Design at Goodnotes: A Diary Study on How Students Prepare for Exams

November 24, 2023

Everyone at Goodnotes wants to know who our users are, so we can build the best product for them. We all have friends and family who are using the app, but with many users all over the world it might be hard to actually "understand who they are". 

If you use Goodnotes you have noticed the onboarding survey, where we ask who you are (a student, an architect, a journalist, etc), but that tells us only numbers on who is using our product. These numbers do not tell us how you feel, what you are struggling with, or what you need in your digital paper.

This is where Kim, our Sr. UX researcher comes in!

Kim specializes in uncovering the "why" behind the numbers and user behavior. She investigates and analyzes user interactions to understand the motivations and pain points that drive actions. By exploring user behavior, Kim helps the design team create digital experiences that are not just data-driven, but genuinely user-centric. In this blog post she will describe what (and how) she has done in her latest research project: unlocking the big user puzzle. 

In our onboarding survey we noticed that a lot of our users are students, so we wanted to dig a bit deeper into what makes students study. Our students vary from high school to post-doctoral students, and everything in between. And students use Goodnotes for everything from note-taking to exam preparation. We decided to focus for this round on exam prep, to understand more how students go through that process. This became our research question. 

Exploring how students study for exams

How does one figure out how students study for their exams? Well there are a lot of different methods you can use: from having an online survey (asking them to rate how they prepare) to having a 1 on 1 interview (where students can tell us how they prepare). 

You might think that having an online interview is the easiest and fastest way to get an understanding of how students prepare for their exams. But, this method has a catch: you often only get the positive sentiment, or the sentiment on ‘how they wish they studied’. In 60 minutes students can explain clearly how they want to study, and claim that that also is how they study, but we know that is not the reality. 

So we decided to have a diary study

A diary study is like your personal journal, but with a research twist. It involves participants recording their experiences daily. It captures thoughts, actions and more over a specified period, offering a little insight into their real-life behaviors and preferences. We asked our participants to fill this diary for 2 weeks (in their exam period) to show us what it is REALLY like to study (and spoiler alert: it is not the same as how they want to study).

How we set up our diary study


As all research we run within Goodnotes we start by creating a research plan. Here we write down what we actually want to research (called ‘the research question’), what we will do with the outcome, and how we are planning to research this. After aligning with different stakeholders in the company (to ensure that the research is valuable to all of us), we go on to the next phase: find our participants!


We have 2 ways to find our participants: option one is via an online recruiting platform (we use user interviews), and the other option is through our research panel. This time we were looking for both Goodnotes users and non-users, and that were in their exam period, so we used user interviews to find the perfect participants.  

Run it 

Out of (research) experience we know that people talk more than they write, and we also want to see their emotions. (Example, how you communicate “I had a good day”, like “I had a good day 🤩” is very different than “I had a good day 😐”), so we wanted to have videos of all participants on all days. Since it is rather hard to talk with 10 users every day, we decided to set up a video service called Video Ask (which is a service from Typeform) (there are of course other solutions out there as well). We prerecorded questions, and the participant can answer the questions at the time that suits them by video. This gave us insights to how the students studied everyday for 2 weeks.  

Organizing the data

After interviewing 10 students, for two weeks, gave us 140 entries on studying behavior. (And having 3 videos per day, means we had 420 videos). You can understand that these videos contain way more data than our onboarding survey, now we just had to get the insights out of the videos and to my colleagues. We organized each student in Dovetail, which automatically transcribes the videos. After tagging the 420 videos on all interesting things we could find, we started finding patterns. And in the smaller patterns we found bigger patterns, which we synthesized into key insights that we shared within the company.

Results: The answers to how students study

After all this work we know more about how students study. It is not as simple as ‘I made a plan, I followed the plan, and then I passed the exam’. Study methods can change depending on which subject you are studying and how confident you are in this course. We have seen loads of different study methods, from making a mock exam to explaining topics out loud and listening to your own recording. Study materials differ from class notes in Goodnotes, a mock exam stuck in your printer, essays in your drive and reading material in your LLS. We have heard a lot of excuses to not study (from ‘I had to travel’ to ‘Yeah, I know I should, but I just don’t want to), and motivations to study hard (‘I NEED to pass this exam’ and ‘I really want to understand this topic’). From all this data (and more) we would love to share with you some markers of succes and blockers while studying. 

Markers of success when studying:  

One of the things we found is that ‘successful’ students (aka students who reflected positively on their study experience) have a clear process:

  • Make a plan
  • Execute the plan 
  • Adapt and evaluate the plan though their study journey. 

Though a side note is that many of the participants did not think they studied that ‘well’ and always could have studied better. 

Promoters to studying: 

We have also found that different types of factors can promote students from studying, these can be 

  • Internal promoter (“I want to get a good grade”)
  • External promoter (“my parents want me to get a good grade”)
  • situational promoter (“I need a good grade, else I have to redo this year”)

Blockers to studying: 

The factors we just mentioned can also function unfortunately as blockers. 

  • Internal blocker  (“I have so much to do, I do not know where to start and I am stressed.”)
  • external blocker (“my friends want to study together, but we end up only chatting.”)
  • Situational blocker (“I planned to study but I suddenly needed to jump into work”)

Now these insights are shared within the company and specific teams, and we are actively working with how we can enhance study experience knowing the blockers and markers of success. Stay tuned to hear what we are currently working on to improve students’ experiences! 

Ps. Want to join our research panel? Sign up here and maybe you get invited to meet Kim or any of the other researchers. 

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