Combining digital and physical diary methods

Recently we carried out a study with a mix of three of the most used and recognised qualitative methods: a diary study,  in-depth interviews, and co-creation workshops. The rationale for this blended research method was to use the diary study to warm up participants to the research topic, followed by a two-hour deep dive interview at their home, and culminating in a creative group session where the participants could jointly contribute to future-oriented speculations.

The two-week diary study set the tone of the research project and acted as an introduction to the study for each participant. As the study explored experiences and reflections on personal topics such as sleep, stress and wellbeing, the participants benefitted from a slow lead up that triggered their observations and thoughts. We aimed to keep the diary study conversational in order to encourage and stimulate the reflective thinking process of the participants. Thus when they met us in person for the interview, they had already given some thought to some of the questions raised. As key tools for the diary study, we used both a digital and a physical diary. Looking back, the use of both of these seemed to be very beneficial for the research project. The digital and physical dairies were complementary to each other, and also to the other research touch points with the participants.   

Capturing places, objects and scenarios

The original plan aimed to use a digital diary tool to capture relevant moments in a participant’s life for two weeks. The diary could be installed as an app on the participants’ smartphones, and they could enter text, images, videos, and locations for each diary entry. We asked the participants to keep this diary with a daily entry of two weeks, mostly for things that were visible to capture. For example: a place, an object, a scenario. The study was focused on exploring day-to-day routines, so specific details to illustrate their recurring journeys were meaningful to capture and share. This also offers a problem for the research team, because what comes back from such a digital diary is often fragmented. We receive disparate slices of everyday life, and it’s up to the participants to frame the relationship between what they have captured and shared.

That is why during the second research week we also used a physical diary accompanied by a few live prompts. The physical diary and the prompts made up for what the digital diary was missing and brought an element of fun to the study. The entries in the physical diary were more reflective, as people often took more time to complete and reflect. For example, imagine jolting down a few thoughts with a pencil in a small booklet before going to sleep. The diary booklet was designed with themes and questions to guide the responses. All were open questions, asking for thoughts and feelings rather than facts. We added prompts that we called ‘Moment Frames’, to put a focus on the most important object or environment in their story. The Moment Frames were paper frames with a title underneath, asking the participant to capture three things from their daily life. The titles were carefully phrased, to help the participant to capture what’s relevant to the core of our research questions.

The physical diary was packed and posted in the first week to arrive at the participant’s home before the start of the second week. The pack included the following items:

– The diary booklet
– The 3 Moment Frames
– A special treat

The physical diary proved to be a great help to prepare both us, the researchers, and the participants for the in-depth interview. Its guiding questions followed a similar outline to our interview discussion guide. It helped to warm up the participants for an in-depth discussion on a topic that not many people discuss openly on daily basis. We scanned the physical diary before going into the interview, so we had a general idea of what angle each participant might take on our questions. We knew what to focus on in the precious two-hour face to face time we shared with the participant.

The digital diary also gave us more than we expected. A few participants sent back really long paragraphs of text and described their experiences in much detail. The fact that they could send us a picture to illustrate their point, made their story much more vivid to us. It also helped us to anticipate things we could capture with video during the interview, or things to probe further on during the home visit. Some of the participants showed a level of reflection on their journey in the diary app that surpassed our expectations.

Two of the participants explicitly expressed an intention to change their routine after the first week of the diary study, and explained in their digital diary why they came to this conclusion. It’s hard to tell whether this reflective writing was influenced by their writings in the physical diary booklet, but there was clearly a willingness to treat the digital diary as a proper diary tool, rather than just uploading isolated fragments and facts. While for the other participants, their entries in the digital diary were shorter and less reflective compared to their physical diary, these digital diaries still recorded many vivid details and supporting images.

To sum up:

A digital diary is great for

– Instant data sync – to enable researchers to monitor and prompt diary entries, and to troubleshoot
Adding image and location data, for better illustration of the diary texts
– Convincing the user to record at the moment – while the memory and feeling of the experience are still fresh
– Capture moments in sequence.

While a physical diary is great for

– Recording more reflective thinking, enabling the participant to stay away from the distraction of their phone
– A change of media, to help and stimulate new thoughts
– Creating a physical presence of the researcher in the diary study period -by triggering appreciation for the craft put into making a physical diary.

If we apply service design thinking to the design of a diary study, the two diary methods are complementary touch points for our participants. Both diaries, digital or physical, serve one aim: to help us with getting to know the participants, understand them as individual human beings, understand their motivations and their behaviours. If we have a chance to do a similar project, we’d definitely use both again and also explore more interactive ways to use prompts like Moment Frames that link the world of the physical and the digital diary together.