Diary Studies: a Qualitative Study of Your Users’ Behavior
User Research

Published on September 12, 2022

Diary Studies: a Qualitative Study of Your Users’ Behavior

A diary study is a research method involving people's daily activities. It's similar to an experiment, however, you're simply observing what happens instead of manipulating the conditions or variables to see how they affect behavior.

This article will show you how diary studies can provide insights into the way people use your products and whether or not they like them—no matter where they live!

What are diary studies?

Diary Studies. UX Knowledge Base Sketch #6 | by Krisztina Szerovay | UX Knowledge Base Sketch

Above is a fantastic example of a diary study by Krisztina Szerovay, founder of the UX Knowledge Base Sketch.

A diary study is a UX Research Method that examines participants’ daily activities. It seems simple, right? Well, it is! It’s comparable to an experiment in that you don’t have to change the conditions or elements in order to observe how they affect behavior; instead, you simply watch what happens.

Because there are no randomization factors like in experiments (i.e., participants are assigned to conditions randomly), you can’t assume that your findings will generalize beyond the specific population being studied.

The diary study is designed to determine the factors influencing consumer behavior. Psychologist E.R. Dodds developed it in the 1920s and 1930s, and it has since been used extensively in consumer research, marketing studies, and of course, UX design.

Diary studies can be used for many different purposes: they’ve been used by psychologists as well as marketers and behavioral economists to understand consumer decision-making processes; they’ve also been used by sociologists and anthropologists who examine culture through diaries kept over periods, ranging from weeks to as long as decades (sometimes even centuries).

Methods of conducting diary studies

diary studies

There are two primary methods of conducting diary studies. And while you can use whatever way you want to collect your data, there are some guidelines to help you map out how to do so.

Here are some strategies:

  • Start with a question or hypothesis that you want to explore, and then narrow down the scope of your study based on what’s important to you. For example, if your goal is to understand how users feel about their product, then focus on just those feelings (not necessarily the product itself).
  • Create a list of possible interviewees (people who could potentially be interviewed) based on demographics such as age, gender, job position, and location. These people have used or interacted with your product previously, but for whom there has been little or no data available for analysis purposes (i.e., they have not been surveyed before).

1. Freeform/open diary study

This is a non-constrained approach to collecting data. Participants are free to record their experiences in whatever way they choose; however, the researcher needs to be aware of any potential bias (e.g., participants may not feel comfortable divulging certain aspects of their lives). 

This method is often used in qualitative research because it allows participants to provide rich and detailed responses which can be unpacked further with other forms. Freeform diaries can be used as part of a mixed methods approach, or they can be used as the sole method for collecting data.

diary studies

2. Structured/closed diary study

In this study, participants are asked to complete a diary at predetermined intervals over a set period. They are asked questions about their daily routine and experiences, and their answers may be recorded by researchers who then analyze this data. 

There are several advantages when using this method:

  • it allows for greater control over the research process and its design
  • it lends itself well to repeated measures designs
  • it provides information about participant experience over time, which may not be possible through other methods
  • it enables researchers to examine patterns over time.

When to use Diary Studies?

Diary studies are a great way to collect qualitative data. They’re convenient for collecting data about user behavior over time, which can help you understand how users think and feel about your product. Diary studies also allow you to collect data on user behavior, which is critical when determining whether or not your product is meeting their needs.

This method can be beneficial when you want to understand how a user’s behavior changes over different contexts. They’re also helpful for understanding how users interact with your product in other contexts.

There are many ways you can use diary studies within an organization. Either conduct them on a small scale with just a few participants or on a large scale with thousands of participants across multiple countries or organizations. It’s a great way to understand customer journeys (e.g., “how do customers interact with our website?”) or product use (e.g., “what do customers do when they buy our product?”).

Diary studies are most effective when combined with other qualitative research methods (e.g., surveys) because they provide rich feedback from real people interacting with products in their daily lives. They can also be used as part of a larger research project that includes quantitative data collection as well (e.g., interviews). 

How to conduct diary studies

diary studies

1. Choose a medium

To conduct a diary study, the first and the most convenient thing to do is create an account on a site like UXtweak, which will host all of your responses. The diary should be intuitive, clear, and well-designed. Ensure users know they are participating in a study and what they need to do. 

From there, you’ll need to create a survey that utilizes a series of questions about users’ experiences with your product — for example:

“How did you discover the product?”

“What were your thoughts during this experience?”

“What would be the most helpful improvement for future products?”

Just like the materials you use to build the subject matter, the participants you research are the same case. These people represent your target audience. They’re the ones who will be using your product first-hand, and so their opinion matters deeply.

2. Choosing your participants

Picking your participants carefully is essential for several reasons. For example, if you’re testing a new product with your target audience, you’ll want to ensure that the people participating in your research are representative of your user group. If you don’t, you might end up with an unrepresentative sample and have trouble generalizing from that data set.

Another reason for choosing carefully is that it’s essential to understand what kind of people will use your product. If all of your users are young women in their 20s who live in New York City, then it makes sense to focus on those people when conducting interviews with them.

Make sure users know they can stop at any time. Participants must have the option to end their participation whenever they wish, without feeling pressured to continue. For example, if an interviewer asks about something that makes them uncomfortable, then allow them to leave the conversation immediately and find another more willing subject.

Your study may need as few as three or as many as 30 participants, depending on the scope and budget. Ideally, you should recruit 10-15 participants and a couple of backups for a diary study.

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3. Proceed with research

It’s time for the magic to begin! 

When you’re in the discovery phase, go through a discovery session with your target users and make sure they are comfortable with the idea of sharing their diary data with you. This can be done during an interview or through a questionnaire where users are asked to share their diary entries with you.

After narrowing down the ideal participant, use UXtweak’s recruiting widget or our 160M+ User Panel to gather the best candidates for your research and screen them.

Depending on your diary and logging style, you may want to interact with participants more or less during your study. Be constant with reminders or notifications and never forget to be polite. Pay attention to the opinions of active participants and follow up with anyone who seems to be having trouble. Participating in the study exposes a vulnerable aspect of themselves, so they respect their limits and offer assistance as needed.

Testing early-stage prototypes is a great way to test your hypotheses before launching your product or service. You want to see if your design works, so this is an excellent opportunity to get feedback from users before you go into development.

4. Post Diary study observation 

It would help if you met with each participant after your study ends to discuss entries in detail. If this isn’t possible, an asynchronous interview or survey works well too.

In the post-study interview, you can ask participants to expand on information where needed and ask any follow-up questions you remembered part way through the study.

 At the end of development, when your product is finished and ready for launch, this is the time to conduct diary studies with real users. This will help validate that what you’ve built works by comparing actual results with predicted ones using statistical analysis tools. 

5. Analyze the data gathered

Sort your top players by data strength or unique patterns: Who stands out? Remove these people’s impressions and add them to your theory as additional evidence because establishing a routine is much easier.

After the design and implementation, there is an opportunity to analyze the data and make adjustments based on findings from previous phases of research. Suppose you have conducted follow-up interviews with participants or analyzed their responses to open-ended questions at multiple stages of your study. In that case, this is one way to ensure that all participants are treated fairly and equally during data analysis.

The advantages of diary studies

diary studies

Convenience and freedom

Diary studies allow participants to keep track of their experiences whenever they want. Moreover, you can review your entries immediately or later. It’s easy for participants to mark down what they think is relevant to a prime or trigger you’ve made, and you can review it whenever it’s convenient for you. 

Gives participants more insight into who they are

Using diary studies helps your participants discover themselves in a more meaningful, but not so tactical way. After completing a diary study, participants are usually more aware of their feelings, routines, and behaviors.

Allows to reach vulnerable populations

It is vital to reach vulnerable populations when direct observation is not possible. There are several reasons for this, including privacy, geography, and access. Sometimes, it simply boils down to how your target participants act. It’s much easier for some people to open up online than in person. 

The disadvantages of diary studies

diary studies

Participants may get bored

Participants may lose their enthusiasm or forget — not every participant will record their diary entries accurately and may get tired before the trial ends.

Data is difficult to analyze

Quantitative data evaluation differs from qualitative data analysis due to its laborious nature and difficulty in automating. Unlike other qualitative data types, diary research is more challenging to analyze due to the mental ramblings involved.

Reported data may not be accurate

It is generally accepted that human narrators are unreliable due to their blind spots, biases, and lack of self-predictive skills. We all forget details, misremember information, report facts incorrectly or partially, and introduce unconscious biases into our observations, even the most conscientious, morally upright people.

To sum it all up

A well-designed diary study can help you determine what your users want and how they think about your product or service. 

With a good diary study, you can choose how to improve your product’s user experience based on your target audience’s needs and opinions — so it’s no wonder many designers have been using diary studies in their day-to-day UX work. 

UXtweak offers many excellent tools for making the most of your diary studies. Sign up for your free account and streamline your research with our all-in-one platform!

Eniola Olaniyi
September 12, 2022
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Eniola is a passionate UX designer dedicated to creating meaningful user experiences. She is also a freelance Content and UX writer.

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