How to conduct a Diary Study?

What is a diary study? #

A diary study is a qualitative research method where you collect data about your user’s behaviors, activities, and experiences over a long period of time in their natural environment. You ask your participants to actively self-report their behaviors, frustrations, opinions, desires, and aspirations in a diary in response to your designed tasks.

With the emergence of smartphones, you can collect photos, videos, audio, and texts.  

Field Research Study Methods-UX

When is a diary study most useful? #

A diary study is most useful in the discovery phase of your user-centered design project because you will be able to get a contextual understanding, of the “why”,  of your user’s behaviors and experiences. Since this collection of data uses a longitudinal technique, you can choose this method to study time-based phenomena, temporal dynamics, and fluctuating phenomena such as moods. You choose this method when you want to understand your user’s thoughts and experiences about your product in their everyday life. A great method for mapping out your customer journey. 

Choose with when:

  • your user’s behaviors or actions of interest are taking place sporadically or in unplanned moments.
  • your user’s behaviors or actions of interest are part of a series or flow which takes place over time.
  • you want to understand your user’s change of behavior and habits over time.
  • you want to understand the exact moments and actions that affect the decision-making process (buying a new home or car).
  • direct observations can affect the user’s natural behavior and motivations. 
  • there is not enough time to conduct a full field study.
  • you want to collect insights into onboarding, retention, and engagement.  


User behavior such as; habits, engagements, attitudes, motivations, changes in behaviors and perceptions.

  • Product/Website – understanding the interactions with a site over a period of time. Example: Intranet
  • Behavior – gathering of information about user behavior. Example: use of smartphones, student web visitation patterns
  • General activity – understanding how users complete general activities. Example: online shopping, social media shares
  • A specific activity – understanding how users complete specific activities. Example: buying a new house, planning a vacation

What kind of diary methods can I choose from? #

  1. Feedback studies
  2. Elicitation studies
  3. Comparisons

What are the pros vs cons of a diary study? #


  • You will be able to collect longitudinal and temporal information (three days up to several months)
  • You will be able to report events and experiences in context and in-the-moment.
  • You will be able to collect the participant’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings in-the-moment thereby minimizing the potential for post rationalization.
  • You will be able to determine the antecedents, correlations, and consequences of your user’s daily experiences and behaviors.
  • You can efficiently collect data from 20 to 50 participants simultaneously.
  • You might be able to find a new phenomenon.
  • When you can’t conduct direct observations.
  • Cost and time-efficient as you will not need to go out in the field and hire staff to help you. 
  • Great pre-study to get to know your market and participants first before conducting more extensive and in-depth research.
  • Your users will get the time to think about their experiences, in contrast, during interviews, where users usually tend to talk about immediate examples that came to their mind,  known as availability bias.


  • Inaccurate recall.
  • User’s remembering to log.
  • Low control.
  • The challenge for the user to write everything down.
  • Non-compliance and retrospective entries.
  • Ethical considerations.

What are the steps to conduct a diary study? #


Info and image from Nielsen Norman Group. 

Reporting activities and experiences:

  • electronically or on paper. 
  •  scheduled times; intervals, events, or signals. 
  • during a few days, weeks or months. 
  • through photos, videos, audio recordings, and texting. 

Which online tools can I use for a diary study? #

Ethical Considerations #

Only collect data with permission:

  • sign an informed consent agreement.
  • Only use images, quotations, and voice recordings respectfully, and with permission.
  • never sell the participant’s contact information.
  • store all data responsibly, or make sure to delete it at the end of the project.