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Research Service design

The Dos and Don’ts of Diary Studies

Got some time and some budget to dig deep? Here are some lessons learned on diary studies.

What are diary studies?

Diary studies, sometimes referred to as User Research Diaries or Cultural probes were pioneered for use in design research by William Bill Gaver*, Professor at Goldsmiths London. 

Diary studies are used in longitudinal research — looking at people over a longer period of time than a typical Contextual Inquiry or 1:1 qualitative interview can allow; and researching people when you can not otherwise be with them.

What are diary studies good for?

  • Great for understanding the activities undertaken by participants, what they actually do.
  • Opportunity to record subtle behaviour as participants can note activities they may not otherwise recall in a typical research interview.
  • For understanding the intricacies and amount of separate tasks and activities undertaken.
  • For understanding the detail in these sequences.
  • For witnessing all of the channels/touch points a customer encounters — so its perfect for service design, and the gathering of data for customer journeys.

Consider a mix of research techniques with your diary study. Prime participants for the study and have them complete some entries before an interview.

Recruit carefully for diary studies

  • Allow a little longer than usual for recruitment. It’s more important to recruit well than to recruit on time.
  • Pay participants more. More effort is required of them.
  • Consider screening participants yourself. Trust your first impression. If you don’t think they will be suitable, don’t recruit them.
  • Note the anticipated schedule of activities of the participant in the screening process i.e. get an idea of what activities they plan to do over the period of your study just in case they are lying  and saying yes to the research for the incentive alone.
  • It is harder to find participants who are willing to go to the effort of filling out a diary every day – so take the time getting the right people. An extra step and research process to consider is conducting a survey or online focus group – and qualifying the right participants from there.

And of course remember to tell participants:

  • Their information is confidential.
  • Their identity will not be exposed.
  • They are free to withdraw from the study at any time.

Brief participants about the effort involved

DO

  • Instruct participants how to use the diaries.
  • Remind participants what EFFORT is involved, the level of effort expected of them.
  • Give participants a checklist of the materials they need to return.
  • Provide written instructions – they will read it, and it saves you explaining at length.
  • If you can its better to have all participants start on the same day. Makes your job easier later when you have to track their diaries down and begin synthesis.

DON’T

  • Don’t be leading about what content you are after of them, written, photographic or otherwise.

Prepare diary materials thoughtfully


Structured or unstructured diaries

You need to make a few decisions upfront in your research design — do you want to use structured or unstructured diaries? Unstructured diaries give the participant a blank slate but I’ve found that participants using unstructured diaries tend to contribute less detail as to the “why” behind their actions. Structured diaries set some questions or areas for response. Structured diaries give people a sense of what you want, otherwise it can be too intimidating for them to start. Consider including a survey, it gets people used to filling something in, as well as gathering useful information.

Choosing between paper and digital diaries

When this post was first published specialised digital diary apps didn’t exist. But there were still ways of conducting digital diary studies: microblogging services (think Tumblr), online collaboration tools (think Google Drive), and even email. If using email, set up a specific address for the study. Participants and researcher can correspond via email or you might prefer participants complete forms or templates on Microsoft Word documents that are attached. I’ve seen this method used on request from a participant and it worked surprisingly well with that participant contributing lengthy responses. If needing to prepare paper diary packs, prepare a diary for each week of the study, camera (optional), instructions, and reply paid envelopes or a drop-off point.

DO

  • Offer participants a choice between a paper diary OR digital diary.
  • If using paper diaries label them, so you can tell who they came from when you receive them.

DON’T

  • Identify the participants

Paper diaries are good because they’re low fi, low fuss — but paper diaries are bad because:

  • You ideally want people to carry them around and record things on the spot, but you can’t tell if they do or not.
  • Participants have to go to the effort of posting it back to you.

Digital diaries are a great tool because:

  • They are easy set up.
  • Participants tend to contribute longer answers (via email, or word docs).
  • Submission is as good as instant.
  • Easy for participants to include photos.
  • Easy to track participants.
  • Easy for participants to add web links and digital attachments.
  • Easy as a researcher to change the study on the fly,
  • Easy as a researcher to add additional comments and prompts to clarify participant responses or encourage ellaboration.
  • Data collection support and ease.

Clearly, digital diaries are the better option but they do come with some downsides:

  • May be unsuitable for less technical participants or participants who don’t have access to suitable technology. This could be economic, so be mindful if you are setting up barriers for exclusion.
  • Although most people have smart phones these days, a digital diary app can present a learning curve. The tool with the least steps and most minimal learning curve will always be best.
  • Depending on the technology you choose – it can be harder to set up a structured diary.

Conducting photo diaries

If participants are submitting responses via their smartphone, then of course, they have a camera on their device. To think we used to provide actual cameras and memory cards. How quaint!

  • Photos bring the participant to life, helping clients gain empathy and understanding.
  • Great at showcasing the absurd (e.g. paperwork involved in financial processes).
  • BUT people don’t know what to photograph. Let them know what you are looking for.
  • Don’t expect too many photos.
  • Why don’t people take photos? – people feel like spies, scared they could get in trouble, its an unnatural behaviour.

Expect difficulty getting materials back

Expect most diaries to come 2 days – 1.5 weeks later than requested. Expect that when you phone your participants they will say “it’s in the post”. Participants might tell a white lie about getting their homework done, and sending it to you.

DO

  • Pay on receipt! But make a good faith payment before the participant starts, on receipt of the diary materials. No diary, no payment.
  • Use reply paid EXPRESS envelopes for paper diaries. They arrive quicker, they’re traceable and they are a sign that the diaries need to be returned pronto!
  • Prompt and nudge your participants … an on that note …

Touch base with participants throughout the study

Debrief entries with participants. If conducting a long study, encourage them to participate more. Keep a log file to track volume of entries, who is contributing, who is not. BUT remember that people have day jobs. It’s hard to get in touch with participants during the day. Ask them when its best to contact them when you are recruiting them. Be prepared that half of the effort in the project will be getting hold of participants.

DO

  • Ask the best time to call.
  • Interfere as little as possible.
  • Offer gentle reminders.

DON’T

  • Spam your participants. Remember this is meant to be unobtrusive research.

Set some creative tasks


Tasks are fun and people can be surprisingly creative with their responses. Tasks are great for encouraging participants to reflect on their experience in ways they may not be able to express as easily in words. Creative tasks can highlight attitudes, emotions,  and encourage self-reflection. The results can provide powerful metaphors for the whole experience.

Example tasks you can set:

  • If this process was an animal what would it be?
  • What celebrity best represents you in the process Quote: “I feel like Jennifer Anniston. I’m on an emotional rollercoaster.”
  • What object best describes the main person you are dealing with: “My xxxxx is like a stream locomotive. I know they will get there … eventually!”

DO

  • Set tasks throughout the study, not all at the end

DON’T

  • Expect everyone to get it, or to complete the task

End the study with an interview


Use diary studies to GROUND the participant in their actions during the interview or contextual inquiry.

DON’T

  • Expect to yield insights from the diaries alone.

DO

  • Prepare your interview questions from the diaries as you receive them
  • Pick up the last diary or discuss the latest digital entries at the interview.
  • Arrange the final time for the interview upfront.
  • Try to conduct the interview in the participant’s context.

Thank you!

This post has attracted thousands of visits over the years. It’s been referenced in UX Matters, Wikipedia, Digital Futures Creative Techniques Handbook, and listed as a resource for Lean User Research published by Rosenfeld Media. Thank you for visiting, reading and referencing.

Also thanks to my dear colleagues Matthew Ballesteros, Jason Crane and Vicki Lane who were interviewed for this post and shared their wisdom and war stories

And lastly thank you to Colin Stokes for the drawings.

Recommended reading on diary studies

A footnote on Bill Graver:

* Interestingly Bill Graver doesn’t analyse diary content, nor does he create scenarios or personas from them instead using them as a base from which to validate other data. He does not create personas, preferring instead to revisit the raw data.

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