How a Diary Study Can Help to Make Your Business Smarter

Dec 10, 2020 | User Research

Diary StudyBefore we delve into the main topic looking at how a diary study can help to make your business smarter, let’s first understand what a diary study is.

What is a Diary Study?

The difference between a diary study and most of the other types of UX testing is time. A diary study can span from 2 days to 2 months, depending on project needs. It gathers important information about the user’s experience over an extended period of time. A diary study is an ethnographic research method that we commonly employ in the practice of UX research.

Participants are asked to write about their experience surrounding a particular product or service being studied. Photos, doodles, or even videos can also be used to supplement the diary entry. In other words, this qualitative research method is a personal diary that is frequently updated by participants. Hence the name ‘Diary Study’.

How a Diary Study Can Help to Make Your Business Smarter

The most important motivation for doing a diary study is that it removes environmental bias, taking away any influence from the researcher or test lab setting. Doing so allows the participant to be in their natural environment, and to record their natural and unbiased thoughts and opinions. Diary study is particularly beneficial for recording the participant’s long-term behaviour.

Imagine a lab test as a photo taken at that point in time, all things set up for a specific scenario in a specific context of a product/service. A diary study on the other hand is more like a home movie, it records moments over a span of time, and the focus remains on the product/service.

We get to understand how the participant thinks about the product/service in various scenarios, in their day-to-day lives, giving us in-depth and genuine contextual findings.

A diary study helps to provide a goldmine of information into the mind of your users. This helps you to make better business decisions, and in turn, makes your business smarter!

Conducting a diary study yields qualitative information, with the findings being based on the thoughts, feeling and observable behaviour of participants. This form of longitudinal UX testing can’t be replicated or derived from a test lab environment, and is therefore a valuable study to undertake. Furthermore, it contains essential information on the participants’ long-term behaviours.

Some of these long-term behaviours could include:

  • When do participants engage with the product/service?
  • Is there a specific time of day?
  • In what ways do participants engage with the product/service?
  • Do they share content with others? How so?
  • What are the participants’ primary tasks?
  • What motivates them to perform specific tasks?
  • What are their workflows for longer or long-term tasks?
  • How do participants find the learning curve?
  • How loyal are participants over time?
  • What is their typical customer journey/ cross channel workflow and UX?
  • What are the effects of multiple service touchpoints?
  • Has their perception of the brand changed after engaging with the product/service?
  • Other long term behaviours only observable when measured against time.

How Long Should a Diary Study Take?

The amount of time for a diary study depends on what you are trying to measure, the budget, and the project timeline. Ultimately, it depends on the project needs. For something like a fitness tracker, it would be good to aim for a longer term to look at the progression over a long period of time as opposed to a shopping platform that can be measured within a short amount of time.

A diary study can last between 2 days to 2 months, whatever suits the purpose of the product/service you want to test. Having said that, we have seen many diary studies for digital services that last about 2 weeks due to budget as well as time constraint.

How To Conduct a Diary Study

It all starts with an actual diary. This could be physical, or more likely digital these days. Participants need a place to be able to put down their thoughts and observations, hence the “diary” part of the diary study.

Participants are encouraged to write, to sketch or take photos when inserting diary entries, the convenience of modern technology means that it can easily be a combination of all of the above in one diary entry. The point is, as researchers we should not prescribe how diary entries are made, these are deliberately kept open and unscripted so that participants can have the freedom to express their thoughts and opinions the way they want to.

It’s important to note that the frequency of logging shouldn’t be too taxing on the participants so as to avoid “diary fatigue” and reduce the quality of each entry subsequently. According to UXPA, two to three entries per day is the maximum limit we should ask of participants.

There are three different types of diary entries that you want to bear in mind when designing your diary study research:

  1. Interval-contingent protocol
    This requires participants to periodically input diary entries at regular predetermined intervals. For example, every morning at 10am, every five hours, etc.
  2. Signal-contingent protocol
    This allows the researchers to prompt the participant to make diary entries using a signalling device. This could be a text, a light that lights up, or other forms of notification
  3. Event-contingent protocol
    This requires participants to input a diary entry each time a specific event occurs. For example, this could be immediately after they have used the product, after a successful transaction, etc.

What Do You Need For a Diary Study?

Aside from time, the most important component for a diary study to take place is a diary. This could be a digital diary or a simple pen and paper approach, it is beneficial to allow individual participants to decide what form of diary they prefer to use. Some find it easier to type out their thoughts, some prefer to pen it down, some may even prefer to vlog.

There are plenty of electronic tools and solutions available, some may have helpful features that allow participants to record a combination of photos, voice recordings and short videos.

The benefit of pen and paper is that there is no learning curve. Electronic tools and solutions have its own benefits but there is a likely learning curve which could add a level of complexity to the process and cause frustration for the participant, affecting the ease of their diary entry. Especially if your target participants are not tech savvy.

Lastly, of course you will need to provide the product/service that you would like the participants to interact with and a clear and concise brief on the chosen type of diary entry, whether it’s interval-contingent protocol (regular predetermined intervals), signal-contingent protocol (prompted through a signal or notification), or even-contingent protocol (at specific events).

What a diary study WON’T do

There are obvious advantages to conducting a diary study but there are certain drawbacks to this method of UX research. This includes:

  • People are people. If participants lose focus or drive or even simply forget to update their diary, it doesn’t yield sufficient results. There may be a tendency for participants to get distracted, feel too busy or too tired or simply too lazy. A good way to tackle this is to only recruit participants that will be disciplined in keeping their diary updated, or to set up reminders.
  • Participants need to be fully committed and to feel comfortable in recording their findings in a clear and understandable language. If participants don’t feel comfortable or are committed, the results will be lacklustre and won’t be reliable.
  • The onboarding and training could be a lengthy process, and it may take time to find a good quality pool of participants.
  • Diary studies aren’t as comprehensive and rich as a true field study (costing much much more)
  • The analysis of diary studies is time-consuming and extensive

Analysis of Diary Studies

Post-study interview:

The aim is to have a follow-up conversation with the participant to clear up any ambiguities and have an open and frank conversation about the study itself, discussing the specific details of the study. You can also use this chance as a debriefing and ask them for feedback on improvements that can be made.

Data analysis:

This involves the researcher taking a deep breath before diving into the sea of qualitative data. The researcher has a gargantuan task ahead of them exploring every note, every picture, every entry with a fine-tooth comb.

The researcher should keep a couple of questions in mind through the analysis: How did the participant’s interactions with the product evolve and change? What are the factors that have influenced these behaviours?

All this vital information that is derived from the diary study can help in building a customer journey map. Helping you and your business to understand the entire user experience from the very mind of your users, thus helping to make your business smarter!

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