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Diary studies customer insight

How to use diary studies to better understand customer behaviours, attitudes and emotions

5th Aug 2019
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Diary studies can be a great way for CX practitioners to get a window into customer behaviours, attitudes and emotions. So what are they and how can organisations use them?

There are several quantitative research tools available to help you understand what customers want and think of you. Most people know about and use focus groups, observations and shadowing, mystery shopping and one-to-one interviews. But a tool that is used less often are diary studies.

People have been keeping diaries for centuries from Pliny to Samuel Pepys to Anne Frank. They help people record and make sense of their experiences, reflect their moods and feelings and put things into perspective. And they often prove a cathartic experience for the writers as an outlet to express their emotions to events.

So, in this article I want to explore the concept of diaries in more detail and how they can help you to design better customer experiences.

What are diary studies?

Diary studies are a qualitative research tool which can help you uncover deep and rich insights into customer’s needs, wants, frustrations, motivations, attitudes, goals and behaviours. They invite participants to share an immersive description of themselves, their world and their daily lives. They also capture how they want to use products and services.

It’s a participatory design method for studying people in their own environments where participants record what they have experienced, activities they have undertaken and highlight what was memorable (either positively or negatively). Participants are prompted daily with questions which they respond to over days or even weeks.

There are numerous ways to run diary studies but I am going to focus specifically on online diaries which are a form of digital ethnography. Participants can use a variety of ways to create digital diaries to express themselves using text, voice recordings, pictures, icons, photos, emojis and video. When participants utilise these more visual and interactive tools it really helps you gain greater insight into their mindset, much more than words alone.  It also becomes a way to help people express their own needs and feelings and ultimately becomes an exercise in storytelling.  

There are several ways to create these digital diaries – an online platform, an app or an IM platform are just some of them.

In online diary studies people’s behaviours are not impacted by the presence of a researcher like many other types of ethnographic research because it is self-reported by the participants. And because it is context based and collected over an extended period of time, they are unique, unlike any other type of user research and can provide rich and detailed customer insights. It encourages reflection and introspection from participants and this process often unearths thing which would normally go unnoticed or unreported in an interview setting.

What is their purpose?

In essence they help you to map what is going on in people’s daily lives and are a very useful way of putting into context and understanding people’s reactions to events, experiences, products and services. The diaries utilise the concept of context mapping which was developed by TU Delft University in the Netherlands.

They allow you to measure and capture actions and interactions on what it is like when using a product or service, the usefulness of a specific product or service feature, understanding what people want or feel at a specific stage in the customer lifecycle or on a particular customer journey.

They can also help you to spot behaviour patterns and trends amongst specific persona groups or customer segments and clarify the process used in making complex decisions.

A good diary study would look at the context across three areas:

  • Time - what happened before, during or after an event or when using a product or service.
  • Place – what else is happening in the life of the user – where are they, how are they accessing a product or service.
  • Experience – what emotions are they experiencing that are linked to or triggered by the event or using a product or service and how do they feel about it afterwards.

Diary studies range from those that are very targeted and structures to ones that are very broad and unstructured. Typically, they can help organisations to understand people’s habits, usage, actions, attitudes, motivations, and emotions. They can be focused on learning more about a product, service or website, preforming a specific or general task, or information about behaviours and perceptions.

It largely depends on what you are using a diary study for, and what hypotheses you are looking for answers to. So, before you embark on one you need to ask yourself these questions

  • Are they attitude related, behaviour related or feature related or a combination of all three?
  • Are you using the study in the discovery, testing and validation phase, pre or post launch phase of a product development cycle?

I have found that diary studies are a great way to uncover people’s expectations, core beliefs and emotions to situations that everyone encounters in life exploring areas of trust, ease of use, being ignored, waiting for answers, why something is a good vs. a bad experience and how it makes people feel, when your needs are anticipated or your expectations are met, what it’s like to feel listened to or valued. These are universal truths that go beyond individual organisations, products or services and account for what a customer brings with them when they choose to interact with a business.  

How can this information be used?

The outputs of diary studies can be used in a variety of different ways, depending on what purpose they were designed for. They can be used across the entire organisation by marketing, UX and service designers, sales, IT, customer insights, customer service to create empathy with customers and help improve:

  • Websites, products and services – making them easier to use, understanding how people interact with them overall and with specific features, what they need to do to accomplish their goals? How, when, where and why they may use the product or service and the problems they may encounter? How to develop new products and services based on unmet or unfilled user needs? How can you communicate and present information more clearly?
  • Channels – How well they work individually or in conjunction with each other? What customers use which channels for what tasks? How can you use social media platforms more effectively?
  • Customer journeys – what currently does or doesn’t work well? What causes frustration and why across both the end-to-end lifecycle and on specific journeys? What expectations people have going into an experience? What motivates them? What people feel and remember most from an experience and why? How does this differ by each persona?

The information discovered by conducting diary studies can also prove extremely valuable to assess your competitors and their ability to meet customer’s needs.

I have used these type of diary studies to help me design personas and customer journeys. On one client project I was designing seven different personas and used diary studies from five participants each who fitted the seven specific personas, so 35 participants in total. The actionable insights obtained were amazingly helpful in fleshing out each persona especially in understanding their expectations, core belief and emotions and how that impacted on their behaviours and the decisions they made. I then utilised these rich insights in the journeys I was designing for each of the personas.

When working on this project, I used an online diary platform called seven days in my life developed by Erik Roscam Abbing which has been used by eBay, Virgin and Europcar amongst others (it is now available from a Swiss agency called Pliik). At the end of the week, we assembled the daily entries and compiled them into a booklet, revealing an in-depth picture of our participants and their stories.

What kinds of questions do you want to include?

Again, this comes down to the purpose of the study. 

In general, you need to be very clear about your aims and objectives and how you intend to use the information you obtain.

The types of question you ask should help you understand

  • Who your customers are?
  • What are their needs, wants and expectations?
  • Fill in gaps in your understanding of existing customer experiences and steps in a customer’s end-to-end or specific journeys
  • Understand how your people, processes or systems impact on your customers
  • How customers may be using a product, service or touchpoint?
  • How they feel about your organisation?.

The goal behind the questions you ask is to help you generate insights and ideas that can create more value for customers by providing them with products, services and interactions they want and that meets their needs.

So, start off by clarifying what questions you are looking to answer, what are your existing knowledge gaps and what holes will it fill along with what are your assumptions about your existing customer behaviours and how well do your current solutions meet your customer’s needs. 

Questions that help you to understand

  • What people are doing when they are interacting with you and what are they trying to accomplish?  What are they engaging with you for while using a product, website, app or service? What do they want from you? What are their expectations?
  • When are they interacting with you - Are they at home, at work, during the week on the weekend, in the daytime or evening? Are they interacting with you on a daily, regular or infrequent basis? Is it habitual?
  • Where are they engaging with you and via what touchpoints and devices? Do you understand the context of their usage and their access to you?
  • How people feel about their interactions? How this then impacts on their actions, behaviours and perceptions? How do they want you to behave? 
  • Why are people interacting with you? Their underlying reasons for their contact? The efforts they go through to achieve their goals? Why do they feel the way they do?

If you really want to get the most from a diary study keep the question style open and unstructured, otherwise it starts to feel like a survey and you really won’t learn that much.


Replies (2)

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Michelle Spaul Customer Experience Consultant
By Michelle Spaul
05th Aug 2019 10:53

An interesting read about an innovative way to move 'home trials' into the modern age. I feel inspired.

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Replying to DeltaSwan:
By Scotty25
05th Aug 2019 20:19

Glad you like it and it inspired you!!

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