A case study for digital note capture applications for electronic lab notebook systems.

Matthew Shipp
6 min readJul 30, 2020

The goal

Create a tool that would better help laboratory researchers in an active lab environment to capture all of their notes in a quick non-intrusive way to a digital medium.

The problem

In an active laboratory environment, people are moving from area to area in the lab, carrying supplies and experiments to and from benchtops already full of equipment. This limits the surface area to place standard recording keeping materials like lab notebooks.

Research associates (RA) and technicians must record all their actions in a dynamic laboratory environment. However, there is a clear need for more effective systems for capturing notes to a digital medium. Records and observations are typically still done in a paper laboratory notebook. With today’s expectation of fast access to information, paper notebooks slow down the process.

This has lead RAs to transcribe their notes into digital mediums, e.g. Word, OneNote, or an electronic lab notebook (ELN), so they can search past records and create steak holder reports.

However, transcribing notes adds more time to the recording process. The transcription process can easily result in inaccuracies. The likelihood of overlooking or leaving out details increases when transcribing notes to a digital medium from paper.

Poor data quality, redundant data, and lost data can cost companies 15%-25% of their operating budget.” –USGS.gov

In an active lab, there is limited room for large lab notebooks or laptops.

Initial assumptions:

Create a record-keeping platform that eliminates the need to rewrite notes to save valuable time and avoid transcription errors.

Moving forward with my assumption that research associates and technicians needed a better way of entering their notes into a digital medium in order to eliminate transcription errors, I established surveys to validate my assumptions and learn about the research associates' habits and needs.

Research & Insights

I was able to validate that most research technicians take pen to paper notes that include images and sketches, and then transcribe them to a digital medium.

I also learned from those surveyed that the majority who use an electronic note-taking system still write their notes to paper first.

I had assumed that if they found the ELN system difficult to use they would continue to take paper notes. However, survey participants still took paper notes even if they found the ELN system easy to use.

This was an indicator that maybe the notetaking feature was a pain point.

I followed up with four key users from the survey for one-on-one interviews that would give me holistic insights toward my goal. They were a lab manager, a regulatory specialist, and two research associates.

From the interviews, I validated that details are often missed when written notes are transcribed.

However, the biggest discovery was that in an active laboratory environment, post-its and scrap paper are the primary tools used to create notes, calculations, and sketches in place of the official notebook.

I take my notes on whatever is available, glove, napkin, post-it.- user interview

This was a pivot point to my research and shifted my goal from a record-keeping platform to a note capturing system that could image small physical notes and transcribe them into text within the application.

. . . the biggest discovery, in an active laboratory environment, post-its and scrap paper were the primary tools used to create notes, calculations, and sketches in place of the official notebook.

This discovery. . . shifted my goal from a record-keeping platform to a note capturing system that could image small physical notes and transcribe them into text within the application.

Mapping down and identifying similarities from one on one interviews

I then created a persona of my ideal user:

  • A research associate whose daily tasks involve hands-on laboratory work at multiple work stations.
  • Having to record detailed information on the fly.

So quick and easy processes became key to my identifying the right ideas to solve this problem.

Using the persona and interviews I clustered problems and insights into themes and prioritized them based on what would make the app the most effective and solve the problem of note capture most efficiently.

Using the ‘Jobs to be done’ format helped reveal the users' real needs.

I came to the conclusion that a full electronic lab notebook is not needed, but a support system to the data entry point of an electronic lab notebook.

Solution Hypothesis

There is a need to reduce record taking bulk (laptops, notebooks, pens) when moving around an active laboratory. The method favored by many is to use a post-it or small scrap paper and a pen to quickly capture technical notes referred to as quick notes.

These small quickly taken notes are often the glue that hold the details to greater discoveries.

The easiest way to keep track of these ‘quick notes’ would be to transcribe them to text. However, it is not often done because the larger stakeholder information is given preference at the end of the day and transcribed to a digital medium. This is where data loss happens.

The best way to have a great idea is to have a lot of ideas. — Linus Pauling

With the constraints put forth by the needs of the user and prioritized insights. I was able to let the ideas flow. From there I categorized the ideas and selected the most promising to evaluate.

Lots of catagorized ideas on digital post it notes.

The key criteria were:

  • Image capture of the written note.
  • Convert to text and time stamp and date each note.

These were key because capturing the physical note and moving it to a digital platform would eliminate transcription errors and save time. The timestamp aligns with good lab practices and allows user to sync up their notes to their master digital note system for regulatory compliance.

The key criteria were, image the written note, convert to text and time stamp and date each note.

A storyboard made up of post it notes for an app about digitally capturing post it notes.
Storyboard with optional workflows

User informed design

The key users who reviewed the storyboard sketch of the app, chose option B that did not have the convert to text function.

They did not feel the write to text transcription programs were consistent enough and would rather capture an image of the physical note.

The ‘captured note’ would then be available for upload into their primary digital platform. This was the final pivot toward creating a problem-solving tool for the user.

Note capture screen flow

My system’s primary goal would be:

  • Only capture the image of the physical note
  • Text of the date, time, and user initials embedded on the image,
  • The note image is uploaded and easily retrieved from a cloud service of their choice.

This would allow for these important notes to be quickly captured to a digital platform and saved to be later synced up to a master digital notebook.

Concept sketch of the quick note application

Key discovery pivots

The main discoveries that lead to the pivots in the creation of the quick notes application.

Summary: Designing for the User

Through surveys and interviews with individuals who work in scientific laboratories, I redirected from my original objective to design an electronic note-taking system for the laboratory environment and instead created an imaging system that captures handwritten sketches and quick notes for upload into an electronic laboratory notebook that might not otherwise be documented into official records.