Private Thoughts for Public Study: A Designer’s role in User Diary Studies

The essence of user experience design presents itself in the title of the field; user experience. While many decisions may be made on designer knowledge and best practices alone, user-centric design relies heavily on stepping beyond the design studio. It is critical for designers to understand the needs, thoughts, and actions of those who will be using the product to enhance, ease, or organize their personal and professional duties.

There are a wealth of data gathering methods available to design teams, ranging from internal brainstorming to external surveys. One of the keys to strengthening a design is incorporating a balance of both quantitative and qualitative data. Automatically collected metrics can provide insight for how long users spend on a site/application, but they do not offer the story of their journey.

Sample Scenario

A user is browsing for information on their mobile device during their commute. They experience an interruption in signal, and close the browser. By the time they are back in a steady coverage zone, they have moved on to their next task. Site metrics would represent this as a short visit, and factor it into the bounce rate.

In the scenario above, the designer cannot determine whether the user has exited because they found what they were looking for, or decided the website was unsatisfactory. This knowledge gap is what qualitative data seeks to fill.

Jakob Nielsen wrote:

Field studies are one of the most valuable methods for setting a design project’s direction and discovering unmet user needs.

Jakob Nielsen, Field Studies Done Right: Fast and Observational 2002

Observing users both in the design studio and in their usual environment as they go through their daily routine can provide insight to design teams and unveil aspects of the product that were not previously considered. However, there are inherent downfalls to the observation approach including user discomfort/acclimation period and the financial burden of sending team members out into the field for extended periods of time. A single day of observation may not provide sufficient information if, for example, the user does not access the product on that particular day.

One way to negotiate these potential difficulties is to engage users in a self-reported study. Known as a diary study, this method of observation allows users to freely express their thoughts on a regular basis as set by the design team.

While this approach may be beneficial for the design team, it may not be an attractive prospect to users. As noted in the article, Personal informatics for everyday life […], users without prior experience in self-reporting data (even for their own observation, such as with fitness trackers):

“…considered the act of collecting personal information burdensome, with no beneficial reward.”

This is also true of those who have had prior experience, as the act of self-reporting is an addition to their established routine. In order to maximize the benefit to both sides, designers must craft studies that minimize the burden on the users.

First, the designers must establish a comfortable feedback environment for the users. This can mean providing anonymous input options and ensuring the use of a familiar input interface (i.e. videos or voice memos on a cell phone vs. written and scanned notes.).

In Chapter 8 of Understanding Your Users, the authors emphasize the importance of considering the preferred communication channels of diary study participants. A diary study for a tax filing software will likely be aimed at a different audience from a diary study for a new short video platform. Both generational and cultural differences play into this decision. If the primary user base is teenagers, the best way to reach them may not be through the use of paper logs or e-mail.

Once a designer establishes their chosen communication channel, it is important to clearly and concisely express to the participants what is expected of them, how long the study will take, and what they will gain from participation. The authors go on to discuss incentives. These can range from monetary compensation to advanced access to the next version of the software. Again, careful consideration of the demographic will determine the success of the chosen path.

The designer’s goal should be to gather as much data as possible without being a complete disruption to their user’s daily routine. When a designer selects appropriate communication channels, input methods, and incentives, they are providing a foundation for the user to stay motivated and complete the study. Diary studies rely on user input, but it is the designer’s role to create a smooth and intuitive experience.


  • Amon Rapp, Federica Cena, “Personal informatics for everyday life: How users without prior self-tracking experience engage with personal data.” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 94, 2016, Pages 1-17, ISSN 1071-5819,
  • Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.
  • Nielsen, Jakob. “Field Studies Done Right: Fast and Observational.” Nielsen Norman Group, 20 Jan. 2002,
  • “Chapter 8: Diary Studies.” Understanding Your Users a Practical Guide to User Requirements Methods, Tools, and Techniques, by Catherine Courage and Kathy Baxter, Elsevier, 2005.