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New tools and how to use them: The SmartPen


By Susan Abbott

Researchers are good at re-purposing things. We are in a relatively small industry – especially us quallies – and we aren’t a big target market. So we have to hijack the technology created for other things and make it work for us.

The SmartPen is one of these things. If you haven’t seen one, this is a pen that records what it hears while you take notes. You take your notes on special paper, and you can upload the notes and audio to your computer, or share them on a dedicated collaborative site.

I learned of this cool tool from researcher Mary Cowden of Rochester, who was using it for individual interviews. Since I got one, it is in use almost as often as my digital recorder.

However, I tried something new and it worked beautifully. Permit me to tell you about it.

The project: B2B innovation project.

The methodology: On-site ethnography with small business owners

The success story: Having client observers take their notes with the pen while having it record. I have their notes, and can send them along. I also used the pen for our debrief meetings. Simple, easy, unobtrusive.

Other ideas:

  • What about giving a pen and notebook to someone for an audio-visual diary?
    • Instructions could be things like: write your grocery list here. Write your to-do list here. Write your daily menu here.
  • What about using the pens in a focus group or customer lab?
    • I have used my pen to record debrief meetings in this kind of setting, and it works well.
    • Could this be a future markup tool useful for in-person sessions, instead of just virtual sessions?

I know we are all high on tablet computers right now. But tablets take some training – minimal perhaps, but some training. A pen is something you can stick in someone’s hand and they know how to use it. Like a sticky-note, you don’t need to be trained.

The disclaimer: I do not own shares in this company. I just love the technology.


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