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Diary studies is a research method that collects qualitative information by having participants record entries about their everyday lives in a log, diary or journal about the activity or experience being studied. This collection of data uses a longitudinal technique, meaning that it is reported by the participants over a period of time ranging from some days to more a few months, meaning that it studies the same variables over a period of time. This research tool, although not being able to provide results as detailed as a true field study, can still offer a vast amount of contextual information without the costs of a true field study. Diary studies are also known as experience sampling or ecological momentary assessment (EMA) methodology.
Traditionally diary studies involved participants keeping a written diary of events. However the emergence of smartphones now enables participants to diary with photos, videos and text using a variety of online, mobile or offline apps and tools. Since the diary studies are recorded sequentially over time, it is used to investigate time-based phenomena, temporal dynamics, and fluctuating phenomena such as moods.
There are two types of diary studies:
- Elicitation studies, where participants capture media that are then used as prompts for discussion in interviews. The method is a way to trigger the participant's memory. This type of diary study is sometimes referred to by Researchers as pre-task or pre-work and typically is carried out before an in-person interview such as a Focus Group or an In-depth interview.
- Feedback studies, where participants answer predefined questions about events. This is a way of getting immediate answers from the participants.
Diary studies can also be employed together with other research techniques within a mixed method framework and is particularly useful in obtaining rich subjective data. For instance, experience sampling method or ESM combines it with questionnaires to gather data and examine people's experiences in daily life.
An early example of a diary study was "How Workingmen Spend Their Time" (Bevans, 1913) which went unpublished by George Esdras Bevans.
Diary studies originate from the fields of psychology and anthropology. In the field of human–computer interaction (HCI), diary studies have been adopted as one method of learning about user needs towards designing more appropriate technologies.
Advantages of diary studies are numerous. They allow:
- collecting longitudinal and temporal information;
- reporting events and experiences in context and in-the-moment;
- participants to diary their behaviours, thoughts and feelings in-the-moment thereby minimising the potential for post rationalisation;
- determining the antecedents, correlations, and consequences of daily experiences and behaviors.
Diary studies might generate inaccurate recall, especially if using the elicitation type of diary studies, because of the use of memory triggers (e.g. taking a photo and writing about it later). There is low control, low participation and there is a risk of disturbing the action. In feedback studies, there is also low control, and it can be troubling and disturbing to write everything down.
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