Dear Diary, It’s Hard to Say Goodbye

Many researchers know that diary studies provide an ideal method to observe how people use products in context over time. But diary studies are also laden with potential difficulties. For example, how do you respond when a participant begins to see you as a friend? Or if a participant discloses something that gives you concern about his or her health? These are exactly the kinds of issues I confronted during a recent study. I recently worked on a project for a non-profit, developing a new digital strategy to help people suffering from a chronic illness. We wanted to understand the needs of the prospective users, so that we could optimize the online services and identify areas where online tools might help them manage their condition. A diary study was preferable to interviews or surveys in this situation, so that I could see the research participants’ daily tasks and struggles over the course of several weeks. I encountered several challenges during the four weeks that it ran, such as finding the right tone of voice, striking a balance between “moderator” and “friend,” and shouldering the ethical responsibilities that come hand in hand with asking users for personal information. At times the experience was difficult and distressing, but it gave me a sense of empathy with the users unlike anything I’ve achieved through other research methods. What is a diary study? As the name implies, diary studies involve researchers asking participants to record their thoughts and actions on a regular (usually daily) basis. Participants’ entries can be later mined by researchers for contextually relevant insights. Because of their open-ended nature, diary...