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Moving Good Old-Fashioned Note Taking into the Digital Realm: A UX Perspective

by Carl Beien , 29.11.2012

Writing things down, whether for notes or shopping lists, is one of those stalwart activities that just won’t ever seem to go away. There is something about the simplicity of applying pen to paper that seems unlikely to be replaced by the digital.

In developing digital tools that seek to replace existing physical ones, a user experience-inspired understanding of the original experience gives us unique perspective when developing recommendations for their would-be replacements.

For instance, the growing utility of smartphones, tablets, mini tablets (hello iPad Mini!), and even netbooks, means the opportunity for these tools to replace standard note taking is growing all the time. Understanding the unique edge that exists in the world of handwritten notes, however, is key to their success.

Taking Notes and Highlighting Relative Importance

Handwritten notes contain subtle cues to help readers understand messages that go beyond which words appear on the page.

Notes taken on the center of a page, for example, are less likely to get lost if that page is torn. Knowing this, we can decide if a note should be written front and center on a new page, or fit into the margins on a crowded one.

Since a note with very few words is more likely to be seen, we can isolate text with a bubble or satisfying doodle to ensure it gets more attention later on. With this “interface,” we simply have to look at the page and decide where our pen needs to land.

Similarly, pens are “pressure-sensitive” devices. In order to make a darker stroke, we simply press down harder while writing. We can also choose to go over a word or phrase more than once, further highlighting importance. Isolated bubbles and a heavy hand make it easy to pull out important information later on.

Furthermore, there is also an emotional experience with doodles and reiterated type that is not duplicated by pressing the “bold” button at the top of the screen.

The folks at ReadSmart have found handwritten notes seldom have consistent letter sizes or equal spaces between words. These variations actually provide subconscious clues that can later aid reading comprehension. In this way, the clarity of standardized text actually decreases readability. These types of observations go a long way towards helping find digital equivalents.

Lifespan of Relevant Data

One of the greatest selling points of electronic data is its sheer versatility.

Unlike handwritten notes, words typed into a computer or smartphone can be saved, searched, and shared with unprecedented ease. However, if users don’t value these features, then they will be unlikely to change platforms.

Depending on the rigor of college courses, certain class notes may lose significant value once the upcoming test has passed, and be almost completely useless at the end of the semester negating the value of saving notes to a device.

For example, handwritten shopping lists are likely to be discarded after a single use. Users who do not save or reference their completed lists are unlikely to make a sustained change to digital equivalents.

Once data is digital, there is the impression that it ought to be saved, which requires file structures, dates and contexts in order to be useful. If the information is not valuable enough for users to save in its handwritten form, the added task of file names and structures won’t likely be worth the effort.

Electronic Applicability

Having identified some elements of the note-taking experience, we can devise questions to evaluate how users will respond to a new experience. For example:

* Will users seek to replicate methods of highlighting relative importance from the existing interface? Or will new methods with similar outcomes be developed?

* What lifespan should users expect for the data that they input? How much control will they have?

Questions like these come from applying user experience (UX) methodologies to traditional interfaces, which provide a powerful perspective for evaluating the benefits users are likely to get out of new tools.

ReadSmart has an algorithm that simulates the kind of phrase-based spacing and sizing that exists naturally in handwritten work. The tool draws from the traditional interface, swapping transparency for usability, and automatically inserting the clarity of phrase-based spacing into the convenience of digital files.

The Quality of Context

When a user interacts with a digital interface, they bring their experiences using non-digital interfaces into the equation, and vice versa. Improving even the best digital interfaces requires a robust understanding as to how the traditional interface serves its users. Having an appreciation of this process helps us as researchers provide valuable insights to digital devices, and even the lowly pen.

Carl Beien is a User Experience Analyst at GfK User Centric. He can be reached at carl.beien@gfk.com.