Diary Studies - How can they be more inclusive?

By Catarina Nyberg | 05/11/2018

Over the summer, our intern Ani Gilmore joined the UX team to help us run a project involving a diary study. Here, she describes the methods she learnt and what she took with her.

Chris Bush with Ani Gilmore

More than meets the eye

During my time at Sigma, I worked on preliminary research for an upcoming diary study project. The project challenged my thinking on diary studies; it presented new challenges and gave me several lessons in UX and accessibility.

A diary study gathers qualitative data from a group of participants’ everyday activities. It is ideal for getting an insight into a consumer-user’s daily habits and behaviour over time. It involves asking several participants to answer questions every day for a set number of days. Data is then collected and presented to the study’s stakeholders, informing the design of their product or service.

As I discovered at Sigma, there is a large degree of variation within the design of diary studies. For instance, researchers may choose to interact with participants during the study, probing them with further questions, or they may not interfere at all. They may stick to a set of questions or change them over the course of the study. Furthermore, a wide range of diary study tools is available: from the basic pen and paper or email to purpose-built apps and websites which the participant can access on their mobile phone.

I learnt that there is far more to a diary study than simply developing specific, well-rounded questions, sending them off to be answered and collecting the relevant data.

The adaptable nature of the diary study is both a blessing and a curse.

On one hand, researchers can tailor the study to ensure optimum results and accommodate the needs of both client and participant. On the other hand, the sheer amount of choice available can complicate the study before it has even begun.

The diary study I worked on was particularly well-tailored towards the needs of the participant. It was distinct in that its participants all identified as neurodivergent. Neurodivergency, according to Nick Walker, “means having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of ‘normal’”. Thus, participants in this diary study had diagnoses of various forms of neurodivergency: such as autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia.

As with any research project, we catered for the participants’ needs so that the diary study was a pleasant and efficient experience for all involved. Below is a list of some of the needs we established from invaluable preliminary research. It should be stressed that such needs are not exclusively ‘neurodivergent’ – they apply to all research projects and participants.

When designing a study, consider: 

  • Clarity (particularly when asking questions)
  • Sensitivity
  • Trust (e.g. participants should be able to contact a named researcher)
  • Consistency (e.g. the named researcher should be the same person throughout the study)
  • Choice (a diverse group of people have a diverse set of requirements and preferences)
  • Flexibility (the diary study should fit around the participants’ routines)

Providing choice and flexibility proved most challenging when designing the study. One solution was to integrate different modes of response, such as video and voice recording, into the diary study. This gave participants the power to choose how to express their thoughts, yielding us with richer results.

However, this meant finding a platform that supported multimedia responses. As previously mentioned, there are several ‘ethnography apps’ on the market which can recruit participants, ask pre-designed questions and collect data for the researcher. Unfortunately, many of these apps are designed for big brands: they often prioritise form and flamboyance over function. After reviewing several apps, we found that many could not always support the needs listed above.

We then re-examined the client’s brief, Sigma’s needs as an agency (mainly ease of onboarding and data collection), and the proposed needs of the participants. All of these were combined to inform criteria for the diary tool.

For an effective diary study, I would include: 

  • Reminders
  • Multimedia responses (audio, video, photo, screen-recording, text)
  • Scheduled and/or successive questions (that can be personalised for each participant)
  • Simple agency-based communication with participants (if using an app, onboarding and tech support through another company may disorientate the participant)

The broader issue of accessibility in UX

After discovering the limits of many diary study tools, the study quickly became an analogy for the urgent issue of accessibility within research and design. This study, unique because its purpose was to explore the everyday lives of neurodivergent people, revealed to me the bias towards neurotypicality within consumer-based UX. According to the social model of disability, neurodivergent people should not have to adapt to the environment they find themselves in. Rather, the environment should be built to accommodate them.

The deeply-ingrained assumption that the average user is neurotypical and able-bodied is a dangerous one. In research, particularly in diary studies, finding an equilibrium between delivering for both participant and client helps to alleviate this.

Truly one size does not fit all. As we come to terms with this in real life, so must we within UX.