The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench in every possible aspect of our lives. It’s like an octopus with ever-reaching tentacles. Home-life, work-life, social interactions, doctor visits, restaurant experiences; everything is different. If you are like me and working in UX, this pandemic has significantly impacted how we conduct User Research. How we work is entirely different. Sure, some forms of research are easy to augment. Still, if you require the insights only derived from contextual inquiry, fly-on-the-wall observations, or shadowing a person through their environmental interactions, COVID has made it very difficult. Difficult, yes, but not impossible. Diary Studies are an effective research method that bypasses the need for face-to-face interactions and observing our subjects in their physical space. This article will walk you through the anatomy of a Diary Study and using MS OneNote to build and distribute the Diary Study. So, take that COVID! Buckle up, and let’s get UXing!
Commercial grade tools exist on the market that is built specifically for Diary Studies; check out this tool by Dscout. These tools are fantastic, but if you are like me with a low budget and short timelines. Then read on; you can create your Diary Study without an app. Using OneNote is a great tool and best used for studies within the same organization. If you are doing external research and your users are not in the same organization, you can mimic this method using Google Sheets. You need to select the right tool for the job.
There are some items to consider before building your study. In your research plan, determine the length of the study. Will you ask subjects to participate for a week, a couple of days, or a few weeks? The specific duration will depend on your unique research objectives, but knowing the time frame can help you plan the structure in your Diary Study.
Setting up Participants
OneNote is a common Microsoft Application that comes along with the Office Suite, hence the reason for using it in the context of the Diary Study. It is collaborative, and you can monitor your participant’s engagement and completion in real-time. If you see a low or no response rate, you can discontinue that participant and add another. OneNote is easy to use in setting up your Diary Study; you can use tabs and pages to organize your research activities. When building out your Diary Study in OneNote, I recommend creating a new Notebook for each participant, and you can share each participant Notebook individually with each specific participant.
Structuring your Diary Study
Understanding the structure of a Diary Study is essential. Dscout breaks it down like this: missions, parts, and entries. Missions are the big blocks of research activities. They should align with your research objectives. The missions contain parts. The parts are the unique tasks you will ask your subjects to complete. Each part will have its own instructions, timeframe, and specific questions. The entries are the answers your subjects provide to the parts. When the study is complete, you will analyze each entry. You could have participants enter images and videos in the parts, answer open-ended questions, and scale rating questions. Diary Studies are an excellent tool for longitudinal qualitative research. The example below is a Diary Study that will have a duration of three weeks (The Weeks are in the Tabs) for seven days a week (The Day are the Pages). It has one mission per day that contains two parts.
I also create a separate Page on Week one for the Introduction. Best practices indicate beginning with an Introduction to help level-set expectations with your participants.
Hello [Participant Name],
Welcome to your Diary Study! We wanted to thank you for your time and participation in this exercise. In case you were curious about what we are asking of you, below is a quick definition of a UX Diary Study:
“A diary study is a research method used to collect qualitative data about user behaviors, activities, and experiences over time. In a diary study, data is self-reported by participants longitudinally — that is, over an extended period of time that can range from a few days to even a month or longer. In a typical diary study, participants self-report their behaviors, frustrations, opinions, desires, and aspirations at defined intervals or in response to carefully designed prompts or tasks.”
We hope to gain a better understanding of [Research Objective]. You can think of this as a journaling exercise. By understanding your day-to-day experiences, the [Your team name] Team will derive insights that will help us [Research Outcome].
How this works
This Diary Study will last [Duration]. During those [days or weeks], you will be prompted to answer a few questions about your activities, experiences, and how you are feeling. You will have [number] reflective missions for each day. Each mission should not exceed [number] minutes (depending on the level of detail you would like to provide). You will use this OneNote to complete your missions. Each day will have a Tab, and each Tab will contain your missions.
Ready, Steady, GO!
Thank you for your participation in this exercise. Please feel free to contact the [Your team name] Team if you have any questions, issues, or concerns. We are here to help!
[Team emails and contact information]
Including an Introduction in your, Diary Study informs participants of what to expect during the study. It explains the objectives, the outcome, the duration, the time commitment, and where to get help if they get stuck.
Example in OneNote:
I sincerely hope you found this article useful, and, as always, I wish all UX practitioners success in their UX endeavors! Even in the face of a pandemic that has restricted and nullified most travel policies and isolated UX Researchers to their home offices, we still have methods to gain the crucial context of our users in their environments. The Diary Study is an excellent tool for our new normal.