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Using Remote Diary Studies to Understand Behavior

Using Remote Diary Studies to Understand Behavior

The goal of insights research is to learn everything you can about a target audience’s behavior surrounding a product or service (or a category of products or services) and to understand the factors that drive that behavior. A project might zero in on a specific touch point or any aspect of life that provides context to understand target behaviors like shopping habits, purchasing decisions, and use patterns. What do people do in these situations, and why? The more we understand customer interactions in real-world settings, the better equipped we are to design and iterate on offerings that will fulfill needs and meet expectations.

Exploring behavior through qualitative methods

Data-driven decision-making relies on metrics, but before we can count and measure behavior, we need to understand what to count and measure. Qualitative research methods are how we explore and uncover the range of behaviors that might be in play among a particular audience, testing our hypotheses and creating opportunities for previously unknown factors to emerge.

Focus groups and in-depth interviews (IDIs) have long been the workhorses of qualitative research. Executed well, each can generate a wealth of information. At the same time, both approaches carry limitations compared to more modern methods.

Individual interviews and group discussions depend on respondents to accurately and thoroughly recall past behavior. But nobody’s memory is infallible, and everybody applies subconscious filters to their accounts regardless of how hard they try not to. A skilled moderator can delve beneath the surface to a certain extent, but these methods have limitations that even the best moderators can’t circumvent. With IDIs and focus groups, there will always be questions about what was left unsaid because the respondent didn’t remember, didn’t register an element in their story as relevant, or elided a private or potentially embarrassing detail.

Another significant limitation of traditional interviews and focus groups is the window of time you have access to participants. Individual and group discussions generally last around an hour and are a snapshot in time. If a session ends before a researcher can cover all their topics, or a question pops up following the session, researchers are left with minimal options to collect that data.

If the research goal is to understand an experience that transpires over time or through a series of events, getting the complete picture from a single conversation can be challenging. These cases call for a longitudinal approach. One of the most effective and popular longitudinal approaches is the remote diary study.

Capturing context and longitudinal data with remote diary studies

Remote diary studies capture behaviors in-the-moment, bringing researchers closer to the experiences they are studying. This takes respondents’ recall abilities out of the equation. Because participants are in their own space, going about their usual activities unencumbered by a researcher at their elbow, they are much more likely to provide “raw data” – a candid look at what they’re doing and thinking, unfiltered by the social dynamics of a focus group or their own reflexive tendency to help or please the interviewer.

Extremely versatile and flexible, remote diary studies can be deployed to explore behaviors associated with anything researchers need to understand on a deeper level:

  • Usage of a specific product, service, or category.
  • An activity or routine that requires context for using a product, e.g., commuting to work, gardening, or exercising.
  • A shopping or purchasing decision process.
  • Taking a new technology onboard at home or work and integrating it into existing routines.

Diary studies typically run for several days but sometimes last a month or longer. This enables the research team to observe habits and routines in real-time and capture shifts in behavior that may take time to emerge.

Best practices for conducting a remote diary study

While the fundamentals are consistent with other qualitative approaches, a few important details will help ensure your diary study is successful.

Planning and Setup

Once you have defined the focus and scope of the study, you can:

  • Determine the optimal timeline.
  • Select the tools used for logging.
  • Develop recruiting specifications.
  • Assemble instructions and support materials.

It’s essential to thoroughly think through the materials and instructions before you begin recruiting, so potential respondents clearly understand what they are committing to do.

Pre-launch Briefing

The importance of this step cannot be overstated. The pre-launch briefing is when you make sure every respondent is oriented and ready to participate. Walk them through the schedule, how to use the tools and the details of what’s expected of them. If you are inviting or requiring multimedia input, e.g., photos or video of activities or events, provide specific guidelines about length, resolution, etc., so they don’t have to guess. Answer any questions participants have and focus on building rapport to help them feel invested in the project.

Logging Protocol

Depending on the research objectives, you may want to run an elicitation diary study which involves respondents logging entries when particular activities or events occur. Or a feedback diary study in which respondents log entries on a schedule, e.g., daily or weekly. Within these two frameworks, respondents may log in situ, that is, in-the-moment the target activity or event occurs. Or using the snippet technique whereby participants record brief snippets during the moment of interest and then fill in details and background later, perhaps at the end of the day.

A diary study participant recording a behavior while shopping in a store

In either case, respondents need a simple yet specific framework that guides their participation without creating boundaries that could constrain their input and lead to omitting potentially important information. Since this is qualitative research, the design must allow for variability and the emergence of unexpected ideas. At the same time, respondents need to feel confident that they understand the objectives and what to do to complete the study successfully.

Moderate with moderation

During the study, interact with respondents enough to keep them engaged and motivated to answer questions as they arise. If they submit feedback on an ongoing basis, you will want to stay on top of the information as it streams in. Real-time monitoring allows you to prepare follow-up questions based on the data coming in and get a head start on analysis. But don’t hover! One of the main benefits of diary studies is capturing how respondents behave when you aren’t looking.


At the end of the study, conduct a debriefing interview with each respondent. This is your chance to probe and clarify what participants shared in their logs and get their feedback about the study experience which can help you refine your technique for future studies.

Analyze the treasure trove of data

Depending on the diary study tool you use, you will have varying ways to analyze the data, but most offer a few core features to assist with the process. Remote diary study tools often allow researchers to view data as participants submit it. This is an excellent opportunity for researchers to get a head start on their analysis by tagging and coding entries as they come in. It saves time, as when the study ends, you can run filters and organize your data to see what themes have emerged. Many diary study tools also have automated transcriptions to take the burden of off analyzing video or audio data. AI is also often incorporated into these tools to assist with determining sentiment, helping researchers get quick reads and zero in on problems.

In conclusion, remote diary studies are a great tool whenever you need to understand behavior over time or across changing conditions. Since remote diary studies are generally smartphone-based, you can capture essential touchpoints as they happen, minimizing recall issues and providing added context to the behaviors being studied.