Diary Studies: Understanding Long-Term User Behaviour

diary study

There are many different ways of conducting user research, and we have dealt with most of them in this blog at one time or another, but one that we haven’t really looked at in any great detail is the diary study. UX testing has a lot to gain from the observations provided by this invaluable tool, which explains why it’s such a valuable part of the exploration process.

This page will act as a short introduction to the concept.

What is a diary study?

A diary study is a piece of research that relies upon participants keeping reliable records of their online activity relating to specific tasks, sites or products.

diary study requires users to keep detailed records of their online visits and interactions as they have them, logging their actions, thoughts, attitudes, reasoning, and so on for their various decisions and actions.

The objective is to study users’ behaviours, attitudes, and processes to provide insights into how they interact with sites, apps etc., why they do it, when, and how. They are conducted over an extensive period from days to months or even years in some of the more ambitious longitudinal studies. 

The focus of a diary study can be broad or targeted depending on what’s being studied. Typical topics users include in diary studies are activities relating to:

  • A product or a website;
  • General information about user behaviour (e.g. mobilephone usage);
  • A very specific action such as buying a new appliance, selling a house, etc.;
  • Particular physical locations or times of the day, e.g., what users do in the mornings or what they perform when they’re on the move and so on;
  • Social media activity, interactions, and how and when users recommend or invite friends to share.

When to Conduct a Diary Study

You should conduct diary studies when you are trying to find out:

  • How users are acting over time and how their attitudes and activity might be changing;
  • Specific information such as the time of day they access particular types of site;
  • Information on how they go about specific processes such as finding a supplier or a product;
  • The journey they take while online, whether it’s within a single site or across a multitude of sites, and what triggers crossovers and browsing;
  • Their site loyalty, how long it persists, and what causes them to abandon old favourites and move to new sites;
  • The issues and problems users experience with their sites and how they react to them, the brand, and the organisation when difficulties occur;
  • The thought processes and antecedents to actions and the cognitive elements to online decision-making.

Keeping these diaries is quite a commitment for the participants, so some form of incentive is required.

You should consider the best way to keep your users engaged and interacting. Frequent contact is also a good idea for continued and full participation.


Diary Studies UX observations: “So, how does that make you feel?”

Understanding user or participant behaviour helps put new data into context. Not only do we learn how each user interacts with the digital product, but also the real-world interferences, distractions, and motivations that guide them through their experience.

Behaviours that diary studies uncover include:

  • Monitoring user habits – A diary study exposes behaviour patterns: do users engage at a specific time of day or after a particular activity? Is it planned, spontaneous? Are they procrastinating or searching out valuable information?
  • Considering users’ feelings and attitudes – How do participants feel engaging with your product? What compels them to make a purchase, a contact, or complete a task? Why do they make those choices, and are there environmental activities that trigger them?
  • Examining the user journey – Long-term diary studies uncover participants’ feelings and perceptions of the company brand and product over time. These studies monitor where users’ attitudes change and why—both good and bad. What changes bring added joy and satisfaction to customers, and what are the pitfalls where they become bored or frustrated?
  • Context is crucial– Context has much to do with what happens away from the screen, with special consideration shown to the user’s environment. This is catered for by diary entries describing what happened before and after using a product or during specific online actions and activities.

Pilot studies

It’s also beneficial to conduct a pilot study of how the exercise is going to roll out. That way, you can uncover any gaps or shortcomings and make sure you are giving the study the maximum relevance and chance of succeeding in producing actionable data.

The diary study UX process

Each diary study will be custom-built for its project, but there are some standard components and activities necessary for each individual case:

Planning your diary study – For you and your client to clearly understand the study objectives, you need a timeline, a list of appropriate tools to gather the data, relevant participants, instructions, communication avenues, and support materials.

Study briefings for participants – Get to know your participants before the starting date, introducing them to the details you need them to understand. Explain the calendar and schedule of the study, when and how they need to report entries, and an introduction to any special applications, tools or technologies they’ll be using.

Data logging – It isn’t easy to outline a single best data logging method; there are digital and automated methods, and some researchers and participants still prefer or rely on a notepad and pen. Whichever way you choose, it pays to explain the depth of reporting you’d like to see and supply examples to make it as straightforward as possible for your users. Some activities will suit long-form entries, including a depth of detail as they happen. In others, reactions and further prompted actions can interrupt the logging, lending the recording in those instances to ‘snippets’—short entries of note-taking suitable for expansion when the user has more time to consider the process.

Evaluation of the study – A debrief of some kind is necessary to explore the data your users provide. An interview is a great way to ask follow-up questions, probing further into the insights they have helped to uncover. It’s also an excellent opportunity to ask them what was good and bad about the study so that you can adjust and enhance your process for future studies.

Analysis – Evaluating masses of information is a lengthy process. With so much new qualitative data, you must show patience and due diligence if you’re to uncover the patterns, performances, and problems you need to see to evolve each project. Ultimately, you’ll look for user behaviours, their influences and triggers, feelings around products and services, changes over time, and the complete customer journey.

If you would like to know more about this interesting and potentially extremely useful technique, ring us on +44(0)800 024624 or email us at hello@ux247.com.

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