User Experience Research, commonly abbreviated as UXR, is a powerful tool for any organization committed to data-driven operations. Using a wide range of methodological approaches, UXR helps companies understand how users and prospective users experience their brand. It may focus on a specific real-world product or service; or online properties like websites and mobile apps – essentially, UXR studies any touchpoint where people interact with the brand.
UXR generates insights about your target market(s) and how your product or service meets their needs and fits into their lives (or how it doesn’t). It uses both quantitative and qualitative approaches: quantitative to count and measure behaviors, and qualitative to uncover and explore feelings and attitudes around those behaviors. It’s valuable during early-stage research to support ideation and, later on, to evaluate concepts and prototypes against the reality of user experiences.
Among the many tools and methods deployed in UXR, one of the most powerful is the diary study. It can be dramatically less expensive than other qualitative methods, so the diary study is occasionally called “the poor man’s field study,” implying it’s a pale imitation of something better. However, the diary study combines some of the best of both worlds – the fully controlled lab-based study and the open-ended in-field observational study – making it an irreplaceable tool for UX researchers and insights teams (learn about remote field studies vs remote diary studies).
Diary studies provide a longitudinal view
Diary studies enable researchers to capture the target activity or event and the time leading up to and following it, which helps place it accurately in the context of a participant’s daily routine.
Studies conducted in a research facility or lab have certain advantages, such as tightly controlled conditions and precise measurements around timing. But they are limited in some key areas. A lab study (or a survey, for that matter) is a snapshot in time. They document a user’s behavior or response to a single situation that represents the research team’s best effort to mirror real-world conditions. But lab studies almost certainly lack elements that may or may not be relevant because researchers can’t account for all real-world scenarios. A diary study, in contrast, is by definition a longitudinal study set up to capture behaviors and responses over an extended period of time – days, weeks, or even months. The extended time frame enables researchers to gather information about the user’s experience across changing conditions that reveal different contexts and even various states of mind about the activity. The exercises can be structured to capture the anticipated experience, the actual experience, and the cumulative experience over time.
The findings produce a complete picture of the participant’s interactions with a product by illuminating broader and deeper contextual information that helps researchers understand where and how it fits into their everyday lives with respect to daily activities and routines, how they think about it, or even how much or how little attention it commands in the greater scheme of things.
These insights are invaluable to design and marketing teams and those whose primary focus is brand health. They ensure real-world needs are uncovered and addressed.
Diary studies let users be users (instead of lab rats)
Like any good research project, a diary study uses carefully designed protocols and timing. Whether tightly structured or relatively loose, the reporting protocols can be designed to maximize freedom and flexibility for participants. Perhaps more than any other method, diary studies allow the participants to lead while the research team follows.
Task assignments can be set up several ways:
- interval-based, e.g., daily at noon
- event-driven, e.g., whenever the participant loads the dishwasher or puts gas in the car
- triggered by a signal from the research team
A study can be designed using these protocols to align with the rhythms of a participant’s life instead of imposing a schedule and tempo based on the research team’s questions and assumptions. The resulting data more accurately reflects the real-world situations that impact the target activities or events.
Each participant stays in their own space and reports out, rather than visiting the research space and trying to reliably and accurately describe what happens back home. They share their activities and thoughts in the moment, within real-world settings and situations, uninhibited by the presence of researchers or other participants. This approach goes a long way toward eliminating the bias that creeps in when participants reflexively and subconsciously feel compelled to please the researcher and/or their fellow participants during in-person exercises.
Participants control the process (within the established parameters), which makes it easy for them to be forthcoming. This is invaluable when working with sensitive populations or subject matter.
All of these considerations make diary studies especially good for obtaining a clear and thorough picture of the target activity or event and capturing the authentic language and tone around it.
The diary study’s superpowers
Diary studies enable user experience researchers to build accessibility and inclusivity into research projects. This means including previously undercounted and underserved segments that might not have found it feasible to participate in lab-based research or in-person field studies where the research team’s presence would be overly intrusive.
Once conducted through pen and paper, today’s diary studies leverage mobile devices and digital tools that help researchers collect and analyze data more efficiently. Mobile Diary study tools like EthOS use text message-like interfaces that participants are already familiar with to facilitate the collection of text, picture, and video data. Using methods and interfaces that participants are comfortable with helps build stronger rapport which drives deeper and more meaningful feedback, a huge bonus for research teams.
A few things to watch out for
No single methodology is perfect, and the diary study has a few potential pitfalls which should be noted. Solid planning and preparation, however, along with conscientious management and moderation during the field period, can help mitigate any pitfalls.
- Participant fatigue is real and can sneak into any project. Good intentions give way to distractions and laziness unless the moderator stays on top of everyone, but not too heavily – it’s important to communicate and prompt participants without pestering!
- Participants must be fully committed to the project as well as comfortable and competent using the tools needed to participate. Recruiting is key, and so are training and briefing.
- Training sessions need to be comprehensive but not tedious. That said, over-recruit and use the training/prep process to weed out participants who might not be prepared and equipped to go the distance.
- De-briefing is more than just a way to wrap up a project. Each closing conversation with a participant should be used to probe and clarify their input and solicit feedback about the experience. A research program has never been designed and deployed so well that the next iteration couldn’t be improved by listening to participant comments.
Finally, understand that diary studies generate vast amounts of data. Top-notch analysis begins with reviewing entries as they come in and flagging data that needs follow-up or clarification (especially information that points to previously unrecognized issues or contradicts something you thought you understood). The final analysis will be more coherent and produce more actionable insights if you keep on top of it as you go.