Need to kick start discovery of a new product or service, but not sure what to build? A diary study provides you a window into your customers’ and potential customers’ lives without leaving your office. They will provide you with deep, strategic insights that will fuel your roadmap for a long time without the higher cost of a field study.

What is a Diary Study? A diary study involves asking participants to record their activities and experiences with a product or service over a given period of time. They provide insight into when and how a user experiences your product or service over time and are particularly effective at capturing insights at critical phases during the user lifecycle (e.g. a new customer’s or returning customer’s experience). Diary studies can accommodate a wide variety of participant feedback, including survey question responses, photos, videos, or short phone messages or interviews.

Diary studies provide you with context, as well as an opportunity to observe and discover details that don’t always come up in the lab. These include:

Natural behavior in their environment. During the study, Participants use the product when, where, and how they would typically use it. This provides the most realistic results you could possibly get – second only to being a fly on the wall. Even though actions are self-reported, the amount and repetition of the diary entries help catch any odd behaviors, including ways that you never intended for people to use your product or service, which you can follow up on later.

Greater understanding through visuals. Paint a more accurate picture and see what your participants see or mean when you gather data in multiple formats. It’s so easy to misinterpret what someone has in their mind, as we all have different reference points and perspectives. Photos of people they’re with, screenshots of their tablet home screen, or even drawings of their surroundings that accompany written diary entries, support greater understanding and might even uncover details that you would never have even considered.

Observed behaviors & patterns. For a set period of time, typically 2 weeks, diary-study participants record and comment on their actions. Over time, specific behaviors and patterns emerge that help you understand the context and impact of their environment. Once the diary study is complete, or even while it’s still on, following up with the participant to understand why or what motivated them to do what they did, really helps you understand the root problem or need that your product or service is (or should be) solving.

Although diary studies might take a little longer than a typical usability lab study or interview, the results gleaned will be richer, deeper, and provide you with insights that will not only address short-term issues but also provide long term opportunities.