How to Conduct Diary Studies in Design

As designers, this is the method where we can be very creative. Unlike observations and interviews, diary studies give participants the ac­tive role in gathering data, while you minimize your influence on them and remain an ‘outsider’. You would conduct a diary study when you cannot physically go to where your participants live or directly observe them for a long time.

Research instruments and activities are the heart of this method; think about the goal of the study (What do you want to learn?), and what type of information and insights from participants would help you answer that question. Participants will use research instruments created by you (like forms, questionnaires, activities, text messages) to record and report their experiences, responses to activities, feelings, behaviors, and thoughts during a long period of time. It is important to design research instruments based on who your participants are to increase their engagement and repose to the study. For example, if you design a diary study with undergraduate students, the phone could be a primary research instrument, and the activities to send emoticons to share feelings, and send text messages to report on daily activities.

Furthermore, when you design this study, you will define specific ways for participants to gather and share data (e.g. taking photos, writing entries, drawing); as well as determine time intervals, such as their own time, at specific times of the day (e.g. morning, midday, evening), or in response to a reminder (e.g. received by text message or email). Equally important is to design clear instructions and pay attention to details. For example, send a Thank You card or message at the end of each day, or personalized reminders during the study to increase participation and response.  

When to use this method:

  • To gather insights unreachable using other qualitative, contextual methods (e.g. observations, interviews)
  • To understand people’s needs and habits when they live in a different country or location
  • To capture people’s interactions with a specific design without interfering while data is gathered
  • To evaluate designs against requirements and in their intended context of use

Online or digital diary studies

Rather than thinking about what tools to use, first determine what you need participants to capture; that is, what type of information you need from them. Then, there are multiple tools you can use to put together a digital diary study. You will need a platform to first interview each participant, such as Zoom or Skype, and then a way for participants to share data and report back. For example, participants can use their smartphones, WhatsApp, Teams, or other platform to report daily. They could draw on paper and take photos or create short videos to capture how they perform more elaborated tasks.

Whatever combination of tools you decide to use, do pilot the study. This means to test every step of the study in advance. The orchestration of each part may take time to get it right. If participants do not have access to the Internet, you can design a traditional diary study where you mail them a kit with tasks for participants to complete, and they mail it back when they are done with the tasks.

For more guidance on how to conduct diary studies in design, check out my book.


The effectiveness of this methods depends on the quality and relevance of participants’ data. Thus, the exercises for this method focus on generating ideas to identify ways to generate and capture relevant data, and make data sharing easy and engaging for all types of participants.

EXERCISE 1: Capture routines. List at least 20 ways in which people could document their morning routines and share that data with you. Think about different scenarios: what if people do not have smart phones? what if people do not have Internet? What if people are visually impaired? For example, participants could take photos to document the different activities they perform, make drawings, write down a description of each task, create a collage, etc.

EXERCISE 2: Capture emotions. Unlike routines emotions are abstract and in some cases could be harder to articulate and capture. List at least 20 ways that people could use to document their feelings and emotions. Adding and removing constraints can help you generate more ideas. For example, participants can use colors, shapes, smells, emoticons, songs to represent their emotions during a day or when interacting with a design.

EXERCISE 3: Share data. An important component of this method is making it easier for participants to share the data they capture. List at least 20 ways that people could use to share data – remember that data could be digital or print. Think about people living in different realities and having different resources.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Series 1: Understanding how to design for real people | Bridging Theory and Practice

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