Sunday, November 07, 2010

A note-taker's tool

The law of unintended consequences describes the fact that many actions have results that are unplanned, and frequently undesirable. Economists also talk of "perverse incentives", whereby legislation or market manipulation intended to produce one outcome result in another. For example, when my company, Information and Design, owned motor vehicles, my accountant on one occasion suggested that I might "take a spin to Canberra" (a 1,500 km round trip) to clock up an odometer reading that would result in a tax benefit.

Unintended consequences are not necessarily negative, however.

Last week I bought an Echo Smartpen from Livescribe. It can record and play back audio, but I wasn't interested in that particular feature. What interested me was its ability to record my handwriting and, with the aid of add-on software MyScript, convert it to text.

In my work, I spend a lot of time talking to people in a variety of locations - homes, workplaces and, currently, schools. I take a lot of handwritten notes, and generally need to convert them to electronic format for further analysis (such as coding or affinity diagramming). It would be ideal if I could take notes directly into a computer, but this is inappropriate for several reasons, primarily the fact that it lowers the  quality of the conversation and interferes with flow. So there's no real substitute for handwriting. (Audio recording can be useful but is inefficient and frequently inappropriate.)

As soon as possible after each interview I sit at a computer and type in my notes. It's not entirely wasted time, since it's an opportunity to revisit the conversations and consider what I've learned, and to make notes about issues, design implications and so on. However, it's overly tedious and time-consuming.

Any system that would allow me to automate the process, at least to some extent, is attractive. A few years ago I had a brief look at a pen-based recording system (perhaps an earlier iteration of the Echo Smartpen; I don't recall) and decided it was inadequate.

In the week since I bought the pen I conducted around ten interviews over the course of two non-consecutive days, and it was an opportunity to trial the system.

I should mention that the pen uses special paper. Apparently you can print your own paper on a laser printer, but the purpose-made notebooks are not overly expensive so I just used one of them.

On the first day of interviews, I used my "printed" handwriting, and the results were less than adequate. While I saved some time in transcription, the recognition rate was low, and the effort in fixing up my notes was significant.

My printed handwriting produced poor results
On the second day, I switched to cursive "joined-up" handwriting, and I took some care (certainly more than usual) in trying to make my writing legible.

My handwriting has never been brilliant, and I've been using keyboards almost exclusively since my mid teens. I remember my father's handwriting being particularly legible; he was a civil servant in the days prior to computers, so it was a necessary skill. Gina's handwriting is also generally excellent, especially when she uses a drafting style. She tells me that everyone in her industrial design course could write well, because it was still a necessary skill in the days when engineers and drafts-people  were on the cusp of having ready and affordable access to tools like Autocad (which, incidentally, Wikipedia informs we was first released in 1982).

In any case, when I try, I can write in a passable readable script, and I found that my Day 2 notes were rendered acceptably well by the MyScript software. I spent around one hour cleaning up and revisiting 21 pages of hand-written notes - much less time than I would normally spend.

Purely from the point of view of conducting ethnographic research, then, the Smartpen and MyScript software are indispensable. The 4GB version of the pen cost less than AUD $250, and the software around AUD $30 (roughly the same in US dollar amounts at present), and they've already paid for themselves.

If you take field notes, and are willing to put some effort into ensuring your handwriting is reasonably legible, this is a revolutionary tool. Mind you, if you buy the pen, expect to be irked by the extremely ugly pen lid. This must be detached to write, and since it can't be attached to any other part of the pen, you're pretty much guaranteed to lose it. In acknowledgement of this fact, a spare cover is included, which you can lose at your leisure.

The pen is not as nice to hold as, for example, my Cross ballpoint, but it's acceptable. I imagine that there is room for later generations to become more compact and elegant.

As for the unintended benefit, my handwriting has improved for the first time since I was in primary school. I expect further payoff and further improvement, although perhaps not to the point where the quality of my handwriting approaches that of my father's.

Cursive gave better results - but still with room for improvement!

1 comment:

  1. I have horrible handwriting, so passed up the whole SmartPen option and went for typing.

    I'm not sure if you've got an iPad, but if you do, give an App called AudioNote a spin.

    It does the same trick as LiveScribe technology (records audio and syncs the timeline with any input from the user). Whilst sitting, I can type out notes. Whilst standing or moving, I only need to draw a meaningful doodle with my stylus, or type a couple of meaningful words to allow me to jump to that part of the audio recording later.