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Let us picture the following. It is time to expand the business by developing a new product, service or functionality. You and your business /​product development team are sitting in your ivory tower. The creative juices are flowing. Grand, albeit vague, ideas are born. Suddenly a manager asks But is this what our consumers want? Will it in one way or another enrich their lives?”It remains quiet. You realize there is little knowledge about your consumers. It is time to conduct a diary study.

Getting in touch with your users

A diary study is primarily useful in the early, or perhaps the very first, stages of product development. The stage where you are looking for new ideas. It is a method to get to know your (potential) consumers. Who are they? What drives them? How do they go about their lives? Are there any struggles? And what is already going smoothly? These answers will illustrate the proper context — the context in which your product will eventually be used — and reveals what and where the opportunities are. The insights of a diary study will inspire you in developing a product that will indeed enrich your consumers lives.

Passport and ID card

In theory, a diary study can also be used to examine the context in which existing products are being used. It might be illuminating to see whether or not your consumers use your products as you have envisioned or intended. However, we think its strength lies in providing inspiration for new business or features.

Conducting a diary study, our pointers

The concept of a diary study is fairly straight forward: users document — for example in a diary, hence the name — their experiences regarding certain situations or subject(s). It is a time consuming research method and provides a heap of data. But we think diary studies are quite exciting. A few participants are willing to let you into their life. It is up close and personal. And as Lotte Horn eloquently adds: For a short time you have a bunch of new friends who are welcoming you into their lives!” Here are a few pointers to get you started.

Person writing down his daily activities
  • Broaden your horizon
    The outcomes of diary study are very unpredictable. The participants are in their homes and doing who knows what. Your control’ is limited. It might be tempting to narrow down the subject, trying to ensure all data is relevant. But you should keep an open mind and the subject as broad as possible. Surprising bits of information can turn out to be the missing building blocks. Unpredictability is key.
  • Gathering data: online or offline
    We used e‑mail and Whatsapp to facilitate an online diary study. It is an easy and quick way for participants to share their experiences by (text) message, photo and /​or video. This allows you to monitor the progress and amount of data you are gathering. Or you can use paper notebooks, filled with creative exercises. These exercises can spark memories and experiences participants would normally not come up with themselves. It is more difficult to track the progress since participants are not automatically keeping you up to date.
  • Invite a high(er) number of participants
    In spite (or because) of your constant reassurances participants can decide to quit the study. Perhaps it was too overwhelming or time consuming. Or the quality of the input of some is not as high as you want it to be. One way or another, it is sensible to invite a high(er) number of participants. We tend to invite about 15 participants. This way you will definitely have enough data to analyze.
  • Guidance and confirmation is needed
    Participants do not realize why their lives are so interesting. They might be inclined to leave experiences behind. This would be a shame. These pieces of information can be the missing link. Therefore, it is important to guide participants and get rid of any insecurities. Thank them for their input, comment how valuable it is and call to ask how they are doing. Your encouragement lowers the threshold. It will enrich the data and therefore your research.
  • Always finish with in-depth interviews
    It is important to finish a diary study with (individual) in depth interviews. Together you can evaluate their input to ensure you correctly interpret their creative outbursts. You can also ask additional questions, which participants can place in the proper context — their context within their daily lives. They have been sensitized for the duration of your diary study. This increases the value of their answers.

Travel agency seeks new opportunities

An example. You are a manager of a travel agency, offering all inclusive vacation deals. The website is performing well and you are looking for a new challenge. You want to aid consumers who travel in groups in the orientation phase. But you do not know how they currently go about. Who organizes everything, one member or the entire group? Does everybody have a say? And if they do, is that useful? You decide to conduct a diary study.

You ask participants — with the right profile — to document the search of a group holiday. They document every consideration, thought and decision and used tools. The data is overwhelming, but you see something shimmering. The golden nuggets. You decide to build a platform where groups can organize their holiday. Members can thrown in ideas (e.g. hotels and destinations) which others can up or down vote. Also comments can be placed and roles — who books the tickets?” — appointed. And you, the travel agency, suggest matching vacation deals. A win-win.

An inspirational tool that gives focus

A diary study gives you an insightful image of the lives of your consumers, searching for new business opportunities. You’re Peeping Tom, but classy. After peeping’ the gathered data can spark your imagination. It will help you develop a product /​service that actually has a reason for existence and is therefore profitable.

There still might be some stakeholders in their ivory tower, coming up with wild ideas. In the past it could result in heated discussion. Now you have the data to back you up, to explain whether their idea is good or not. And discussion is pointless, the data is pure. Consumers simply do what they do.

So, consider a diary study. It might be a more intensive research method, but it will definitely pay up in the end. Promise.

  • Lisa van Mastbergen
  • Lotte Horn