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What is a Diary Study and Why Should You Care?

What is a Diary Study and Why Should You Care?

What is a Diary Study and Why Should You Care? 860 489 Border Crossing UX

The one research technique that epitomises User Experience (UX) to me is Diary Studies. Unlike any other user research method, a Diary Study provides participants with the opportunity to record and describe the thoughts and feelings that drive their behaviour.

From a UX perspective, the potential to uncover habits and motivations which drive changes in perception and behaviour is crucial. But what is a Diary Study and why should you care?

Diary Study sketch by UserVision

What is a Diary Study?

A Diary Study is a longitudinal research method used for collecting qualitative data about user behaviour, actions, and experiences.  During the defined testing period, participants keep a diary of information about the topic of study. It is self-documented by participants in their own time to promote honest feedback reflecting those experiences.

Why conduct a Diary Study?

Researching user behaviour in UX is focused at understanding how we interact and feel when engaging with a product or service over any length of time. Conducting in-lab tests, which can be completed as quickly as a few minutes, are incredibly strong for creating approximations and confirming assumptions. However, they can prove weak when aiming to establish a contextual understanding of an individual’s behaviour and experiences over time. This is important as it allows the users to carry out their daily lives normally and test propositions in a natural environment.

Unless context is considered, a 10-minute usability test may not be valid. So, to uncover an individual’s truly natural behaviour we may want to study this over an extended period around the routines that provide real-world contextual representation.

How do you Conduct a Diary Study?

Within UX, participants self-report their actions, thoughts and frustrations when interacting with a product or service either right away as they happen (In-Situ Logging). Or, they may elaborate on notes taken at the end day or whenever they have time (Snippet Logging).

A typical study consists of the following three main stages:

  1. Pre-Study: The pre-study acts as a brief to participants. This is the time to walk through the study schedule as well as the tools, details required, and the expectations.
  2.  Diary Study/ Logging Period: The period in which the participants are actively engaging in the study by recording their experiences when encountering the focus point of the study.
  3.  Post-Study: The post-study acts as an evaluation of all the information provided by the participants. By asking the participants to elaborate on their recorded experiences we can uncover deeper detail to clarify information.

Timeline of activities that take place throughout a typical Diary Study:

diary study roadmap

Image from article by Kim Flaherty (Nielsen Norman Group)

Once the information from the participants has been aggregated we can then begin to really explore user activity and craft User Journey Maps to visualise the scope of behaviours.

Benefits and Drawbacks

Conducting a Diary Study provides a richer opportunity for many conclusions to be drawn. It is an incredibly insightful approach for organically capturing behaviours:

  • Habits
  • Usage scenarios
  • Attitudes and Motivations
  • Changes in Behaviours and Perceptions
  • Customer Journeys

But there are aspects which can hinder the success of a Diary Study. Most common is the reliability of the participants to regularly log their thoughts is a high risk.

Before the proliferation of mobile devices, many Diary Studies could have had a poor completion rate due to uncommitted participants (or diary fatigue). Many may have opted simply not to or chosen to fill out their diaries at the end of the day as it was too inconvenient for them to do so at the time and so was not natural. This would result in a loss of information and recording data out of context could devalue its validity.

User incentives (money or other worthwhile rewards) can overcome this issue. But this is not always desirable and may introduce bias in the study.

Another way to combat diary study fatigue and is using different methods of logging. Today there are plenty of opportunities to divert from the cliché of a physical diary and instead record the information by text, email, photo, video, and even Twitter or Facebook! Or you can use web apps to capture user behaviour and experiences:

Final Thoughts

Whilst Diary Studies demand more effort from both the participant and researcher the benefits are clear. Collecting real-life information about behaviours and experiences are valuable when prioritising and roadmapping features and content.

The ethnographic approach provides crucial insights that would remain undiscovered if only lab-based tests were conducted. Only by truly observing the natural behaviour of individuals in context can you evolve your propositions to match the user needs.

Want to Know More?

If this post has left you wanting to understand more about Diary Studies and how they can help you truly understand what people are doing, and why, in their real-world environments then please Get In Touch!

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