The Definitive Guide to Diary Studies.

What’s the value of a diary study?

Ready to “walk a mile” in a consumer’s shoes?

Consider a diary study. It’s the simplest way to get a glimpse of consumers’ day-to-day lives. A diary study gives you the permission to be a fly on the wall, without being creepy. You observe while people interact with your products, without looking over their shoulders.

Pretty cool, huh?

Focused on observing behaviors and experiences over time, a diary study can help you to collect some detailed insights, without a “formal” research setting to bias the situation. They allow you to be “in-the-moment” with your consumers, without actually being present.

In Real-time.

With a diary study, you can see participants’ entries in real-time.

This gets you closer to in-the-moment takeaways not available with other methods. The result is natural behavior, straight from the mouth (and mind) of your users, as they experience your brand. Diary studies also encourage self-discovery, as participants generally end a study better informed to reflect about their feelings, habits, and behaviors.

Diary studies offer an easy way to see behavior over time, and to paint a full picture.

Go Mobile.

Mobile diary studies go one step further, adding movement to the equation. With a mobile app, you can see where consumers shop, and send them questions as they exit your location – or your competitors’ place. The data is:

  1. Validated – because GPS verifies their location.
  2. Representative – what Millennial doesn’t have a smartphone?
  3. Qualitative – you can collect pictures, video, and actual feedback from the consumer.

Come along for the ride, as participants follow your instructions and share their experiences with your brand – in their own words – while they’re on the go.

Would you recommend a diary study for me?

That depends.

A diary study can be involved, but if you meet these criteria, it’s a great option. Take a look:

  • Are you trying to reach Millennials, Gen Z, or smaller Ethnic Groups? A mobile diary study allows you to reach a big group of people, and do so in privacy. Sometimes it just comes down to the behavior of your target participants. Let’s be honest. Millennials and Gen Z users aren’t easy to reach. But they will tell you what they think in an app.
  • Do you need to understand what motivates consumers to act? Will consumers consider buying pizza for lunch, or is it a “dinner only” food? You can get a lot closer to buyers’ thoughts and attitudes when you ask questions in the moment. If you want to know what pushes people toward a big change (“We need to buy a car”), that’s hard to get at with a focus group or interview. A longitudinal diary study can surface the minor moments along the way, which add up to a major choice.
  • Are you researching non-daily activities? A diary study may help if you’re looking to learn about non-daily, and non-trend-based activities. What about understanding when an audio book will be purchased, or considering what makes a parent worry about their child – and how that may impact their buying behavior? With a diary study, you’ll get more context —whether it’s an activity that happens “once in a while,” or 10 times in a day. For a worried parent, it’d likely be the latter.
  • Do you need to SHOW stakeholders data? We all conceptualize better when we can see data in action. While you can’t bring decision-makers into the field, you can rely on video and pictures to bring “life” to your data. Diary studies tell a story and are often more personal—and human—than other methods of qualitative data collection.

How does it work?

Let’s look at real-world diary study, completed earlier this year:

Christina works for a pizza delivery chain who wants to enter the lunch market. The chain’s asked her to help conduct a diary study to understand consumer lunch behaviors. Ideally, they’d like to talk with consumers who frequent competitor locations at lunch time, to see if they’d be interested in pizza as a lunchtime option.
Christina needs to reach consumers in real-time as they leave a competitors’ location. She chooses a market research provider with a mobile diary app: Surveys on the Go. As the nation’s largest consumer panel, the app will give her access to direct feedback.

Step 1: Prep

Start with success in mind.

Prep work is the most important part of the diary study, as it sets you up for success or failure. Begin the process by defining the structure of your study so it takes advantage of the “in-the-moment” capacity a diary study offers.

Now that you know what to collect, you can begin to gather the data.

For Christina, that means looking for consumers who have visited a competitor quick serve restaurants 4+ times in the past 60 days. To participate, the consumer panel must be open to her chain as a lunch option.

Step 2: Launch

Choose a tool that makes sense for your goals, budget, and timeline. 

Really, you have two options:

1. Do it alone

2. Work with a research tool

There are pros and cons to both. Doing it yourself has little to no cost, but it’s a massive amount of data to sort, and you won’t have a tool to help you.

The second option is to use a tool made specifically for research. It’s not free, but it does make running a successful diary study a lot easier, and effective. A good diary study tool will log pictures and video, work well on mobile, and send interact with participants to guide them through the process.

Side note…we have built a platform that does all of those things. If you’re interested, we can walk you through it. Give it a try.

Christina has two major goals:

1.     Ask participants to go to their favorite quick lunch spot

2.     Have them get a “value driven” lunch, under $7

With her goals defined, and a diary study platform in place, Christina is ready to start collecting responses.

Step 3: Log

Make it easy.

You’d be surprised, the complexities of logging responses are often overlooked. Keep the process as simple as possible for participants.

In our example, Christina wants to understand emotions. She’s looking to uncover what makes lunch great, why it’s important, and whether her participants would be interested in eating pizza as a lunch option.

To discover that, Christina is ready to really dig into her goals:

1. Favorite quick lunch spot questions:

  • Why is it your favorite?
  • What makes you go back?
  • What emotions do you feel during this experience?

2. Value-driven lunch questions:

  • Why did you choose that specific value restaurant?
  • What’s working in the experience? What falls short?
  • What emotions do you feel during this experience?

Remember how she chose a mobile app for her diary study?

Here’s why. Christina can trigger surveys as people leave a restaurant she wants to study. Her data is not only real-time, it’s relative to exactly what she wants to study. And because it’s an app, she can get pictures and video.


Step 4: Share

Closing time.

You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.  

Nothing like a little 90’s throwback, thanks Semisonic for reminding us how old we are now.

Throwbacks aside, it’s the end of the road for our diary study. The next step is data collection. As you move into it, be sure to go back to you business objectives, and prepare your report accordingly. Be sure to answer the “so what?” in the data – helping your stakeholders to see why it matters, so they can make positive decisions from the data you’ve collected.

For Christina, we’ll hope the pizza chain moves into the lunch market. We could really go for some pizza right now.

Ready for delivery?

Christina isn’t just a story, she represents a real client.

The company she works for is a billion-dollar organization. They needed access to consumer data, taken over a period of time, to make an important business decision. Like many of our clients, the company found value in speaking directly to consumers in real-time, so they could learn quickly and use the research to impact revenue performance.

You may want to reach a younger audience, or get a better feel for customer experience. Whatever your reason is for considering a diary study, you’re going to need a partner. Someone with experience, who understands what you need, and can get you there. After all, a diary study isn’t easy. It’s worth it, but it does take both time and resources.

 If you’re looking for a partner, or just want to talk through an idea with a market research expert, we’d be happy to help. Many of our clients started right where you are today, looking for a little guidance.

We can walk you through a few examples, share ideas from similar companies in your industry, and make sure you get the data you need. Give us a call, or send an email, when you’re ready to talk. We’re here to support your diary study.

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By Allyson Wehn

Reviewed by Cathy Karcher

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