Open Fieldnotes in Remote Interviews

TL;DR: Make fieldnotes in a document shared with the participant, go over the notes together at the end of the research session

In qualitative research I do at work, participants of the research talk to me and demonstrate things while I (or a note taker) write notes to remember later on what the participant talked about and showed.

In the last year, my team and I tried several things to open up our research process. One of them was sharing our fieldnotes with the participants and giving them the opportunity to edit them.

We do the research remotely via hangouts or jitsi—tools which allow having conversations and also screen sharing, so participants can demonstrate what they do on their computers. Our fieldnotes are written in google docs 1. The research is done with two researchers, one moderating and asking questions, the other taking notes.

We send the link to the fieldnote-document before the interview to the participant, briefly explaining that this is where we will take notes. We mention this again before the research session. Then we being with the research session, ask question and observe. The fieldnote-document is not very interesting during first part of the session, since everybody is busy talking and demonstrating (participant), moderating (moderator) and taking notes (notetaker).

However, when we talked about all major points, we transition to reviewing the notes. The moderator closes the session and says “To be sure we understood you correctly, let's have a look at the notes we took”. The moderator then summarizes the content and asks clarifying questions: “You said ‘the function allows no live-checks’ – did you mean the mass editing function?”. When going through the notes together, it helps to point out where you are: “In the paragraph starting with…”, “on the third page…”. Many editing tools show the cursors and highlights of other users, allowing to highlight a section and referring to “this section”.

The review is also a good time to ask for screenshots. If the user does not know how to create them, you can share your screen and have the participant guide you to the feature, so you can make a screenshot. Sometimes it is also useful to add links e.g. to software documentation explaining a feature which was used or to content the participant interacted with. In research on wikis, this might be a list of all articles that show a certain problem or so.

After we went through the notes we close the research session like any other. However, we point out that we leave the fieldnotes editable for the participant to add to if they want. After a few days we then copy the text over and close the original document. On one hand to delete it, so that the identity of the user is not connected to the fieldnotes and also to have a static version that is not edited anymore.

To recap, the idea in brief:

  • set up a life-editable document and share it with the participant
  • during the research, make your fieldnotes in the document
  • go over the document with the participant to ask questions and fill in gaps.

I found the method to be easy to implement and work well with a standard process of data collection and analysis. Aside of the more transparent data collection and the improved accuracy of the fieldnotes, I noted that it also is just a nice reason to recap the research with the participant and to get an additional person, the notetaker, involved.

Related:


  1. Or some other editor/wordprocessor which is easy to use for our target group and allows to restrict the access to us and the research participant.