The dos and dont's of diary studies


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There are a lot of pitfalls that await design researchers and ethnographers when conducting diary studies. Your research project can easily become undone by ignoring simple logistics. This presentation embodies the learnings from multiple diary studies conducted at Different, a user experience consultancy based in Sydney, Australia. It will tell you about the history of diary studies, how to enhance them, how to conduct them, what to do and most importantly what not to do.

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  • This presentation will impart:A bit about diary studies, and how to go about conducting them.
  • What are diary studies?Diary studies, otherwise known as “Cultural probes” were pioneered for use in design research by William "Bill" Gaver, Professor at Goldsmiths London. Interestingly he doesn’t analyse diary content, nor does he create scenarios or personas from them ... instead using them as a base from which to validate other data. He does not create personas, preferring instead to revisit the raw data.Diary Studies are also known as User Research Diaries. Diary studies are used in longitudinal research -- looking at people over a longer period of time than a typical Contextual Inquiry or interview can allow; and researching people when you could not otherwise be there with themWhat are diary studies good for?Great for understanding the activities undertaken by participants,what they actually do. Opportunity to witness subtle behaviour as participant can note activities they may not otherwiserecall in a typical research interview, or contextual inquiryBetter than just a contextual inquiry for understanding the amount of separate actions and activities undertakenGreat for data on customer tasks and finding out the detail in these sequences Great for witnessing all of the channels/touch points a customer encounters -- so its perfectfor service design, and the gathering of data for customer journeysConsider a mix of research techniques, priming participants with diaries before your interview or contextual inquiry
  • Recruit carefully Allow a little longer than usual for recruitment. It’s more important to recruit well than to recruit on time. Pay participants more. More effort is required of them. SCREEN participants yourself. Trust your first impression. If you don’t think they will be suitable, don’t recruit them. Note the anticipated schedule of activities of the participant in the screening process i.e. get an idea of what activities they plan to do over the period of your study just in case they ARE LYING and saying yes just for the money!- It is harder to find participants who are willing to go to the effort of filling out a diary every day - so take the time getting the right people.Brief the participant about what effort is involvedAnd of course remember to tell them:- Their information is confidential- Their identity will not be exposed- They can withdraw from the study at any time
  • Brief your participantsDO Instruct participants how to use the diaries Remind participants what EFFORT is involved, the level of effort expected of them Give participants a checklist of the materials they need to return Provide written instructions - they will read it, and it saves you explaining at length If you can its better to have all participants start on the same day. Makes your job easier later when you have to track their diaries down.DON’TDon’t be leading about what content you are after of them, written, photographic or otherwise.
  • Prepare diary packsA diary for each week of the study, camera (optional), instructions, reply paid envelopesA few decisions we made upfront: structured diaries ... gives people a sense of what you want, otherwise its too hard for them to start-Include a survey ... get people used to filling something in, as well as getting useful informationDO: label the diaries, offer participant choice of a paper diary OR digital diary. We have even had people use both successfully.DONT: identify the participantsChoosing between paper and digital diariesPaper diaries are good because: They’re low fi, low fuss Paper diaries are bad because: we want people to carry them around and record things on the spot, but we can't tell if they do or not.They have to go to the effort of posting it back to youDigital diary good because:- Participants tend to contribute longer answers- Easy set up – we’ve used Posterous, and even given someone a Word document. Posterous only requires the participant to send an email to submit their diary entry. Email submission is as good as instant Easy for participants to include photos- Easy to track participants- Easy for participants to include you in on relevant emails and send you relevant web pages- If using a micro blogging service like Posterous, you can use comments to ask questionsDigital diaries are bad because:- It's not suitable for less technical participants- It’s harder to set up a structured diary- Because its unstructured, there can be less detail as to the “why” behind the activities.When conducting photo diaries and providing cameras Photos bring the participant to life, and clients love themGreat at showcasing the absurd (e.g. paperwork involved in financial processes)BUT people don't know what to photograph. Let them know what you are looking forDon't expect too many photosWhy don't people take photos? - people feel like spies, scared they could get in trouble, its an unnatural behaviour.WHATS WORKED - getting people to post back a memory cardWHAT HASNT WORKED - getting participants to email photos. Uploading is a chore!
  • Expect difficulty getting materials backIn 2005-06 Australia post delivered 94.9% of letters on time or early. DESPITE THISAll diary participants involved in our studies so far have never posted a diary back on time. Most diaries come 2 days - 1.5 weeks later than they should. BUT when you phone your participants be ready for them to say “it's in the post”. PARTICIPANTS LIE, and they will lie about getting their homework done, and sending it to you.DO PAY ON RECEIPT!!! we have historically made a good faith payment before the participant starts, on receipt of the diary materials. No diary, no payment.Use reply paid EXPRESS envelopes for paper diaries. They arrive quicker, they’re traceable and they are a sign that the diaries need to be returned pronto!
  • Keep in touch with participantsTouch base with participants throughout the studyDebrief entries with them. If conducting a long study, encourage them to participate moreKeep a log file to track volume of entries, who is contributing, who is notBUT remember that people have day jobs- its really hard to get in touch with participants during the day. You kind of get the sense that they may be avoiding you!Ask them when its best to contact them when you are recruiting themHalf the effort can be getting hold of participantsDOAsk the best time to callInterfere as little as possibleOffer gentleremindersDON’TSpam your participants. Remember this is meant to be unobtrusive research.
  • Set some creativetasksTasks are fun and people are surprisingly creativeGreat for seeing what the participant thinks about the process they are undertakingGreat for eliciting their attitude, their emotions, and how they see themselves in the processProvides powerful metaphors for the whole experience. Example tasks you can set:- if this process was an animal what would it be?- What celebrity best represents you in the process Quote: “I feel like Jennifer Anniston. I’m on an emotional rollercoaster.” - What object best describes the main person you are dealing with: “My xxxxx is like a stream locomotive. I know they will get there … eventually!”DOSet tasks throughout the study, not all at the endDONTExpect everyone to get it, or to comply
  • End with an interviewUse diary studies to GROUND the participant in their actions during the interview or contextual inquiry.DON’TExpect to yield insights from the diaries alone.DO- Prepare your interview questions from the diaries as you receive them- Pick up the last diary at the interview Arrange final time for interview upfront Ensure interview is conducted in the most appropriate environment, you still want to see the participant “in situ”
  • AcknowledgementsDrawings by Colin StokesDiary war stories courtesy of Mathew Ballesteros, Jason Crane, Vicki Lane and Erietta Sapounakis at DifferentAustralia post stats: reading about diary studies:
  • The dos and dont's of diary studies

    1. 1. The dos and don’ts of diary studies<br />
    2. 2. What are diary studies?<br />
    3. 3. Recruit carefully for diary studies<br />
    4. 4. Brief your participants<br />
    5. 5. Prepare diary packs<br />
    6. 6. It’s difficult getting materials back<br />
    7. 7. Keep in touch with participants<br />
    8. 8. Set some tasks<br />
    9. 9. End with an interview<br />
    10. 10. I couldn’t have made this without you<br />