Diary studies can be a great solution for complex research problems, especially when they involve large groups or experiences that span timeframes. Diary studies help you pull insights from the behaviors, activities, and habits that define human behavior.

What is a diary study?

A diary study allows you to gather qualitative information from participants over time. Traditionally in a diary study, subjects would generate data in the form of written diary entries about specific topics of interest. Researchers often depend on technology to make this process easier, using apps and other digital tools to collect responses. Most diary studies fall into one of two categories: elicitation or feedback studies. 

Elicitation diary study

In an elicitation study, the participants record their entries as given events or actions occur. These entries are generally recorded quicker than in feedback studies, and used later to prompt discussions. For instance, you might have your participants take pictures with their phones whenever they see advertisements for a particular brand while shopping. These studies offer immediate insights as researchers and participants interact via interviews.

Feedback diary study

In a feedback study, the structure is a bit more delayed. A participant might record an entry every day, once a week, or whenever they have specific experiences - but they won't return their completed diary until the end of the predetermined study period.

Alongside both of these categories might be a series of interviews, focus groups, or remote check-ins. The data collected from these parallel interactions is often analyzed alongside diary entries.

Diary study vs. field study vs. interview

Researchers commonly use diary studies as stand-ins for field studies, either due to cost or time constraints. Diary studies may be significantly less exhaustive than formal fieldwork, but they can still provide a good starting point for more detailed research.

Diary studies allow researchers to delve into behavior that can't be summed up in a single event or interaction, like a single interview session. It also might be more appropriate than a survey when trying to understand a user journey or customer relationship that unfolds over time.

Although the respondent knows they're participating in a study, diary studies are a helpful tool to observe behavior as naturally as possible. Since the participant gets to complete their entries on their own time and in a natural environment rather than in a lab, they might be more inclined to answer honestly and organically. Even if a participant may regularly interact with the researchers, eliminating barriers like requiring attendance to a session or visiting a specific location can help research outcomes.

Examples of diary studies in different industries

Running a diary study could be the right choice for many scenarios. Here are a few examples of how diary studies might be used in different industries. 

Understanding user experience and habits 

UX diary studies can gauge how users adapt to software, hardware, and other products over time. This form of research proves effective when usability problems might not be immediately apparent or user insight-gathering practices change

Understanding patient perception of care 

Patients, practitioners, and others who participate in diary studies help hospitals and clinics evaluate overall care standards. Using delayed diary response methodologies in these might let researchers overcome interference during consultations and similar points of care. This kind of research could also overcome typical barriers to feedback by letting respondents answer on their schedules while they're dealing with addiction, treatment acclimatization, and other medical challenges.

Understanding employee happiness & well-being 

Diary studies can help HR professionals understand how people truly feel about their workplaces. Since these sentiments evolve gradually, diaries that permit freeform opinion-giving might reveal unique or developing employment concerns.

Is a diary study right for your next research project?

Choosing research methods that are appropriate for your research goals are key, because the quality of your research findings are only as good as how the research was conducted. Here are some questions to consider when deciding whether or not a diary study might be right for your next research project:

  • Do you want to understand a user's daily, weekly, or monthly habits and schedules?
  • Do you want to understand how frequently a user interacts with a product or service, and what leads up to those decisions?
  • Do you want to understand a user’s attitude and motivation to perform a series of activities over time in their natural context?
  • Do you want to understand how a user’s behavior and perceptions change over a period of time?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then a diary study might be the right method for your next research project.

How to run a diary study

The first step in any research project is to align on goals, create a solid plan, and decide on activities and tasks that will generate data to meet those goals. However, preparing to run a diary study requires specific considerations that are unique to other research projects. 

1. Create a plan and timeline

Determine the long-term behaviors that you want to learn more about. Work backwards from them to define a timeline that will uncover those behaviors. For example, if you want to understand a family’s grocery shopping habits, a week might be enough time to run out of fresh produce, but not key pantry items. So 4-6 weeks might be a minimum timeline for this diary study.

2. Recruit and screen participants

Diary studies are much more involved than a typical user interview session, and require commitment from participants. Be honest and transparent about expectations. Ensure you are properly incentivizing participants and screening for participants who will be available and committed, otherwise you'll receive poor or incomplete information. Consider dispersing incentives as they complete weekly logs in order to motivate them. Aim for a minimum of 8-10, considering that not all participants will complete the diary study.

3. Decide on tools to capture data

You’ll want to select a simple, user-friendly tool for participants to log activity in order to have as little friction as possible. Create a simple and specific framework with questions to answer to create as much consistency in how data is collected to prepare for effective analysis. Be clear about how much detail you expect from participants. 

  • Video/audio logs – About as simple as it gets for users of all abilities, and can be completed impromptu with a phone without much interruption to the activities. Use a video transcription service to transcribe entries for analysis.
  • Email/note taking apps or survey forms – Removes the step of transcription and you may get more thought out and detailed entries, but you lose the authenticity of being in the moment as well as the voice of the user which is an important data point for analysis. 
  • Combination of both – Ask the participant to record video/audio logs in the moment, and then follow up on each video log with additional written details. However, consider the added step and complexity this might add.

4. Monitor and facilitate the study

Throughout the duration of the diary study, check in and make yourself available to participants to answer questions and ask probing questions of your own while the data is still fresh in everyone’s head. 

Due to the long timeframe of diary studies they produce a ton of data. Collect diary study logs as they come in and get ahead of analysis by setting up your project, careful not to get ahead of yourself and slip into any confirmation bias.

5. Debrief and analysis

Notably is designed to analyze data from research studies like a diary study. You can create a participant entry for each diary study participant. Upload the video or audio log and create a document with written logs. Tags in data files are an effective way to create a code for days, weeks, or certain steps in a journey. Highlight important parts of your participant logs based on the framework you set up at the beginning of the study, and tag their feelings, motivations, and behaviors.

Create a journey map that aligns with the timeline of your diary study and plot each participant’s sticky notes to analyze them together and uncover unexpected patterns across the entire group of participants.

Conclusion

Diary studies are excellent for tracking human behavior over time. When properly controlled and managed, these research projects can reveal insights that expand your appreciation for complex topics and lead to human-centered insights that inspire action and innovation.

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