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:
- Heather Ford’s The tools we use: Supporting Wikipedia analysis
- Jenna Burrell’s The tools we use: Beyond Cassette Tapes
- Tricia Wang’s The tools we use: Gahhhh, where is the killer qualitative analysis app?