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5 Methods to Collect Data with Diary Studies

Diary StudiesDiary Studies are self-reporting UX methods, where customers record entries into a log (or diary) about how they are interacting with your product.  Diary Studies can give you an enormous amount of contextual information without the high-cost  of a field study.  Diary Studies are a great method for collecting longitudinal information because you observe the same variables over a longer period of time.  Diary Studies are ideal for mobile projects, as people use their devices in various settings in different ways.  In this article, we will review the basic procedures for creating a diary study.  Plus, you will learn five different ways to collect data with diary studies.  Enjoy!

Basic Procedure for Performing a Diary Study

The basic procedure for collecting information with a Diary Study is shown below:

  1. Recruiting Participants. Recruit participants for your target markets.  Consider participants that represent current customers and potential ones, as their diary studies will have different viewpoints.
  2. Providing basic instructions. Prepare some basic instructions that describe the Diary Study.  You can use a paper or electronic format.  You want them to keep their diary, all the way through to completion.
  3. Scheduling Checkpoints.  You will want to schedule checkpoints to keep the participants on task and to answer any questions.
  4. Customers Return Their Diary.  Participants return their diary for analysis.  Verify the diary is complete before you move to the next step.
  5. Analyzing the Dairy. You perform an analysis on the content.  Look for common themes.  Consider a mind map the data for each participant.
  6. Following-up with Interviews & Surveys. Consider following-up diary studies with customer interviews to gain further clarity and analysis on the results.  In addition, consider running an online survey to validate findings with a larger sample size.

Method #1: Paper-Based Diaries

Paper DiaryPaper-based diaries are the most recognizable type of Diary Study.  Many researchers also believe paper-based diaries are the most natural and personal. Paper-based Diaries are portable, requiring no technical knowledge.  Your customers take their diary with them, recording events when they happen.  Paper-based diaries have some pitfalls:

  1. You must wait until the diary is returned before starting analysis.
  2. Data is collected on paper only.  You miss certain data points without audio or video.
  3. Some people just have bad handwriting, so they can be hard to read
  4. If you need to transcribe notes, paper-based diaries are time consuming.

Quick Tips for Paper-based Diaries

You can mitigate these pitfalls by:

  1. Include instructions for capturing diary entries, so all the diaries look the same (or as much as possible).
  2. Tell participants to type out their diary entries, if they think they have bad handwriting.  Most people will do it.
  3. Send out reminders throughout the study to keep participants focused on their diary entries.
  4. Provide details for when and where to return the diary.
  5. Consider having participants include pictures, video, or audio files with their paper-based diary.

Method #2: Email-Based Diaries

emailEmail-based diaries occur when participants are asked to email their diary entries to you, usually at the end of the day.  The participant can collect their diary entries throughout the day on paper, their mobile, or recalling it.  Unlike paper-based diaries, you can start analyzing data right away because you are collecting it at regular intervals.  No need to wait for your customer to send you a paper-based diary.  Email-based diaries have these pitfalls:

  1. Customers may just recall entries later in the day rather than collect it when it happens.
  2. Customers may forget the exact details, when they report about it later in the day.
  3. You could follow-up with customers, which can (inadvertently) affect the outcome.  They may want to please you.
  4. Customers may feel different about something after it occurred. You lose how they felt at the time.

Quick Tips for Email-based Diaries

You can mitigate these pitfalls by:

  1. Telling customers to do a paper-based diary and entering in their details in an email log.
  2. Tell customers to attach pictures of their paper-based diary in their emails.
  3. Reduce your interactions in email to primarily instructions, such as turning in your diary log.
  4. Delay interacting with participants until you see consistent patterns.
  5. Schedule follow-up interviews after reviewing a larger set of user emails.

Method #3: Text-based Diaries

Text-based diaries are popular with digital natives, or customers who have grown up with digital technology (phones, tablets, email, Internet, and so on).  In this method, participants create diary entries at any time, from any place where they have their mobile phones.  They can send text messages and take a picture.

You interact alot with participants with text-based studies.  You collect the data in a real-time fashion, which might be ideal for quick iterations and tight deliverables.  Plus, you do collect additional information, such as a date and time stamp, the participant’s name, duration of the message, pictures/audio/video files, and a transcript of the conversation.

These pitfalls exist with text-based diaries:

  1. You can easily skew results with too much interaction with the participants.
  2. You may get alot of unrelated information.
  3. Participants may want to continue conversations with you after the study. (Hint: Do not use your own phone.)
  4. You can get too much information, which leads to analysis paralysis (too much information to make a decision).

Quick Tips for Text-based Diaries

You can mitigate these pitfalls by:

  1. Do not use your own phone.  It reduces your interactions.  It makes it less personal.
  2. Keep your texts about the project.  Do not encourage communication (example: “Awesome!”, “LOL!”)
  3. Send automated text reminders rather than personal ones, when possible.
  4. Collect data using other diary methods (ie paper-based or email)

Method #4: Voice-based Diaries

Voice-based diary studies capture the richness of your customer’s verbal thoughts. In this approach, participants speak rather than write their entries.  They can send you voice mails or recordings, usually from their mobile phone.  The customer feedback takes on the form of stories and scenarios.  You can captures nuances in their speech.  At first glance, you might think voice-based diaries are just qualitative data.  You can covert voice-based diaries into quantitative data, too. Some pitfalls with voice-based diaries include:

  1. Customers can exaggerate their feedback to improve their storytelling.
  2. The customer story is open to interpretation.
  3. Richness of verbal feedback may be lost with foreign speakers ( or certain dialects).
  4. It might be hard to visualize what is being voiced by your customer.

Quick Tips for Voice-based Diaries

You can mitigate these pitfalls by:

  1. Telling customers to do a paper-based diary along with their voice-based entries.
  2. All customer stories should have some pictures sent via email (to visualize the context).
  3. Review a voice-based diary to see if the customer recalls it differently.  This is a form of retrospective testing.
  4. Delay interacting with customers based upon single voice entries.  Look for patterns, and then follow-up.

Method #5: Social Media-based Diaries

A new diary study method is the use of Twitter, where participants make entries to a private twitter via a Direct Message (DM) or a hashtag to be viewed by everyone.  Twitter allows for just 140 characters, so this technical limitation requires for quick responses.  Short entries are usually more to the point and occur when something happens. Digital natives that use Twitter and Facebook find this approach to be a natural way to communicate.  Plus, you get to collect real-time data.  Twitter allows for participants to attach pictures and other URLs, if needed.  Some pitfalls with Twitter include:

  1. Twitter is very interactive, so you can alter their thoughts and actions with your words (or lack or words).
  2. If you do not respond to a DM, you can get blasted in public.  (It can get nasty.  Trust me!)
  3. Some experiences take more than 140 characters to describe.
  4. Not all participants will be comfortable using Twitter for social media diaries.
  5. Customers develop Twitter personas, which may not be like their social personalities.

Quick Tips for Social Media-based Diaries

You can mitigate these pitfalls by:

  1. Use social media diaries for products specifically dealing with social media or targeting digital natives.
  2. Be sure to include other collection methods (paper-based, email-based, voice-based).
  3. Avoid (or spot) a Twitter persona by just talking with someone on the phone.  It works.
  4. Keep interactions to Twitter focused on just the projects.
  5. Schedule tweets as reminders to participants.  Check DMs regularly.

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