Dear Diary, It’s Hard to Say Goodbye

Diary Studies are a valuable research method for learning about users' lives. This week, Kate Roberts identifies some of the unexpected benefits, and unexpected difficulties of running a diary study on a sensitive topic.

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 studies are highly versatile. Not only can they help researchers determine how a product or service is used throughout a given day — a maps application, for example, might be used differently during a morning commute than when coming home from a bar in the evening — they can also be used to track learning, to show how user behaviour changes over time as users gradually discover a product’s full functionality.

In addition, diary studies can be either structured or unstructured. Structured studies ask participants to answer a predefined set of questions; unstructured studies (like mine) allow them to record whatever they wish. In some situations, if the researcher wants to capture experiences that are so common, so unremarkable, that participants are unlikely to mention them at all, they may choose to complement diary studies with random experience sampling: using unpredictable, lightweight prompts that ask participants to respond as soon as possible.

I kept my study unstructured, but suggested topics that people might want to write about during a scheduled weekly phone call. I prompted them to include details about work, social activities, medication and therapies, sources of information they accessed, and products or services they found helpful.

Regardless of the structure they employ, researchers can ask participants to record entries in any format they’d like: paper journals, emailed photos, online forms, Tumblr posts, or narrated video using a webcam. Tools like Dscout even allow users to log entries from their mobile phones.

Diary studies have two key advantages. First, they’re more time-aware than most research methods: they prompt participants to submit entries when things are fresh on their minds. This provides an advantage over interviews, in which participants might relay faulty memories of the past. Second, they leverage the concept of a diary as a place where people record private thoughts and feelings. Participants find it easy to understand what’s expected of them, and often disclose more than they would in an interview.

My study was more personal than most, and amplified this ‘confessional’ aspect. The client wanted to develop services to support people with a specific long-term illness, so I asked people to record the ways in which their condition affected their lives, both practically and emotionally. These included everything from concerns about disclosing a diagnosis to an employer, to searching for hotels with accessibility features, to confusion over treatment options. In spite of — or perhaps because of — the emotional nature of my study, I discovered relevant lessons that translate to any diary study.

Tone of voice

Although my study primarily focused on behavior rather than emotion, the diary entries often included vivid descriptions of loneliness, anger and despair. Participants confessed fears, anxieties and intimate secrets to an extent that I hadn’t expected. I read about sex lives, family arguments, incontinence problems, and gambling addictions.

Because of the intimate details they were sharing, some people began to develop a relationship with me as a person. Many addressed their daily entries to me by name, and signed off as if writing a letter: “Thanks Kate! Speak soon” or “I hope you’ve had a better day than me!” One person even gave me a nickname, based on something I’d said. (I was flattered. Nicknames are usually a sign of trust.)

Given this level of intimacy, it was difficult to choose an appropriate tone of voice, but I took my cues from each participant. A few people sent their entries with no greeting or sign-off, so I simply acknowledged them with a ‘thank you’. At the other end of the scale, some people addressed me as ‘Dear’, and signed off with ‘Love,’ so I used similar forms in response.

This is a technique known as mirroring, commonly used to build rapport in both psychological counselling and qualitative research. During face-to-face interaction, people naturally start to mirror each other’s body language, gestures and forms of speech to show that they are ‘in tune’. Over email, a researcher can mirror the participant’s writing style and tone of voice for the same effect.

Another research technique is active listening. In a face-to-face interview, the interviewer demonstrates active listening with non-verbal cues like nodding, leaning forward, and verbal comments like ‘Mmm’ or ‘Yes’. Over email the researcher can refer to something the participant has said. I would usually thank people for each entry and either:

  • Comment on something they said (“It was really interesting to hear what you think of the Citizens Advice Bureau website”)
  • ‘Reflect back’ something they said, to show I’d understood (“I was interested to hear how rewarding you find your volunteering role”) or
  • Ask a question (“You mentioned that you don’t like shopping — can you tell me why?”)

The dual role of moderator and friend

Another attribute of listening used in counselling is congruence, which refers to openness, frankness, and genuineness on the part of the listener. As Dalmar Fisher says in his book ‘Communication in Organizations’:

Candor on the part of the listener tends to evoke candor in the speaker. When one person comes out from behind a facade, the other is more likely to as well.

In conversation with one participant who had expressed anxiety about “over-sharing,” I disclosed the fact that I have a condition with similar symptoms. She was reassured, and her diary entries subsequently became longer and more revealing.

Listening to, understanding, and respecting the participant is all part of empathy. Empathy is the effort to hear the other person accurately and ‘absorb’ their feelings, but avoid the instinct to judge, agree, disagree or offer advice. For example, if a participant describes feeling ignored by her GP, an empathetic response might be “I’m sorry you feel your GP wasn’t supportive enough.”

Traditionally, researchers have been encouraged to be objective, impartial and rational, following the principle of empirical scientific research. But increasing numbers of researchers believe that empathy and emotion can be seen as instrumental tools of data collection and analysis, especially when researching sensitive topics. Kathleen Gilbert, Associate Dean of Applied Health Science at the University of Indiana argues:

Researchers must draw on rational understanding while they also reach within themselves for their subjective views and personal experiences, looking for comparability of experience.

There is a balance to be struck between maintaining distance and allowing emotional engagement. In a diary study, the moderator must walk the fine line of maintaining a professional distance, while also engaging the participants emotionally.

Ethical responsibility

I was unprepared for the emotional impact of running my diary study. For four weeks, my mind was preoccupied with the troubles and traumas of thirty people I’d never met. I was on tenterhooks awaiting the results of a scan or the approval of a treatment. I wished there was more I could do to help.

My ethical responsibility came into sharp focus. During one telephone call a man told me, quite matter-of-factly, that he had an “exit strategy” in place for when his illness became too much for him to bear. He talked about not wanting to be a burden to his family, and explained how he intended to go about his suicide when the time came.

I didn’t feel that this person was suicidal; he said clearly that he only intended to enact this plan if his condition deteriorated past a certain point. But was that my judgement to make? Would I be complicit in his suicide if I didn’t report it? What about respecting his confidentiality?

I spoke to a charity helpline manager, who reassured me that many people with a terminal or degenerative illness have an ‘exit strategy’: it gives them a sense of control. She said there was no need for me to take action on this occasion. But any researcher must take such cases seriously, evaluate them on an individual basis, and seek advice from an expert on how to deal with them.

As the time drew near to end the study, I became anxious. Several participants had become quite emotionally involved with diary-writing and I was concerned that they would find it hard to ‘say goodbye’. Researcher Heidi Woll (2013) says:

Diary writers may have difficulty terminating the relationship with the researcher… because diary writing has become a useful tool for reflection and processing challenges associated with change processes. Thus, having contact with a researcher who reads the diary and possibly provides instructions and comments on what is written may become a valuable support for the diarist. It might mean a lot to some diarists who do not have an effective social support network.

She advises being clear in advance about when the study will be completed, and considering how the diarist can move forward after participating.

I concluded my diary study with informal telephone interviews in which I tried to assess whether the participant needed additional support. I sent each person an email thanking them for their participation, briefly describing the work to which their diaries would contribute, reassuring them again about confidentiality, and (if appropriate) signposting them to online forums or support services.

People, not participants

A diary study can provide a fascinating insight into users’ inner worlds, but can be an intense experience fraught with difficult decisions. Though there is no single ‘best process’ for running a diary study, researchers can keep a few key things in mind:

  • Diary studies demand careful attention, preparation, and emotional intelligence. With this in mind, limit the number of participants in order to give each person the time and attention they deserve.
  • Set aside time for the study — and ensure that it can be given priority for the whole time it is running.
  • Consult relevant experts beforehand, and stay in communication in case ethical questions arise.
  • Communicate effectively and responsibly, keeping in mind each participants’ skills, needs, and vulnerabilities.
  • Remember: everyone in the diary study is a person, not just a participant.

About the Author

Kate Roberts

Kate found her way into user experience via a Masters degree in good, old-fashioned librarianship, during the course of which she realized that computers were more fun than books. She is a freelance user researcher and information architect.

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