Diary studies: Understanding your users' day-to-day experiences

By
Jack Wolstenholm
May 10, 2024
Diary studies: Understanding your users' day-to-day experiences

Diary studies are your go-to tool when you want to understand your users' day-to-day experiences over time. These studies place real user behavior in your hands without the observer effect distorting the results. Diary studies give you a peek into users' unfiltered routines and challenges, helping you identify pain points and opportunities that may not surface in a typical study setting. 

The studies empower you to gather longitudinal information vital for refining user interfaces and enhancing overall design strategies. But how do you set up and run an effective diary study? In this guide, we explore the process of conducting a diary study in UX research, ensuring you capture the most authentic user experiences.

What is a diary study?

A diary study is a qualitative research method where participants are asked to record their own experiences, behaviors, and thoughts over a period of time. These participants make these entries in real-time, in response to specific interactions with a product or service.

Participants document their daily activities and reflections in a structured format, either digitally or on paper. Researchers provide participants with guidelines on what aspects of their interaction to document, how often to make entries, and the preferred format of these entries. This approach allows researchers to collect qualitative data on how users interact with a product in their natural environment outside the constraints of a lab setting.

Why are diary studies important?

Diary studies are crucial because they allow you to gather detailed, contextual insights into user behavior over time. You see how your product fits into users' daily lives under varying circumstances without the artificiality of a lab setting.

This longitudinal perspective helps you understand what users do and why they do it, revealing patterns and behaviors that sporadic observations or short-term studies might miss. Unlike one-time tests, diary studies provide a continuous stream of data that captures how users interact with your product in their natural environment.

Diary studies also empower participants to express their thoughts and feelings in their own words. As a result, they offer a more nuanced view of user satisfaction, frustration, and engagement. This can lead to more user-centered design decisions, as you’re equipped with firsthand accounts of what works and what doesn’t in real-world settings.

However, there are limitations to consider. Diary studies rely heavily on participant commitment and accurate self-reporting, which can sometimes lead to incomplete or biased data if not managed carefully. The data you collect can be voluminous and varied, requiring significant time and resources to analyze.

When to conduct a diary study

Here are key situations where you might consider this method:

Habit tracking

Diary studies are ideal when your goal is to understand how often users engage with your product and what habits they develop around it. For example, if you’re developing a fitness app and want to know how frequently users log their workouts or meals, having them record these activities daily can provide clear data on usage patterns and user commitment.

Understanding motivations and attitudes

Diary studies excel at uncovering the underlying reasons behind user behaviors. Suppose you’re curious about why users prefer certain features of your software over others. In that case, diary entries can reveal preferences and deep insights into the motivations driving these choices, such as ease of use or efficiency gains.

Observing changes

This approach is suitable when you need to observe how user behavior and perceptions change over time, particularly in response to updates or changes in your product. For instance, after releasing a new feature in your application, you might use a diary study to track how quickly users adapt to it, noting any shifts in their satisfaction or usage habits.

Mapping customer journeys

To fully understand the customer journey across multiple touchpoints, diary studies provide a comprehensive view. Users might record each step of their experience with a service, from discovering it online to using it in various contexts, helping you identify key moments of satisfaction or frustration.

Diversity of experiences

When your research requires capturing broad user experiences, diary studies can accommodate this by gathering data from various demographics in different settings. This method ensures you understand how diverse user groups interact with your product under varied conditions.

Unobserved environments

When direct observation isn't feasible — perhaps due to privacy concerns or logistical constraints — diary studies offer a way to gather user data indirectly. Participants can record their experiences in their natural environment, providing you with insights that would otherwise be inaccessible.

How to conduct a diary study

Define your objectives

Start by clearly defining what you want to learn from the diary study. Are you exploring user behaviors, testing a new feature, or understanding user satisfaction over time? Your objectives will guide the study's design, including what you ask participants to record.

Design the diary

Develop a diary format that participants will use to record their entries. Decide whether they will use a digital tool, a physical diary, or both. Specify what information they should record, how frequently, and in what format.

Recruit participants

Use tools like Great Question to recruit participants efficiently. You can upload a list from your CRM or integrate directly to reach your existing user base, or you can access a panel of over three million B2B and B2C research participants. Great Question allows you to use screener surveys to ensure that you select participants who match your study’s criteria.

Launch the study

Provide participants with clear instructions on how to use the diary and what to record. Set a schedule for regular check-ins to support participants and ensure compliance.

Analyze results

Find a tool that allows you to analyze diary study data. Tag important observations, synthesize findings, and create highlight reels to share insights with your team.

Tools you can use for diary studies

You can use the following tools to streamline the process of conducting diary studies:

dscout

dscout is a comprehensive tool tailored for diary studies and remote research. It allows you to integrate multiple research activities, such as product tours and customer reflections, into a single study, optimizing data collection efficiency.

Indeemo

Indeemo provides an intuitive diary study app enhanced by generative AI and is designed to capture real-time insights into consumer behavior and needs. Its tools are tailored for consumer diaries and longitudinal UX diary studies, focusing on how users interact with websites, apps, products, or services over time.

Lifedata

LifeData is an experience sampling tool offering an "eDiary" mobile app for flexible diary study designs, including event-based reporting and daily diary studies. Participants can conveniently respond to questions on their own schedules, making it ideal for collecting data in real-life contexts.

Teamscope

Teamscope is a robust tool designed specifically for medical researchers conducting diary studies. It offers mobile forms with features like scheduled prompts and custom reporting. Teamscope supports secure, offline data collection and patient-reported outcomes.

The bottom line

Diary studies are a powerful tool in UX research as they offer deep insights into user behaviors, needs, and motivations across real-world contexts. By embracing this method, you unlock the potential to capture authentic user experiences that other techniques might miss.

As you strive to create products that genuinely resonate with users, leveraging diary studies can uncover deep truths about how your offerings integrate into users’ daily lives, guiding more informed design decisions. Embrace this method to elevate your research, ensuring your developments are user-centric.

Jack is the Content Marketing Lead at Great Question, the end-to-end UX research platform for customer-centric teams. Previously, he led content marketing and strategy as the first hire at two insurtech startups, Breeze and LeverageRx. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.

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