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Research Trail Guide: Headlining after interviews

Maia lifts the lid on how to turn your jumbled interview notes into a coherent, outcome-oriented summary.

At the end of a round of research interviews there are few things more daunting than when I’ve found myself with 12 scrappy google docs of notes to try to make sense of. At Muir Wood & Co, we’ve developed a headlining process that gives us confidence that everything important in an interview has been taken forward, without having to trawl through literally everything everyone said.

This article will explain why we think headlining is important, some principles that will make ‘em more useful, and a step by step approach for writing them.

What’s the deal with headlining?

Headlining is the process of immediately turning a bunch of verbatim notes into a manageable number of summarised statements.

We take detailed notes during our interviews, then write headlines immediately afterwards, on the same capture sheet. They follow a structure that ensures we hit our learning goals, while leaving space for extra juicy insights. 

The whole interview has then been packaged up, with a fresh mind, and is ready to be analysed.

A granola example, because we love granola

Why are we so obsessed with headlines?

Smooth analysis

At the end of a round of interviews we take all the headlines we’ve written and stick them in a giant spreadsheet. We can then scan across a particular headline topic and quickly get a sense of what’s happening in the data. 

We also use headlines for affinity mapping. Transferring them to a digital whiteboard for clustering and sense making (ask Andrew about his copy-pasting to Miro/Mural shortcut). At this point we’re opening up again and don’t need to stick rigidly to the topics that we originally headlined against. But everything has been condensed already, so the process is cleaner, with no repeats, and we can be confident that everything important is in play.

Easier outputs

Another moment when we’re glad of headlines/structured capture is producing outputs. It's good to think forward to the frameworks you're likely to use. For example, empathy maps always have goals, tasks and pain points, so your life will be a lot easier if these are headline categories.

Script tweak triggers

A third way headlining makes us happy is that this structured thinking helps us spot any glaring gaps in the script before we've finished all the interviews. Perhaps we want to go deeper on a question or just change the wording to get a consistent response that will make analysis faster.

Shareable nuggets

Sharing raw interview notes or recordings with stakeholders before a project is complete is risky business and also pretty overwhelming to take in. Instead, we’ll share a few of our headlines in a standard format to whet their appetite, profile our participants and keep clients in the loop.

How do we get the best headlines?

Don’t leave it until later

Headlining has to happen immediately after each interview. Planning time for it is essential. For an hour interview I can sometimes get it done in 15 minutes, but booking in 30 minutes is more realistic and gives space if there’s lots to consider.

As soon as I decide to take a quick break before doing it, it gets less accurate and also much harder by the minute. By the next day I’ll need to read through all my notes or check the recording to get it done, any later and even my notes aren’t quite jogging everything back to life. Do it straight away and future you will thank you.

Write smarter

Headlines are a summary, so they need to be short and sweet. Writing volumes defeats the point of headlining. However, they also need to hold everything necessary to stand on their own in analysis. So ‘She liked the granola because it was crunchy' will be much more useful to you than ‘She liked it’. 

Do it in pairs

For me headlining is a task that is best done in pairs and your notetaker is the perfect partner (we prefer to pair up on interviews). Either chat it through or just get it done with the mutually watchful eye of another tapping away in silence. 

What steps should you take to write headlines?

1. Draft headline categories that you think will be useful

Based on your learning goals and expected analysis/frameworks. We always have goals, even for explorative research (we’ll write about learning goals in another article).

A fictional granola-startup example (of course):

  • Short description of the participant
  • Their eating/dietary habits
  • Their typical breakfast
  • Breakfast pain points
  • How they feel about granola
  • Their subscription behaviour
  • Feedback on app prototype 1
  • Etc etc.

2. Schedule headlining sessions in your calendar

Include 15-30 mins after every interview. Never do back to back interviews without this time to summarise (and gather yourself before the next one).

3. Pause after 1-2 interviews

Do a longer review session to tweak your headline categories and consider whether your script is meeting your goals.

4. Stay strong

Keep it up for all the interviews, even though you’re super-busy. We’re proud of you!

5. Build the grid

Your structured summaries will now paste beautifully into a single spreadsheet which allows you to compare responses to each of your themes.

A quick granola example of what your grid might look like

6. Rediscover the joy of analysis!

Through our workshops and full-service projects, we help our clients to plan the way that they capture data. This ensures they achieve their desired outcomes, provides early warning if we’re missing something and makes everyone’s lives easier during analysis.

If the thought of headlining is giving you a headache and you need some help, get in touch and we can either help you through it or tackle the task for you.

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