Diary Studies Defined
Diary Studies are a research methodology in which participants record their daily tasks, thoughts, or behaviors over a set period of time. While going about their daily routines, participants report their activities on a schedule (interval, signal, or event) using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative tasks.
- Interval: data is collected once a day or at a specific time.
- Signal: data is collected upon a prompt from the researcher.
- Event: data is collected whenever a specific event occurs.
In traditional diary studies, all tasks are emailed or mailed to participants making them notoriously cumbersome to manage. Researchers had to rely on participants to remember to complete their tasks and send them back on time (and we all know how that usually goes!) Today, platforms exist that resolve many of the pain points typically associated with diary studies. They have built-in time-saving features, like reminders, chats, filtering, transcriptions, tagging, and dashboards. Conducting diary studies in the digital age has never been easier!
Advantages of Digital Diary Studies
For the Researcher
Collect Richer Insights
Since respondents can now access and participate in diary studies via their mobile phones, researchers are more equipped to capture in-the-moment feedback. When participants do not have to stretch their memory to record their thoughts, feelings, or actions during a task, the feedback collected will be more authentic and yield much more profound insights. With the ability to gather deeper insights, researchers can make better, more empathetic business decisions. Ultimately, digital diary studies make it easier for researchers to understand who their customers are as people, as the method provides a lens into the real-world experiences participants encounter.
Create Engaging Tasks
With DIY digital diary study platforms, researchers can create tasks for their participants in a few easy clicks. Digital platforms offer a wider variety of task types compared to traditional methods, which allow for the collection of broader insights. For example, researchers can have participants take pictures and screen recordings or respond to multiple-choice and scale-based tasks all within the same study.
Traditionally, the majority of data collected in diary studies are qualitative in nature, but online platforms allow for the inclusion of mixed-method tasks that round out data and create a more engaging experience for participants.
Another advantage of digital diary studies is that you can collect in-the-moment video feedback from your participants. Smartphone-enabled platforms ensure researchers are with participants as they go about their day, whether participants are at home, in the car, at the store, or in the office. Short videos allow researchers to see first-hand how customers interact with products in real-world situations and, in turn, find unspoken pain points.
Gain Contextualized Understanding
Digital diary studies collect rich data, but more importantly, they collect in-context data. The ability to log tasks on a mobile device is much more convenient for the participant, giving the researcher a window into their everyday lives.
Capturing the participants’ natural behavior mitigates the Hawthorne Effect and gives a much more authentic understanding of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
*The Hawthorne Effect is a phenomenon in which study participants modify their behavior when under observation*
Easier to Manage
Traditional diary studies rely heavily on the willingness of participants to complete each task and to remember to mail back their finished diaries. Digital platforms allow researchers to track progress easily, send reminders, and have meaningful chat-based follow-up conversations, making them significantly more straightforward to manage than traditional studies.
For the Participant
Easy to Use Apps
App-enabled diary study platforms allow participants to complete tasks wherever they are, whether at home, in a store, in a car, or at work. This facilitates the collection of in-the-moment feedback, providing a more realistic view of their lives.
Access to the Researchers
Sometimes tasks need clarification. In a traditional diary study, a participant would have to email the researcher asking for clarification on task instructions. Mobile platforms speed up the process by allowing participants to ask questions directly to researchers, getting them clarification in minutes instead of hours or days. Further ensuring tasks get completed timely and accurately.
Use Cases for Diary Studies
Diary studies are appropriate for any type of exploratory or idea generation project. Since they provide a clear window into the lives of your participants, the insights collected in the study lead to a deeper understanding of your customers’ behaviors, pain points, and needs.
There are a few key criteria that will help you determine when to use a diary study:
- When you want to understand the decision-making process and all of the factors that may affect it
- If you think direct observation will affect the results (Hawthorne Effect)
- If you want to observe behaviors over a period of time
- For events that may only happen occasionally
- When direct observation is not an option due to privacy
Examples of when to use diary studies include when researchers are trying to understand usage patterns of a product (like an appliance or piece of technology), how participants complete a specific task (like planning a vacation or applying for a mortgage), or to monitor general behaviors on a cadence.
Step-By-Step Guide to Conducting a Diary Study
An Example Study
Let’s use one of the previously mentioned examples to put the planning and execution into context.
Say you are in the early phases of designing a new espresso machine and want to understand the pain points associated with the current solutions available to coffee drinkers. How often are they drinking coffee? What device are they currently using, and where does it meet their needs or fall short? What emotions do they experience before, during, and after they get their caffeine fix? Answers to these questions will provide the insight required to develop a newly engineered, customer-centric espresso machine.
Preparing for Your Diary Study
There are several things to think through when planning a diary study, but firstly it’s essential to ensure that your questions and tasks are aligned within the structure of a diary study. It’s critical to think through how your participants will react to each task and adjust accordingly.
Diary studies are best for capturing in-the-moment responses, so consider having tasks that ask respondents to record their reactions to a few metrics each time they, for example, make a cup of coffee. You can also ask them to submit images of their machine’s placement within their home or provide videos of the exact process they follow to make their coffee. Structure is critical to running a successful diary study; however, you also want to give your respondents the freedom to include any relevant information on the topic and not feel confined to a prompt.
Another factor to consider is the length. Unlike surveys or interviews, diary studies are conducted longitudinally. But it’s up to the researcher to decide how long is needed to collect enough information. It is tough to keep participants interested for extended periods of time, so think about how long the study needs to be in field to gather enough information to meet your objectives.
Recruiting is the last and most crucial piece of the planning phase. Since we are using the espresso machine example, the target audience should be designed around that theme. First off, it’s essential that the participants drink coffee and currently have a coffee machine at home. But maybe you want to dig a little deeper and segment your participants by those who are happy with their current solution vs. those who are not. Also, consider the demographic mix as you will want your participants to resemble your target audience. Spend time thinking about how the recruited participants will help you better understand the problem or opportunity. Once you are ready to recruit, come up with a plan on how you will acquire participants. You can recruit from customer lists, traditional recruiting companies, and self-serve panels like UserInterviews.com.
Fielding Your Diary Study
Once you complete your prep work and have your participants recruited, you are ready to start collecting data. Let’s discuss what needs to happen during fielding to ensure your study runs smoothly.
Ensure your participants know when the study launches and what will be expected of them to complete the study successfully. You relay this information via a welcome email and on the project description page of your platform. If you are using a tool like EthOS, ensure all your participants have the mobile app downloaded, which can easily be tracked on the project management page. It is a best practice to include an ice breaker task at the beginning of the study to familiarize participants with the tool and get them comfortable completing tasks. Using the coffee study example, you might ask participants to submit an image of their favorite coffee mug and explain why it’s their favorite.
As soon as your first task goes out, you’ll start to have data flowing in. It’s important to review the incoming data frequently, as this will allow you to ask follow-up probing questions closer to the moments you are observing. Tagging and analyzing your data while the study is still in field helps you identify areas of interest and ask more meaningful follow-up questions. This will not only help you form a deeper relationship with participants, but it will give you a more accurate view of the problems they face and the opinions they hold. After a short period of time, you will begin to see themes emerge, bringing you one step closer to answering your study objectives.
Track individual participant progress to ensure everyone completes tasks on time and send reminders to those falling behind. Sending out periodic project-wide reminders will also help ensure your project runs smoothly and stays within the timeline you’ve put in place.
Analyzing & Reporting the Results
Once fielding ends, you’ll be able to concentrate on the analysis portion of the project. To get the most out of a diary study, you must immerse yourself in the data. Use the work you completed during fielding, such as tagging, to form a story that aligns and is framed by your study objectives.
There are a few different methods you can use for tagging.
- Descriptive tags are observable and concrete. In the coffee study example, you might be tagging the brand of coffee machines participants are using, like “Nespresso,” “Keurig,” or “Kitchen Aid.”
- Subjective tags are equally as important but not as concrete. Sometimes it’s best to agree on these themes with teammates. You can use words like “interesting,” “useful,” or “frustrating.”
- The next layer will be cross tagging. Look into how often a particular brand and “frustrating” are tagged, for example.
Now it’s time to shift your focus to your internal stakeholders. For the coffee study example, how will the insights generated lead to the creation of a new coffee machine or product accessory? Keep an eye out for spoken and unspoken pain points and create design solutions to address them. Use quotes, images, and video examples to bring participant stories to life and show how their experiences depict unmet needs.
In conclusion, diary studies are a critical tool in a researcher’s toolkit for generative and exploratory research. They should be a core component of your research strategy when you want to gain a contextual understanding of your customers’ longitudinal behaviors, routines, and needs.