Report on first field use of LiveScribe pen & journal

These are some new tools o’ my trade — a LiveScribe pen & journal! For conducting field interviews and ethnographic research, they were a great combo that made subsequent research data analysis a relative snap. 

If you’re not familiar with it, LiveScribe is a remarkable hybrid analog-digital system. And you can buy it at Target! The pen records good-quality audio, and syncs its audio recording to the marks made in a LiveScribe notebook. Thusly, you can jump back to specific points in the audio recording by touching the pen to specific written marks in the notebook. To do this, the pen uses an embedded camera in concert with custom notebook paper which has a very tiny, non-repeating pattern printed on it. The pen also interacts with controls printed on the notebook pages, like volume up/down, play/pause, skip back/forward, etc. The LiveScribe pen gets synced to a computer, which imports both the audio recording file AND re-creates the written notebook pages on your computer. Then, you can either tap the physical paper to hear the audio, or tap the digital representation of the paper to hear the audio. 

While I don’t always use a highly-scripted discussion guide, I did this time in order to facilitate data analysis for a large number of research subjects (13 households). I printed out a small-format version of the discussion guide and kept it clipped to the inside front cover of the journal. In the journal, I wrote the number of each question down as I conducted the interview. The great thing about syncing to a computer is that the LiveScribe desktop software has excellent character recognition, so searching for “3.1”, for example, pulled up all 13 pages of my journal where this number had been written (one response for each interview participant). 

I learned a few things from my first foray into the field with the LiveScribe system. Here they are, in case they help you out:

1) I should have written the number coding down earlier; waiting until I’d asked the question and the person had started to respond meant that tapping the number later wasn’t spot-on; I frequently had to “skip back” to catch the start of the person’s reply.

2) I wrote way too much on paper! I’ve always been a heavy note-taker since I learn both kinesthetically & visually, and I fell into old habits during this field work. For greatest efficiency, all I really needed to do was mark the number coding and stop writing. Doing so would have allowed me to maintain even more eye contact with interview participants; however, I do wonder whether it might have created the impression that I was not finding their remarks interesting. I will be testing out the right balance of writing & not writing in subsequent field work. 

3) I should have used the “bookmark” feature more than zero times. The bookmark feature is a star icon printed on the notebook pages; when you tap it with the pen during recording, 
it inserts a special marker. Coincidentally (or not!), I’ve always used a star icon in my hand-written notes to indicate a very interesting data point, so this should have been a natural thing to employ. I look forward to trying it out. 

4) Unfortunately, I encountered a major bug (and/or usage issue) during data analysis. Although searching for “3.1” successfully brought up each journal page with that text on it, when I attempted to listen to the audio recording on the computer, the screen display kept jumping to show a different page of the journal. I have been in contact with the friendly, helpful developers of this remarkable system and there could be two issues. The Mac version of the LiveScribe software is in its first release; release 1.1 just came out and I haven’t tested it yet to see if the update resolved the problem. The other possible issue is that flipping back and forth between the page I was writing on & reviewing the discussion guide for my next question could have confused the system as to which page was associated with the audio stream. I have been informed that waving the pen about in the air causes no such confusion, but that if the pen was being pressed into the page then the behavior I see might result. As far as I can recall, I did a combination of holding the pen in my hand while flipping to the guide & leaving the pen lying inside the notebook along the internal spine while flipping to the guide. So, I probably caused the problem myself and need to be more careful about what I do with the pen while I refer to any external tools. This bug meant that I ended up putting tape flags into the journal indicate the start of each interview; then I simply sat down with the notebook & pen in front of a whiteboard to analyze the data, manually moving from page to page in the journal. Otherwise, I had planned to have my laptop near the whiteboard and digitally move from page to page within a set of search results for “3.1”, for example. 

5) A couple times the pen rolled off a surface and fell onto the floor, causing me to gasp with horror as it clattered. The pen body could use some sort of protruding element so that it does not have a smooth cylindrical shape that enables such rolling. 

Despite the software hiccup and my other learnings, the out-of-box experience with the LiveScribe pen and my whole first field experience was a rousing success. At one point, about five minutes into my first use, I triggered an absolutely delightful and rather surreal animated movie which displayed on the small screen that lives in the body of the pen. It made me think that the creators of this system must be some genius-cool people. I’m certainly a fan and highly recommend this tool for people who do field research!