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This part of the field guide comes from our 2019 version of the UX Research Field Guide. Updated content for this chapter is coming soon!
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Today I learned that diary studies are a relatively hands-off and economical way to gather loads of useful longitudinal qualitative data (and sometimes quantitative data, too). Sounds neat, huh?
In this chapter, we’ll dig into diary-based studies and how this method can be used to uncover insights over a period of time.
A diary study (sometimes called a camera study) is a UX research method in which participants keep a log of their thoughts, experiences, and activities over a defined period of time, usually a few days to several weeks.
Diary studies provide a self-reported and longitudinal record of users’ behaviors and attitudes that researchers later parse and analyze to better understand habits and patterns.
Study participants may be asked to log data as events occur or might be prompted at predefined intervals (for example, via an email or text message at a particular time of day).
This method is a relatively hands-off and cost-effective way to learn about the how and why of the user experience in context. Because of this, diary studies have been called “the poor man’s field study,” but we think that characterization sells the method a bit short.
Diary studies are an economical compromise between a highly structured lab-based study and an open-ended observational field-based ethnographic study—and for UX researchers working on digital products, a diary study is often a perfectly good alternative to on-site field studies.
Diary studies can help you learn more about how users act in real-world situations.
This method has a place in many different types of research, but is especially useful in UX research because of the fine-grained, contextual information diary studies can offer product and design teams. It’s one of the few ways to really get a peek into how users interact with your product in a real-world setting over a period of days or weeks.
Diary studies are useful for understanding long-term behaviors or processes like:
This method is especially useful when you’re in the early discovery phases of your product or project. You can use diary studies to learn more about the process users currently use to solve a problem, look at products you want to create or replace, or better understand the precise layers of the pain points you seek to solve.
Diary studies are also useful for testing early-stage products or prototypes in order to identify any necessary changes, before altering the course of a build becomes too onerous.
And they can also be useful at the very end of the development cycle. At these later stages, you can dig into the user experience to see if your products are being handled in the anticipated ways in order to fine-tune details.
Actually conducting a diary study has five main phases: planning, recruiting and onboarding, monitoring, debriefing, and analysis. It’s important to put roughly equal energy and effort into all five phases to get useful and usable results.
To make life easy for you, we created a Diary Study Launch Kit with:
🚀 Get the Diary Study Launch Kit.
If you’re reading this Field Guide in order, you’re probably sick of hearing it, but here we go:
Step one of any user research study is identifying your goals and defining a specific, actionable, and practical research question. Step two is figuring out which method is the right one for your goals.
We assume that if you’ve read this far, you’re probably pretty confident that a diary study is the right method for your current research goals. So we won’t belabor the point, but just in case…
If you don’t already have clear goals and an effective research question in hand, circle back to the chapter on How to Create a User Research Plan to hammer those out. Then, be sure to revisit the chapter on choosing a user research method to confirm that a diary study is really the most appropriate method for your goals.
Once you’ve done that, you can start planning your diary study in earnest. This is the fun-challenging part!
There are many different ways to conduct a diary study—which one you choose depends on who your participants are, the kind of information you’re hoping to learn, and the resources at your disposal. Here are some of the choices you’ll need to consider along the way.
The focus on your study will be determined by your goals, and may be broad (“what does a typical day for third-grade teachers involve?”) or narrow (“how do third-grade teachers use this specific math workbook?”).
Nielsen Norman Group breaks diary topic scopes into 4 categories:
The most basic diary format is a notebook and a pen or pencil, a low-cost and straight-forward option. Unfortunately, not all participants have legible handwriting, and handwritten diaries must later be digitized, adding another step to the processes of analysis and archiving. If you want participants to include images with their diary, consider including a disposable camera as part of their kit, or (more likely in 2022), instruction for uploading digital photos.
Smartphones are now so ubiquitous that using an app for the diary may be more comfortable for many users, though typing a lot of text into a phone might be uncomfortable for some. Electronic diaries can also take on other forms beyond the written word: entries can be logged by voice, video, or photos.
There are several well-rated diary apps already available in app stores (we cover a handful below in the tools and logistics section), or you can create your own. Bear in mind that using an app means you will have to train participants how to use it.
Laptops or desktop computers tend to be less ideal, since they are not as portable, convenient, or discreet. But if the scope of your diary study is narrowly focused on, say, a participant’s interaction with B2B software as part of their work day, you might also give them the option to log their entries that way.
You can also combine methods like creating a daily or regular-use questionnaire via mobile that can be paired with typed or handwritten notes. Just be sure not to over complicate things, either for yourself or your participants.
Another consideration is whether you want your participants’ diaries to be free-form or structured?
A free-form or open diary is similar to the personal diaries or journals some people already keep. You’ll still want to give your subjects some initial guidance, by and large a free-form diary is quite loose, and the subjects determine how and when to record feedback (when they’re already using a product) or to record their experience as they accomplish certain tasks or go about their day.
Free-form diaries require less training and encourage the user to speculate and to offer information you didn’t ask for and might not think to ask for. The risk is that the participant might not include the information you need—or might include way too much information.
A structured or closed diary, meanwhile, is more like a survey, with closed-ended questions on pre-set forms. Because their format is consistent across participants, structured diaries are much more straightforward to analyze.
Mixed approaches of various kinds are also an option. How much structure you use depends on where your study falls on a continuum between the need for open-ended communication on the one hand, and precise answers to specific questions on the other.
A structured diary might include:
For a structured or hybrid diary study, you might ask questions like:
The next thing to think about is the logging protocol. Whether you’re asking participants to complete a free-form or structured diary, you’ll want to provide them guidance around when to fill out their diary. There are three categories of diary protocols:
Event-contingent protocol is also known as in-situ logging, and is a straightforward method for collecting data, but does require participants to fill in their diary immediately after (or even during) a relevant activity, which can end up being disruptive.
A modified version of this method is called the snippet technique, in which participants record brief notes at the time of the event so as not to forget key points, and then follow up and expand on their snippets with more information at the end of the day.
Whatever logging method you choose will depend almost entirely on your research questions.
Diary studies can take place over a few days, or they can go on for months. The optimal length depends wholly on the nature of your study. But do keep in mind that the longer your diary study is, the more likely it is that participants will drop out or become unresponsive later in the study. Make your study as short as possible while still being long enough to answer your research question fully. If you don’t really need that extra week of entries, cut it!
Regardless of study length, be sure to check in on participants regularly to keep them engaged and answer any questions that might crop up.
Your diary study may involve collecting sensitive or personal information about your participant and you will have to take steps to either safeguard or destroy all such information. Your recruitment and onboarding processes should include obtaining informed consent. That means getting express permission from participants after advising them that you’re collecting information, why collecting this information is important, how you plan to use and store the data they share, and what you’re doing to minimize risk.
It’s also a good idea to conduct a pilot study to make sure your diary study design is sound. Recruit a couple teammates to help you practice onboarding and debriefing participants, test drive your materials to make sure the logging instructions are clear, and troubleshoot any tools or processes that participants will be expected to use.
There are two parts to diary study recruitment. The first—finding and screening participants —is similar to recruiting for other qualitative research methods.
The second—briefing and onboarding participants—is a more involved process than you may be used to if you typically stick to, say, user interviews.
For starters, you’ll need to have a good idea about who, exactly, can help you answer your research question. If you haven’t already, we highly (highly!) recommend reading the chapter How to Recruit Participants for User Research Studies to learn more about defining your participant profile and screening criteria.
We also encourage you to read the chapter on screener surveys carefully—you’ll need a good screener to find participants who are not only qualified to answer your questions, but who are willing and communicative enough to stick with the demands of a long-term research study.
Tony Turner, UX Researcher at Meta, emphasizes the importance of screening for articulation in diary study recruitment:
“The key thing is to [have] screeners that get at how interactive the participant is in terms of answering questions and things like that. So having questions in the screener that give them an opportunity to be verbose (or not) and learning about them that way.”
Your study might call for as few as 3 or as many as 30 participants—the number will, naturally, depend on the scope and budget of your project.
For a typical diary study, aim to recruit 10 to 15 participants. It’s also not a bad idea to recruit a couple more folks as a buffer against potential dropouts.
It’s always important to compensate your study participants fairly. How and how much you offer should be informed by the participant’s level of expertise, the amount of time and effort required, and (of course) your own budget.
We wrote a whole chapter on UX research incentives—including the different formats these can take—and even made a handy User Research Incentive Calculator to help you figure out the right amount for your study.
After recruiting participants, you’ll need to train them. Diary studies require a lot of (unmoderated) effort from participants, and your onboarding process should include a pre-study brief with thorough instructions about what, exactly, you want them to do.
Schedule a face-to-face meeting with each participant (this can be in-person or virtual) to discuss the details of the study. Make sure they’re clear on the timeline, logging schedule, and expectations around entry content and quality. Give them a walkthrough of the tools and technology they will be using, and leave plenty of time for questions.
But don’t rely on their memory alone—include clear written instructions and a reminder about expectations in the diary itself, so participants always have the most important information on hand.
Nielsen Norman Group recommends providing participants with a simple framework:
Be as specific as possible about what information you need participants to log, without stifling natural variability and differences that you cannot plan for. (Discovering the unexpected is after all one of the primary reasons to do user research.) Create clear and detailed instructions for logging. Give users example log entries to help them understand the level of detail you need from them. (But make sure you don’t bias participants toward those types of entries that you happened to provide as examples.)
Once the study begins, you may need to remind them to make their diary entries, and they might have questions for you about the process. Plan to check in on your participants regularly to support consistent logging and to address issues as they come up.
Exactly how closely you monitor participants throughout the study depends on your study design and perhaps also on the needs of individual participants. The longer a study is the harder it will be for participants to stick with it. (A few weeks is a good maximum length for most diary studies for this reason.)
During your check ins, be sure to recognize the efforts of participants that are engaged and creating quality entries per your instructions (a friendly “keep up the good work” goes a long way). For participants who are less engaged or seem to be struggling, take time to answer their questions and offer encouragement.
After you collect all the completed diaries, you should plan to meet with each participant to discuss their diary entries in detail.
To prepare for your debrief, review each participant's diary entries—you might also want to begin the analysis process ahead of time by tagging and coding the data. Then, conduct one-on-one followup interviews with each participant. Ask them to expand on their entries or clarify where needed, and incorporate the information into your study results for analysis in the next step.
The post-study interview is also a chance to personally thank each person for their efforts and gather feedback about the participant experience.
Analysis transforms your raw data (the diaries, debriefing interview transcripts, and whatever other information you have gathered) into insights you can use.
If diaries were hand-written or voice-recorded, step one of analysis will be transcribing the diaries into a format that can be analyzed using spreadsheets or specialized software.
Next, you will want to revisit your research questions. Diary studies create a lot (a lot) of qualitative data and it’s easy to get lost among all the interesting nuggets of information you’re likely to encounter as you dig in. Be clear about your research questions and the goals of your study, and focus your initial analysis on answering those first.
Questions to ask during diary study analysis include:
The feedback you get from diary studies can be difficult to organize. Our Diary Study Launch Kit includes an analysis spreadsheet template that automatically organizes diary entries so you can spend more time on analyzing and synthesizing the data and less time sifting through it.
In general, we find Google Sheets to be a pretty good way to organize research feedback. It’s a free, widely accessible tool that your whole team can use, even remotely. And while it doesn’t have all the power of a dedicated research repository or diary study tool, it’s a good way for getting started.
If you used a highly structured diary format, you may also have quantitative data to analyze with statistical analysis software or some deft spreadsheet formulas, which can then be layered in with qualitative insights.
After analyzing the data, you can construct a customer journey map that shows the user experience, pain points, and opportunities plotted over time. You can read more about how to create a customer journey map in this Field Guide chapter. We also put together a (giant) list of journey map templates and examples for you to borrow from.
Include your journey map in your final research report—this can be a written report, slide deck, and/or a live presentation. Consider including quotes from the diaries or post-study interviews in your report, along with any images, videos, or voice recordings you may have collected.
If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out this collection of research report templates and examples. You can also borrow and adapt our own simple UX research summary and presentation templates—the same ones used by the User Interviews team.
There are a number of off-the-shelf diary study tools out there, although these aren’t always practical for small teams, or for teams just getting started with diary studies.
If you’re assembling your own toolkit, you’ll need to provide each participant with the following:
*This could be Google Drive, Dropbox, or simply an email address or phone number for texting media.
You will also need solutions for:
If you are collecting and retaining sensitive personal information (such as where participants go during the day, how they use social media, or any medical or banking information) you will also need some way to keep that information secure until it is no longer needed and can be destroyed.
Diary studies can be combined with other methods in order to expand the reach of the study while keeping costs manageable. As we’ve discussed, diary studies are a means of observing natural use of a product. So, it can be handy to combine diary studies with some more quantitative methods that might fill in and support this same discovery stage of research.
Surveys are commonly paired with diary studies. For example, you may use a widely-distributed survey to collect the information you’ll use to develop the diary study. (Example: A survey might tell you how many times a day people drop their phones on the floor, and in a diary study, you get to learn more about the circumstances under which they drop their phones.)
Or, you could use the results of a diary study to develop further research questions that you then explore in a survey. (Example: A diary study might show that people are super diligent about flossing their teeth in the few weeks after a cleaning, and less so over time. You could follow this up with a survey to ask what might motivate them to continue flossing consistently.)
Other complementary methods include:
There are many avenues researchers can take to gather contextual understandings about users in their natural habitats, but none are without their drawbacks. Some solutions are more costly than others (extended field studies, for example), others can be somewhat unnatural (asking users to repeat real-life behaviors in a lab environment), and others may be unreliable (retroactively trying to understand context through a survey.)
Every UX research method has its challenges, but the good news is: the challenges you might encounter with diary studies are manageable.
Keeping a diary is a lot of work.
Data can be challenging to analyze.
Self-reported data may not be totally accurate.
No research method is perfect, and as we’ve just shared, diary studies do come with drawbacks (although the more serious pitfalls are easily avoided).
If you’ve considered your options and have decided a diary study is the best way to answer your research question—we say, go for it! The pros far outweigh the cons with this method.
Among other things, diary studies:
What’s more, as Kelly Moran, Staff UX Researcher at Google, observes:
“These studies often surface topics that a team has not thought to pursue in other, more tightly controlled research because the team does not know it exists as a phenomenon. This can include topics and phenomena that participants have not brought up in interviews because they simply did not come to mind in that interview moment.
One final benefit to diary studies is the ability they give your team to “get smart” about the population before going out to the field when used as a first step in a multi-phase discovery project. The team can head out already knowing about specific instances they can probe into in more depth. A positive byproduct of getting to know the respondents before we meet for face-to-face observation is the breaking down of some initial barriers. Arriving with a foundation of rapport already laid down means we can get right into meaningful observation shortly after arrival.”
Diary studies are just one piece of the user research puzzle—it would be unwise to make sweeping design decisions based only on diary study data. But the same can be said for literally any other UX research method.
If you’re looking for an economical way to collect in-depth, contextual, longitudinal data that captures the voice of the user, there’s no better tool to have in your belt.