may have not made it on the page.
However, before you begin your journey to observe your customers and better understand their needs and environment, you need to know how to take functional notes. The functionality of these notes will make a difference when you come back to revisit them two days later, two months later, or two years later.
Below, we will cover a number of different data collection techniques to help you have meaningful and organized notes of your observations. Remember, the data collection techniques you use today are going to be your memory tomorrow.
Use more than one technique, whether it is written, oral or visual (notes, audio or video format). All are helpful in picking up on different aspects of observation. Different people also have different learning styles. Some are visual learners; a picture or diagram will make a difference in understanding and comprehension. Others are verbal learners who need to see a concept in writing before they can understand it. Others are audio learners who must hear something said out loud before they understand. Finally, there are tactile or kinesthetic learners who need to learn by doing and experiencing things themselves. For those who are tactile learners, I suggest that they be those who “get their hands dirty” researching consumers. It is also a good idea for those in upper-management to be involved in the research because this will make them more likely to support the results later in the process.
How to Debrief
A person retains up to 99% of unrelated information two hours following an exercise, up to 71% for unrelated material two days following an exercise and less than 14% for periods longer than two days (Goldstein, Chance, 1971). Immediately after the site visit, the research team should start to process their learnings, form beginning hypotheses and take a first pass to analyze the information gathered during the site visit. This debrief period should be facilitated by someone who can capture what is discussed so there is a permanent record of the conversation. The ability to create an archive or permanent record to store the information is crucial to the quality and integrity of the research. As in any research method, an archive provides a long-term reference source and the ability to verify and validate the research. As an estimate, for every hour spent in the field, at least half that amount of time should be spent debriefing individually, as a team or in a larger group. A three-pronged approach to debriefing works as a way to distill the information gathered:
- Work alone immediately following each encounter: This allows individuals time to fill in gaps in their notes while their memory is most clear and access information in short-term memory before it is discarded. It also allows each person on the research team to sort through, highlight and begin to process the most important points from the research without the observations of others to sway them.
- Work as a research team: This allows each individual to verbalize and build off each teammate’s perspective, knowledge and experience. An archival record should be created of the team’s top findings, issues, insights and connections from the research. A significant amount of time of the debrief process should be spent in this phase to examine and determine the significance of the data collected.
- If there are multiple research teams in the field, a larger group debrief should be held: This debrief provides the opportunity for all research members to debrief each other on the top issues and insights collected before the next round of site visits. This is a great time to make “ethnography” happen through the exchange of knowledge and insight gained from others who may have had different or similar experiences. There are many methods of debriefing as a group. The choice of what technique is most appropriate depends on the audience, size of the group and the purpose of the debrief, such as whether to inform, explore, analyze, evaluate or present findings? The most common methods to debrief are:
- Site Visit Profile Sheets: Each field team fills out a one-page profile sheet of the site visit to give an overview of the site visit and its key findings to those who have not participated in the research.
- Storytelling: Each field team chooses a story or series of stories to communicate the key insights from each site visit. The story should be a vibrant reflection of the customer in order to impart a feel for the customer’s environment, personality and needs. This can be an effective method to inform others of the broader context and instill the voice of the customer.
- Observation, Insight and Connection: Each field team reports back the highlights of what they observed and heard (observation), their interpretation of the observation (insight) and the key needs observed (connection) for each site visit. This provides the rest of the group the opportunity to give their perspective and add other connections and builds to the research team’s thoughts. This method is best used as a beginning analysis tool and can be used to build a database of customer insights
- Transcription: Each field team transcribes the site visit with as much detail and context as possible. If video was used, the environmental context is captured in written form. Team members highlight key quotes or environmental cues from the transcript that display vivid visual images and the voice of the customer. Each key quote is discussed, cleansed to remove partiality in the wording and then reworded to capture the significance. The research team should be the one to use this method because they understand the context of the situation. This method can be used as a beginning analysis tool to highlight key points. (Hepner-Brodie, Burchill,1997)
- Formal presentation: A presentation of top insights and beginning themes with supporting stories, quotes and video clips can be made to a broader audience. This presentation does not include any analysis.