What's the best way to take notes during analysis?

A big part of an IDs job is talking with SMEs--gathering facts, understanding processes, learning new systems--and that means taking notes.

Just curious how you manage those conversations and interviews. Standard tools include:

  • notebooks
  • tape recorders
  • laptop for typing

I like notebooks but they're low tech and my handwriting gets worse, not better, every year. Tape recorders work well but replaying and transcribing take time. Typing is my preferred way but it feels impersonal looking at a screen.

So what's the best way to take notes? Got any tips for helping us take better notes?

12 Replies
Bruce Graham

Great question!

A Mindmap, checking back with the SME every 5 minutes that your understanding is correct.

One new map (potentially) to understand each major branch.

This is to make it easier to re-interpret, not because having all of it on one map is incorrect as a concept.

Alternatively, (as I personally never meet a large % of my SME's), a very well planned series of questions with, agaiin, a process for going back and checking understanding.


Steve Flowers

Ideally, you can have more than one person in the interviews so you end up having a lead on the conversation and another doing the recording. Mindmaps are great, even if the person doing the mapping isn't so good at it. There's little harm in recording the conversation to tape even if you never end up using it.

One of the secrets I've found to manageable sessions and tracking the record is structuring your meetings in short bursts of around an hour each. During these meetings, I like to focus on a specific "level" of the definition and alignment. Early on we look at the big picture elements. Later meetings we break these down into smaller chunks. Most of my meetings end up being remote, I'll take down the highlights and important notes on a notepad, drawing diagrams and mind mapping as I go. But there's also someone else using a structured template that I prepared ahead of time to capture the stuff we agreed to ahead of time. We keep it small and on target, guiding the process as we move deeper into unexplored territory.

I've found keeping meetings to an hour or so each has a couple of nice benefits. First, if I happen not to capture each note, there is little risk that I won't be able to remember it (it's often the inflection / nuance that matters, not so much the quote). Second, we benefit from spacing. There are many sparks between meetings, offline, that simply wouldn't happen in a compressed meeting. This spacing provides time for reflection and discussion within groups that often enriches the meetings that follow.

Bruce Graham

David Anderson said:

@Bruce: you know, as much as I use mind maps, I never considered using them  for notetaking. That's a really great idea. Any chance you'd have time to do a Screenr on that process (always volunteering you for work!)

Yes of course Mr Anderson, your wish is my command....I have nothing better to do with my time



David Anderson

Steve Flowers said:

 This is actually a pretty good idea for "Big question of the week" type discussions that you don't want to see buried. Nice work, David:P

LOL!  We have no idea how this happened or what's causing it. The Popular Conversations thread is intended to stick the most active threads, not this one.

Guess the good news is we got Bruce to create another cool Screenr

Live Scribe looks great. Tom either has it or was looking at it recently. He's into tablets so usually has a good feed on all those. I'm with you Steve and wouldn't want to gamble my handwriting on any device. It would make a good "grunge" style font:-)

David Anderson

@Bruce: you know, as much as I use mind maps, I never considered using them  for notetaking. That's a really great idea. Any chance you'd have time to do a Screenr on that process (always volunteering you for work!)

@Kayla: Yah, mine is like chicken scratch, only worse. When I worked for a financial company, it was common for 5-10 SMEs from different lines of business to be on a call during weekly/bi-weekly check-ins. We of course used conference calling and thankfully my project manager always recorded them so we could go back and verify we captured everything.

Gregg Wanciak

These days I use my iPad for taking notes, and an app called AudioNote. This app allows me to record the meeting, type notes, and write or draw freehand. What I really like about the app, though, is that when I'm recording, anything I type or write/draw becomes a time marker on the audio recording. When reviewing, if someone said something important, and I typed or wrote a note at that time, I can tap on the notation and jump directly to that part of the audio recording.

Nita  Venter

I agree, there is nothing worse than the need to summarize meetings that have so many details in them.These can so easily become a burden.

We do tape record meetings at times and we also take written notes frequently but more often we find that it is so valuable to have an extra person attending a meeting taking notes on the computer and having these notes (and agreements) projected onto a screen while we all speak, discuss and brainstorm.

It can greatly assist in obtaining clarity, commitment and a good sense of forward movement for all. (and often it helps us establish even more clarity when it is in front of us on a screen). At the end of the meeting all that follow up work is done  and we simply need to email  the notes to everyone in the meeting and walk away with our deliverables clarified.

I love these meetings!