Dear Diary: Using Digital Diaries to Better Understand Users
People love to share. They love writing about their opinions and feelings online and have been doing so for almost 20 years, ever since diary platforms like LiveJournal and Open Diary launched back in the late-nineties.
It’s no wonder then that digital diary studies have become an increasingly insightful research practice for user experience designers to tap into and learn more about how their users are engaging with a product or service.
“In general it’s a way of getting more direct insight into what people are really doing in their lives with a particular product during those times when we can’t actually be in the field with them or have them in a lab observing their behavior,” said Siri Mehus, principal UX researcher at Blink UX, a Washington-based user experience consulting agency.
These studies allow participants to do things on their own time without the pressure that sometimes comes with being under observation.
“It doesn’t demand that [participants] come into the lab, so we’re able to get more engagement from them with less effort on their part,” Mehus said.
What are digital diaries?
Digital diaries are studies that require users to digitally document their experiences with a product or service over a period of time using a desktop or mobile device. They can be used:
- To complement more traditional research methodologies such as watching a user engage with a product
- When it is not possible to bring users into a lab for observation
- In advance of more in-depth studies to gather preliminary data
- To whittle down the pool and identify which users would be best to interview in more detail later
“We can ask for clarification about their specific entries, then when we go back we can use the descriptions they have given us of what they’ve done over time in our final interview to get better insights,” Mehus said. “It gives us a head start in preparing for that final interview. We know a lot more about what they’ve been doing so we can really hone in on the questions we’re most interested in.”
Challenges with digital diary studies
The biggest challenge with diary studies is getting people to regularly submit their diary entries.
“People often have good intentions, but they get busy,” Mehus said. This is why she and her team employ numerous practices to help participants stay committed to the study.
Tips for increasing diary study engagement:
- Establish human connection. “Have an in-person session to start with if at all possible, or at least a phone call so it’s not all done digitally,” Mehus said. At this stage, explain the study and answer any questions.
- Assign researchers to participants. “We’ve found that we do need to have people who have the responsibility of touching base with participants, maybe prompting them occasionally if they’re not making their entries,” Mehus said.
- Keep the conversation going. This person is also in charge of responding to the participant’s entries and asking follow-up and clarification questions. “The more it gets to be a conversation, the more engagement we get,” she said.
- Build this into the study. While this may sound challenging if you are conducting a study with a large number of participants, Mehus has found it makes the experience more meaningful for participants.
- Don’t overburden them. “We’re very cautious about not giving them hefty assignments that ask them to write an essay or spend a lot of time,” Mehus said.
- Make it convenient. Allow participants to submit entries from whatever devices they already use in their everyday lives, whenever inspiration strikes. The more options they have the better.
- Give them alternatives to writing. “We often ask them to upload photos or short videos and that can be really helpful especially if they’re seeing something on the screen of some device that they’re looking at and evaluating and it’s hard to convey exactly what’s going on,” Mehus said. “People have been really happy to share those images or even videos of them interacting with the device.”
Solutions for digital diaries
Another major challenge when conducting this kind of research is having to rely on third-party technology to gather journal entries.
“The last thing we want to do when we are having people give feedback on a prototype is have them experience problems with the technological solution that we’re using to conduct the study,” Mehus said.
As such, many companies will develop their own in house solution to help them control the user experience of the diary study itself. Blink UX uses a custom in-house solution called Feedback Panel that allows their participants to upload diary entries via desktop or mobile.
There are numerous options available, however, for UX researches depending on your budget and needs. These are some of the solutions we found shared by researchers on sites such as Quora:
- Emailed entries assigned to a researcher
- Google Forms
- Psyche Data
- Survey Signal
- Learning management solutions like Moodle
- Private individual blogs via blogging platforms such as Tumblr
- Custom form submissions
There may be a few situations where an old-fashioned paper diary is a better solution. For example, when we interviewed Sproutel about designing for children, they talked about sending kids home with a journal to document their experiences.
That said, Mehus noted that many children these days are active on technology, especially tablets, so solutions that speak to this may be appropriate options for this audience.
For UX researches, diary studies are also a way to show clients insight that goes beyond the more typical user interviews that last only an hour or so.
“It gives clients an assurance that we’re really getting at how a product would be integrated into people’s everyday lives,” Mehus said.
After all, the best stories are often found only in the pages of a diary.