Diary Studies, Capturing Life as it is Lived

Diary studies have been a traditional research method in behaviour research and social sciences for many years. They rely on users self-documenting specific personal experiences, in natural environments, over long periods of time. Typically, users report their activities and create a log of their thoughts, actions and feelings.

Diary studies enable you to understand developed human behaviours and formed habits with a specific product/service rather than a one-time experience/initial experience.
When to use a diary study?

Example situations/scenarios include:

  • To document and assess an activity that is usually conducted over a prolonged period of time e.g. shopping for a large expensive product like a sofa, or booking a family holiday
  • to identify how a new product or service fits into users’ lives/regular habits e.g. when using fitness, diet or health services
  • to understand how a user’s experience/perception of a product or service develops over time, e.g. when wanting to assess the learnability or discoverability of certain features/functions
  • to gain insight into the users’ engagement with a product or service and identify the triggers which initiate use.

The benefits of conducting diary studies

  • Provide qualitative information about how users are using a product or service in their natural environments
  • provide insight into how interactions and experiences of a product or service unfold over time (i.e. longer period of time than possible via other research methods such as user testing or contextual enquiry)
  • provide insight into intermittent or difficult-to-observe situations, because it’s not always possible to be there!
  • eliminate any potential biases introduced by retrospective thinking and documenting
    provide qualitative insight at a lower cost than other common research methods used e.g. user testing, contextual enquiry
  • you may uncover some rare nuggets of insight that users may not recall in a typical research interview or contextual inquiry.

The limitations of diary studies

  • User’s commitment and dedication is required to ensure that you capture their experiences
  • training sessions are often required to explain to users the kind of information required for the study – to ensure that we submit the relevant information.

Paper vs. online diary submissions

(Paper dairy submissions are often submitted alongside additional media e.g. video, photos, voice recordings etc. )

  • Suitable for users with a mix of technical abilities, no requirement for them to download, login or setup technical equipment to submit diary entries
  • considered the most personal and private research method and so more suitable when researching a sensitive topic
  • easier to set up a structured diary study using paper diaries than electronic.

Online diary submissions can take many forms e.g. emails, texts, tweets, Facebook messages or using online tools such as Tumblr, Posterous and Revelation

  • Users tend to provide richer, more detailed feedback as it is easier to submit immediate submission of data, no waiting for the diary entries to be posted back
  • more flexibility is provided with electronic diary submissions as adaptions can be made to the study based on the findings captured to date
  • gentle reminders can be sent to users to prompt an entry as well as encourage ongoing participation.

Deliverables from a diary study

  • Rich, real time data from real users while they’re carrying on with their normal everyday lives
    research in users’ natural environment that doesn’t rely on them recalling decision making, actions, thoughts and feelings
  • we collate all the information together and segment and analyse the findings to identify themes and trends in users documented thoughts, actions and feelings
  • we often follow up the diary studies with in-depth interviews or online surveys in order to further quantify the findings or gain further insight into specific areas of interest identified within the diary studies.

Diary studies are a valuable way for you to gain key insights from your existing and potential customers and can be used in combination with many other research techniques. If you are interested in carrying out a diary study for your customers, we’d love to speak to you about the benefits you can gain from these.

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