Archive for category design research

Date: May 6th, 2011
Cate: design research

Transcribing Interviews on Mac, My Way

How do you deal with your voice recording after the interview? When multiple people can be present at the interview, the team could split their roles as an interviewer and a notetaker. Usually this is enough, however, in some cases, because you have to be there on your own or could not take the note properly, you have to return to the voice recordings.

When project affords, I use transcription services. It is high quality, and I do enjoy when someone else does it for me, as I am quickly released from the stress and anxiety, particularly when I have to conduct multiple interviews in consecutive days and have no idea when I could sit down to make sure that I have not missed important elements from the interview. I also like the sense of not missing any information and the fact that textual information provides me for further analysis.

Despite of its exhausting effort, I must say I am sometimes more satisfied with the outcome when I do it myself. The process allows me to relive the interview and reminds me of the discussion vividly and because of the slow progress, it gives me an opportunity to digest the material like a cow digesting the grass, giving me inspiration and somewhat, urge, to move on with the data to the next level. And maybe, this might be totally irrelevant to some of you, but I personally feel happy that someone else is released from this daunting task; for someone who was not present during the actual interview, even if that person is a professional transcriber, it requires a lot of imagination to understand the flow and the context of the conversation in the audio file.

Below are two approaches I take as I conduct interviews to people, mostly in context of home or work place. First solution is to simply bring a laptop to upon the interview and take notes to the transcription software on a laptop (in this case, Mac). Another solution is a classic pen and paper solution, supported by portable IC recorders.

For interviews with a laptop
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Whether recordings come in video or audio, my favorite application on Mac for the task is PearNote. You can have a trial for 30 days otherwise costs $39.99, which I find it reasonable after knowing the feature.

If you are going to record during the interview from a laptop, the simplest way is to simply record directly to this application. Simply open this application and write down as you record audio. What is great about this application (although there must be numbers of applications which do such things), is that it roughly remembers the location of the cursor as you record. The functionality becomes particularly useful after the interview as you can simply write down a few words and then complete them afterwards as you quickly jump to the recordings as you go.

For interviews without a laptop
But to my experience, in most cases, bringing in a laptop to the interview is not an option. In such cases you can bring in a voice recorder. I suppose people have different preferences over which model to use, but for me important criteria are:

  • Stereo recording. It simply makes it easier for you to recognize who is speaking and grasp the circumstance. Either the voice recorder itself comes with an in-built microphone, otherwise, you can buy one of the accessory microphones to enhance the recording.
  • USB plug-in & charge. Once you become accustomed to the connection without cables, it is difficult to live without. Recent models also enable you to charge not only to transfer data: that is also handy as you can make sure you are ready for next recording as you save data onto your laptop.
  • Compatible file format. Some voice recorders record voice in WMV files, which can only be played on Windows. Because I am a Mac user, I naturally prefer MP3 file format.
  • These criteria narrows down your selection of IC recorder fairly quickly.

    • Sony. As of May 2011 I see they have four series depending on its feature set. Models which fill the above criteria are SX and UX series, two higher end models of the four.
    • Olympus VoiceTrek. I am VoiceTrek user myself. Although my model is relatively old and do not fulfill conditions above, I am quite happy with its audio quality and the lasting battery. Looking at the website, the most high-end model unfortunately do not come cable-free. I personally would recommend V-series for interview purpose.
    • After recording the interview, PearNote once again comes handy. All you have to do is import video or audio file and start transcribing on the editor window. Importing files would require time as the file size increases, and naturally, video would require your some patience to start. But otherwise, the application allows me to have easy AV control. If the interviews are recorded in multiple files, you can import them accordingly, by selecting where to insert the file. And let’s not forget the 30-seconds-rewind button, although this is needless to say the most important functionality you seek in transcription software. The button makes me realizes how dense 30-seconds can be, and how much information can fit in such a small time slot.

      (click to jump to

      What I like about this application is that despite of its reasonable set of features, it appears fairly simple. Because in principle the main text editor is a simple text, you can simply copy and paste a part, or if needed, all the text onto other applications such as Microsoft Word.

      Pear Note:
      Sony IC recorder website:
      Olympus IC recorder website:

    Date: April 6th, 2010
    Cate: design research

    Japan Home Visit Research Tips

    As I coordinated another design research, I thought it is a good opportunity for me to write down some of the things I remind myself whenever I conduct a design research.

  • Wear socks.
  • Or stockings. Because you have to take off your shoes. You might be tempted for sandals or mules in summer, best that you do not venture.

  • Wear shoes-a-ten-sec.
  • Make sure your pair of shoes can be taken away within 10 seconds. Japanese home entrance is very confined and can often accommodate one person at a time. Taking care of shoelaces can be time-consuming and particularly if you are a team.

  • Involve everyone in the conversation.
  • This seems like a matter-of-fact, but not necessarily if you are conducting a global research under multi-lingual environment. If there is a researcher who does not speak the language, make that person address the question. That way everyone somehow involved in the conversation, interviewee worries less about boring anyone.

    In addition, if someone new is joining the team, encourage them to make themselves busy either by taking notes or shoot photographs. The primary reason why is to make sure that there will be no one who is just staring at the interviewer.

  • If Japanese clients coming along, make sure they don’t wear tie and suits.
  • I’m not kidding. This actually happened to me and trust me, can be quite tough to convince someone to dress down when they are not used to. I realized that some people think researchers are being rude: “You are meeting customers, so why do researchers tell me that I should not wear a tie?” The primary reason why I suggest the research team to dress casual is because I want to minimize our informants to change how they behave. We should also remember, that not everyone is in a suit environment in their everyday lives. Setting the occasion in a formal manner can make people nervous.

  • Hand out business cards?
  • I suggest not. I have two reasons why I do not offer my business cards, unless the informant him or herself suggests to do so. One is because a research team often consists of people from the client’s company and someone hired locally. Explaining the composition of the team could in fact confuse who you are working for, and may bring unnecessary questions to be answered. I also sensed, that housewives, which consist of majority of Japanese women who are in 40s or older, might feel embarrassed they don’t have one to give back.

  • If offered for a drink, take it. Interviewees feel bad about taking any and everyone will be thirsty.
  • Needless to say. I believe this is common for most cultures.

  • Provide payment alternatives.
  • In some cases, I received an email or a phone call from an informant specifically requesting how they could receive the honorariums for the interview. It is often men, and they ask if we could pay in cash, not to banks.

    The motivation is very simple. These people would like to have cash so that they have an income not controlled by their housewives. In most single income households, salaries paid to the bank go straight to housewives control. They of course, fix the amount of money their husbands can spend freely.

    Whether you accept this request or not is up to you. But I do enjoy hearing their whispers at the very end of the interview about their little plans about how to spend the money for. It also highlights some of the hidden desires.

  • Make sure to bring new crisp bills if you pay honorariums in cash.
  • Place bills into dedicated envelopes and make sure front (face) side of the bill are placed at the top. This seems like a detail but it is quite important as this is the way how cash is dealt whenever paid to someone else. When you hand out, make sure to ask them to open and check inside, otherwise Japanese will not do this in front of you because they find the act impolite (I know this is not the case in China: In China, I see checking the cash transaction face to face reasonable, which avoids any trouble later on.) And if you decide to deal things with cash, make sure you have some kind of receipts that informant can place their signatures to.

    Conclusion: Nothing is hard science and I believe some of them are common reminders to any research location. But the important thing is, some are different. Many are such details, but be prepared to pay attention to such details saves me from a few small panics which I could live without in intense research times.

    Date: December 21st, 2009
    Cate: design research

    A Presence of Sticky Notes

    It is a known fact in Japan, that first-year employees go through many trainings. Take business cards for example. If you meet a client and exchange business cards, you should never present your business card in a higher position than your client. Such small but essential tips for Japanese business are one of the few things people typically learn in the first year of their first company.

    But recently I learned something interesting. Someone who works for an ad agency told me, that in his first year he learned how to use sticky notes. He was instructed that he should write neat letters because clients have to read them. He also told me that he learned that he should place post-it notes in a straight line, both vertically and horizontally. He didn’t explain the reason why, but it could perhaps be to save space and make sure clients find them easy to read.

    His explanation convinced me how important the group communication is increasingly important in business. And I heard from my fellow design researchers that they are now using mini post-its a lot for mobile or personal affinity wall/desk/note creation to make their brain work in the same way as in the workshop. Now these approximately 5 cm x 5 cm pads come in a recycled paper with a nice recycled carbon box, too.

    I am practicing their tips and also doing the same for myself. It works really well when I am preparing for the interview to organize questions. I recommend that my fellow researchers to try this, too.


    Date: June 19th, 2009
    Cate: design research

    UX Toolkit?

    Creating a deck of cards on my own which describes different user research techniques. Thinking this could be a practical brainstorm or a workshop kit for me to communicate with my existing and potential clients.

    Too expensive creating cards? I know, particularly if you would like to have double-sided printings, with both sides having different design for each card. If available, try buying papers for inkjet printers for creating business cards on your own.


    Date: May 8th, 2009
    Cate: design research

    Video Diary Hassles

    If you are a practitioner of user research of some sort, I am sure you have come across with, or even conducted a research using diaries. Diaries can last for a few days to months if long, but the idea behind is to basically understand how a certain product, service, or any other target of your interest, is integrated into their lives. By asking participants to keep record of actual consumption or use, not only the researchers would understand the frequency and context of us, but also the participants themselves would be able to understand about their usage behaviors. As a result, any interview following the diary study is often very insightful because participants seem to know better about themselves.

    At times where different technologies available, there are so many media types we could use to keep diaries.

    Text Diaries
    You can ultimately use pen and paper, and the effort required from researchers for preparation is fairly low. It also feels easier to ask participants because unlike using cameras, the participant can behave fairly normally upon recording (humiliation factor = low). However, today is the time when people use SMS instead of handwritten letters, and write reports using Microsoft Word instead of papers. Writing a decent amount of text on a piece of paper can be surprisingly a big effort for some people (perceived effort = surprinsingly high). But it also has an advantage that the information collected comes in a reasonable file size and it is often easy to share with your project mates and customers.

    Photo Diaries
    Now that many handsets come with camera features, it has become fairly easy to request for photo diaries by using inbuilt cameras. In countries like Japan, where many people use sha-mail (photo-attached messages), the method works well without any additional investment on equipments. The fact that we do not need to lend any equipment reduces many practicalities from researchers. You save money, time to distribute the equipments, and time participants learn how to use them. Another strong benefit is that the information can come almost real time since they can simply request them to send those messages to an email account or even to a blog.

    However, this approach has its own drawbacks. One obvious problem I noticed is the image quality. Most camera phones, although they are equipped with mega pixel cameras, optimize the file size to be sent from the phone. Those reduced images are often poor in quality. Another problem is that the participant decides what is interesting about the situation. Typically, it only contains a single angle, covering a person’s face or a meal, but not both. What is often left out is the set-up, the atmosphere of the place he or she is in, or with whom they are with.

    Video Diaries.
    Recently as I used video diary as a method for one research.  I had many positive and negative experience.

    The most obvious and biggest problem was the equipment. Initially we planned to take clips with participants’ mobile phones and uploading them to YouTube, we quickly found the approach too optimistic. This is just my assumption but for some exceptionally advanced users who utilize the fixed data plans, uploading as large files as video clips, is something they wouldn’t even try doing. This was quite a shock to me, as among any consumers I know in the world, Japanese would be the ones who are technically advanced and had high-spec phones.

    What did we do in the end? Well, as you can see from the image, we basically bought portable camcorders and distributed them. I believe some of you have already tried this approach. It is ok if you are distributing the device to people in a same workplace or in proximity, but when you have strict recruitment criteria (e.g. a factory worker in 40s whose workplace would allow video recording) and had to travel around the city, simply distributing the cameras and collecting them have created us so much workload to the team.


    And because we tried to save money with the device, we purchased a low-end device that cost 150 EUR each. After purchasing 20 of them, they are still not very cheap. And later we found out, that the biggest drawback of these device, was not the image quality but the battery life. After realizing this, we had to remind participants that they not only had to carry an extra device but also to remember to charge them everyday. Not that these people do not own a mobile phone to carry and charge as often.

    But video diaries, brought me some positive surprises. The biggest treat was to realize how rich the information could be when participant realized how fun it is to take videos and captured their life. Either intentionally or by chance, participants from my recent study showed not only themselves and products we are interested but also their surroundings. In some cases they turned around 360 degrees, or used their own tripods to capture themselves inside the context. Now with photos, I normally see an element of the context: a face or a meal, but here a 30-second clip would easily contained both, with participants speaking, colleagues teasing, and cars honking in the back. Image quality will never be as high as still images, but video clips gave us more samples to choose from when it comes to crop out the images that seem to be effective to use later on for reporting and to accompany personas and scenario descriptions. It was visually strong.

    Unfortunately, video was the method which required us the biggest analysis effort. We had to drag non-project members to sit and watch 12 people’s 3-days worth of video clips so we could transcribe quotes. But I did enjoy some of the moments when one of us came across with interesting clips and couldn’t help grinning.


    Date: August 21st, 2008
    Cate: Culture, design research
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    currency exchange, yen to yen


    Earlier I posted an entry about the importance of new, crisp bills when you give or pay cash to someone in Japan. The fact that bills are unused is quite important indication that you care about the other. Weddings and funerals are crucial cases. And for a person with a profession in research, it is when I conduct interviews or user tests that I need to think about the ‘newness’ of the bills.

    Although Japanese bills tend to be pretty clean, it would still be a mission impossible to acquire bills without any wrinkle in everyday life. So most people go to a nearby bank. Primarily this currency exchange service is used by shop owners, who want to make sure they have enough loose changes for their customers. You can fill in the form they provide and indicate how you want to your cash, in which bills or coins, and how many. But simultaneously you can also mark a check box indicating that you would like all bills to be new.


    Exchange up to 50 bills are done for free, up to 500 will cost you 315 yen. Although going to a bank during such busy times like right before your interviews is a hassle, it is certainly nice when you have such clean bills in your hand even if that is for a short time.

    I don’t know quite well what actually happens to the old bills, but one interesting example I saw was to make a souvenir out of it. My school alumni who works for Bank of Japan showed me that their gift shop sells a pen which fills the cartridge space with old shredded bills. It’s true, you won’t get such a thing anywhere else!


    And speaking of the perceived value of bills, we see that different countries have different perception. In China, quite often I saw bills with scribbles. Some came with numbers, which was obviously a trace of counting; while some came with someone’s name… perhaps money was collected from different people and those names indicated the person who paid? The below image is the 100 yuan bill, the biggest bill you find in China.


    How are bills in your country treated?