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5 tips for running effective diary studies

19th June 2019

Diary studies are invaluable for understanding people’s habits, attitudes, and patterns of behaviour over time.

They can help you to learn about or identify a specific target audience and how a product or service fits naturally into their day to day lives.

I had always been curious and slightly cynical about this research methodology, until I ran one for the first time. I remember having many apprehensive questions running through my mind: 

  • Will participants actually bother to keep up with the entries?
  • What if we get poor quality data back?
  • Isn’t it really complicated to set up, track feedback and manage?

Some of my initial concerns were proven right. Diary studies come with a steep learning curve compared to other research methodologies. But now I’ve conducted a fair few I’ve realised there are some common challenges that you can avoid with preparation.

Here are 5 tips to help make the most efficient use of time, and get the best results:

1. Take the time to find the right tool

Data capture and analysis in diary studies can be time consuming and overwhelming. There are numerous tools out there that are designed to help, with varying results. It pays to take the time to research the right one for the project to avoid spending more time later when you discover it doesn’t do what you need it to do.

Think about: how flexible is it for capturing different types of data? Are there any technical limitations that could impact participants uploading responses? Is it clear how the participant’s data is used and stored?

What’s it like to use from a moderator’s point of view? Are tasks easy to upload, amend, and pilot test before running the study? Does it make it easy to analyse responses by participant, or provide any other data analysis? Does it provide an option to send reminders, or chat to the participant? How easy is it to share feedback with clients?

Remember: always get trial access to the tool to assess if it’s going to make your life easier or harder. 

2. Manage expectations during recruitment

Diary studies have a drop off rate of around 20%, so it’s important that participants know exactly what’s involved in taking part in a diary study. We usually run them for at least two weeks, so a high level of commitment is involved, and often there are specific technical requirements to be agreed beforehand.   

It’s easier to do diary studies with fairly tech-savvy participants, especially if you need them to upload feedback via diary study apps using their own device. (If your audience isn’t tech-savvy, you could always go old-school and get them to do a paper version but that’s another story). 

Make sure you include specifics about exactly how they are expected to feedback during the study, and how frequently. Make it clear if they are expected to use their own devices, including any third-party apps, and provide data usage information for these apps to get their consent.

3. Craft questions and instructions carefully, and pilot test them in the tool you’ll be using for the study 

As with all unmoderated research, participants are left to their own interpretation of instructions, so tasks can be easily misunderstood if what’s required isn’t clear. This can cause more work later on as it leaves the moderator with poor quality entries and extra time needed to re-brief the participants.

Take the time to craft the wording of questions and instructions, then test them with a few different people to make sure they are interpreted correctly and provide the specific feedback you need.  

Test how the questions look in the tool you’ll be using with participants, on a pilot group, and try it out for yourself. It’s surprising how different they can appear on a phone screen compared to a Word doc.

4. Allow time to brief participants properly – work to build trust and rapport

It doesn’t matter if the tasks you’re giving people seem simple and self-explanatory, participants need to understand why they are giving you the information and the value they are providing – this keeps them motivated. 

Write a script for briefing participants to make sure everyone gets the same instructions. Carry out the briefing on the phone, or even better, face to face, to get to know them and build a connection.

Make the purpose of the study clear, and why their feedback is valuable. Explain timing, frequency and detail of the tasks, giving examples to help them to understand what’s useful/not useful. Provide instructions on using the diary study tool and explain what happens next. Ask if they have any questions and follow up with an email so they can contact you if they need to. Most importantly, thank them for taking part, and be enthusiastic about seeing their feedback.

5. Have a plan B in case of technical difficulties

In spite of all your preparation, there are always technical issues associated with running diary studies. It’s almost impossible to avoid this as there’s no way to control a participant’s Wi-Fi connection or know all the issues their device could have using third party apps.

I’m always amazed at how much people persevere when things don’t work, or look into fixes themselves, but be prepared for them to contact you for IT support.

Read up on any troubleshooting information on the tool you’re using beforehand, and direct them to any help pages, or quick fixes. If all else fails, offer an alternative way of providing you with their feedback, such as WhatsApp or email so they still feel encouraged to participate.

Still not convinced?

As with all research methodologies, there are many more nuances we could mention, but these are just a few of the things that I’ve learnt and found helpful. In short, a bit of awareness and preparation will help the study to run smoothly and get you the best results.

Diary studies have quickly become my favourite research methodology. They are time intensive to set up and manage, but worth the effort. I’m always pleasantly surprised how keen, accommodating and helpful participants can be. By building that rapport through daily contact, then following up with depth interviews, diary studies provide an invaluable depth of insight which inform design decisions that’s hard to achieve with other methodologies.


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