Keeping it ‘old school’ with Diary Studies

user-experience-diary-studyI’m always looking for better ways to understand customer behaviour and the experiences customers have in their own context, out in the wild.

There are some interesting ‘digital ethnography’ tools on the market, using web and mobile channels to capture, collate and filter all this stuff as it occurs in the field:

UPDATE 2015. Five years on and many of these products and services have changed shape. (And I’ve added a few).

Also… I’ve now had a crack at running a video diary study, with great success.

Experiencefellow …Why not slip into your customers’ shoes?
thethinkingshed …Which seems to be like a blog platform.
ethosapp …’An ethnographer in your pocket’, apparently.
7daysinmylife …Which might be more ‘manual’ than it looks.
webnographer …Which smells like a remote usability tool.
Watchmethink …for some in the moment vox-pop.

…and some filming gadgets which ‘log’ activity from the subjects’ point of view:

Narrative Clip

Impressive technology, but ‘whizz-bang’ isn’t always the answer. I stuck to the traditional pen and paper approach for a diary study recently and am I’m pleased I did.

For the uninitiated, diary studies in UX are a qualitative research method where participants record events, interactions, attitudes etc. in diary format over days or weeks. They are a great way to study customer behaviours in the context using a product or service over time, as opposed to during a 60 minute usability-style interview.

In my study for example, I was interested in how and where people used a portable device in their day to day activities and how well it performed in each situation.

Here are some ways I feel the old-school method holds its’ own:

It’s human
No learning curve, no teething problems. Paper and pen doesn’t require login details, needs almost no instructions, is ultra portable, and doesn’t rely on web or mobile coverage. Participants don’t have to think about or remember anything other than jotting down their thoughts.

It’s flexible
Photos are great, and really help to add context, but I’m always amazed at how pictorial some people make their diary notes. Sketching and doodling on a blank sheet of paper is always going to win over an online text-entry box.

‘till the fat lady sings
The real gems from these studies emerge in the exit interview with each participant. When they’re looking back over their own handwriting, these paper diaries transport people back to those moments in time, where you can access the rich detail needed to paint the full picture. It’s literally a trigger for them to share stories, which is where the ‘gold’ always reveals itself in interviews.

It’s immersive
I love the process of pinning-up diary data around a room.
Having met each participant, built rapport and empathy, this is somehow retained when you’re surrounded in their scrawl. All those attitudes and responses pop back in your mind, help you get into their character, see things through their eyes and in relation to their context.

When the right type of project comes along, I’ll give the ‘digital ethnography’ tools a shot, but until then, I know I’ve got paper.

UPDATE 2015: I’ve now had a crack at running a video diary study, with great success.

Even so …I’d love to hear from someone who’s run an ethno project using any of these tools.


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