At Key Lime Interactive (KLI), our UX researchers employ a variety of cross-sectional and lab-based research methods, such as in-depth interviews and quantitative surveys on a regular basis. However, some of our projects call for research methods that need to observe and understand participant behaviors over a period of time. In these cases, diary studies are more suitable for observing users in their own environment over multiple days. The result is rich, in-context data that shows the details of user behavior. The longer time period ensures that data gathered is a truer representation of user behavior. However, diary studies require a different approach to process the large amounts of data generated by the participants
What is a Diary Study?
For a “textbook” definition, a diary study is a qualitative research method in which participants manually or digitally record their thoughts, emotions, actions, and journeys around a subject over a period of time. Typically, a diary study asks participants to submit “diary entries” of their activities. In our experience, the length of a diary study could be as short as a few days, or as long as a month, depending on the subject and nature of the activities.
The benefits of a diary study come at a price
Compared to other lab-based research methods, diary studies give researchers the rare opportunity to glimpse into their participants’ behavior in their natural environment. In addition, by asking participants to participate and record their activities over a period of time, researchers may also be able to observe behavioral changes in response to external factors such as current events, change in environment, time of day, etc. As a result, diary studies will generate a large amount of data for UX researchers to chew through.
Depending on the tools used, diary studies may ask participants to create written, audio, or even video data throughout the study. The diary entries from participants may occur as many as several times a day. By the end of a diary study, researchers often have to process hundreds of video clips and survey responses. So while the raw data is rich, structuring the data to arrive at actionable and meaningful insights can be challenging.
Dealing with Data from a Diary Study
To process the large amount of data from diary studies, KLI researchers will communicate and work with each other early and often throughout the study. Understanding each researcher’s role during the study and communicating the methods and cadence of processing incoming diaries from participants are crucial to the timely progression of the study.
Depending on the study method and the medium of the participant diaries, the research team needs to be up-to-date on the details of data processing. For example, if the participants are submitting qualitative material such as videos clips or brief texts as part of their diary entries, the research team may plan to process the diary entries through qualitative coding (open, closed, or hybrid). In that case, each researcher needs to be familiar with the most up-to-date list of codes, and communicate any changes throughout the study length if necessary.
One important note for UX researchers to remember during a diary study is the cadence of data processing. Since the participants may frequently submit their diary entries, raw data can quickly pile up. To prevent an unfortunate clogging of data analysis late in a diary study’s timeline, UX researchers should be prepared to review incoming diary entries frequently (at least daily), throughout the data collection period, instead of waiting until all participants have submitted their data.
Compared to other research methods, diary studies provide a rare opportunity for researchers to observe their participants outside of the lab, with little disruption to the participant’s context. On the other hand, a diary study is a qualitative method that can generate large amounts of data very quickly, which must be planned for early and dealt with regularly throughout a diary study’s life cycle.