The tools we use: Bring some colored markers

San Francisco, by Katie

My main field tools are: smartphone, paper, pens. And when I can, colored markers and a sketchpad.

The smartphone part can be touchy… Tricia noted in her post on Writing Live Fieldnotes that she used to carry around a beat-up Nokia feature phone in China because it was less distracting, but that eventually not having an IPhone became more distracting. In the US too there are situations where a smartphone can pose a divide between a researcher and a researchee (okay that’s not a word, but I hate the word “subject”). From my pov in Northern California, the smartphone divide seems less relevant every day, but it can still be an issue.

At this point though I choose the smartphone in all its tricorder glory over carrying around a bunch of other stuff.  I use it to take pictures, record audio and occasionally video, make notes — sometimes I even use it as a phone. To try to break down potential divides, sometimes I let my (genuine) awe at my smartphone show in an interview, and fuss a bit over whether it’s working right.

For recording interviews, I use an Android app, Tape-a-Talk. It’s free and it works. I’ve used other digital recording gadgets and apps too — meh, pretty much all of them have seemed fine to me, but I’m not looking for super clean sound or for audio that I can sync with video. I just want a recording that I can understand. If you’re looking for more from a recorder, the public radio and new media site Transom is a great resource.

Actually I guess there’s one exception to my impression that most gadgets and apps are fine for basic recording purposes. The last time I heard a recording from a Livescribe pen, it picked up a lot of pen scratching sounds and background noise. I don’t think it was recorded using the Livescribe “headset” for capturing sound though, so maybe that’s not a fair test. I’m guessing that an interviewee might not be comfortable with having the headset slung around their neck though, as LiveScribe suggests. Plus you have to use special dotted paper for the notes, and I’d probably lose the pen anyway.

I also use regular paper, that stuff that people used to write on back in the olden days. For interviews, I’ll bring along a printout of questions that I can refer to during the interview. If I take notes during an interview (depends on the vibe I get from the interviewee), it’s always on paper. If I take notes after an interview, it might be on paper, or it might be in gmail. Same thing with observational notes – depends on who’s around and how taking notes on paper vs. on a phone will be perceived. I should probably switch to evernote, but yeah I pretty much use gmail drafts + labels for notes (minus any personally identifying information).

Something that I would like to try out more on future projects is providing interviewees with a sketch pad and colored markers. Asking people to draw maps of their neighborhoods for Visualizing Mental Maps of San Francisco produced some great information. In that case, the project used fairly clear-cut drawing exercises as a research method. But I would like to try a sketch pad and markers as a supplemental form of communication that people could use if/when they felt like it during an interview.

Sometimes it takes a lot of reassurance to get people drawing; other times they jump right in. Drawing can help people unearth and convey ideas that are difficult to express with words alone – a bit like photo elicitation, but the images are entirely in the respondent’s control. Plus, drawings from respondents can be an engaging addition to reports. Anyway, it’s something I would like to experiment with more.

Read other posts in the Tools We Use series:

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11 Responses to “The tools we use: Bring some colored markers”

  1. August 31, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    This is great! Your method reminds me of what Sara Cohen and Brett Lashua at the University of Liverpool are doing. To study the local music scenes, they asked their informants to draw a map of the city based on their experiences and memories tied to places such as venues and studios. It’s a good method to capture the spatial details of musicians narratives and perspectives that could be left out in other (official) accounts of the place:

  2. September 1, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

    Wow, amazing project. Thanks for the pointer!

  3. September 4, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

    Love this! At IFTF (institute for the future) we have been using drawing for a number of years in our interviews. We ask people to create timelines of their health histories, we ask them to draw out a day-in-the-life, much like what you describe above, or to draw a map of their home and how each room relates to a particular topic, or to map some aspect of their relationships with others. I find these provocative and often quite generative, as well as a way for researchees 🙂 to do something beyond just sitting there. It’s always harder for our team to come to a common understanding of how to deal with these drawings, however, than it is for us to work with a transcript of an interview or a photo or video. But it would be wonderful to have a dissertation that included spectacularly interesting drawings!

    • September 5, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

      Oh, I really like the idea of asking people create to timelines of their health histories, might try that out this week!
      Drawings do seem harder to analyze as a group endeavor.

  4. September 6, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

    I don’t like the word “subject” either. And the old-school “informant” – no thanks. I like the word “participant” – it has a positive, neutral and participatory tone to it.

    • September 7, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

      “Participant” is my favorite too. Sometimes I go with “respondent” to switch it up a little, even though it sounds a little goofy.


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