Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Diaries - the right method for the right purpose

Diaries have traditionally taken a major role in the qualitative research and have their place in the modern canon of methods. They offer an authentic view in consumers' everyday life and give room for participants' creative self-expression. More and more they are used as a kind of pre-task ahead of qualitative methods, used to stimulate participants to deal with the research subject in the run-up and to gather initial findings for the design of the survey situation (e.g. design of the discussion room, fine-tuning of the guideline ...).

Photo by Josh DiMauro
Technological progress and the opportunities it creates for market research have particular impact on this method. Several years ago the method of keeping diaries had to be carried out as paper-and-pencil. Over the past years it has diversified and now offers plenty of different varieties.

In addition to the traditional paper-and-pencil method, participants are increasingly encouraged to keep mobile or online diaries.

So when to use what?

Rules of thumb are a little flat. Neither is paper-and-pencil completely out of fashion nor is it necessary to go all the way mobile. As so often, it depends...

Depending on the research objectives, different methods for using diaries are useful and others are not.
When it comes to mobile usage of diaries, because notes about emotions and activities on the go should be recorded, flexibility and simplicity is important. On these dimensions paper-and-pencil executions as well mobile diaries offer more benefits than online, because both smart-phone and offline diary can be carried around easily and flexible.

In specific settings, for example where drawings of the participants are important, or where own handwriting is essential, because deeper reflection is necessary, there is no alternative to paper-pencil notes. In particular, the online and mobile versions are somewhat limited when it comes to expressing the own creativity. The technological development indeed evolves rapidly. But currently internet technology is not equal to creative possibilities of offline diaries yet.


A huge advantage of online diaries is the possible integration of audio-visual elements such as photos, videos and audio files. These elements can serve as a support of the written word. Furthermore it is much easier to process participants' input via online, no shipping, transcription or scanning needed. And the researchers themselves are able to follow the process in real time and so are able to give feedback on specific aspects while participants are keeping their notes.

Nevertheless it is quite important to be clear about the question in which environments the records will be used. For the implementation of workshop formats creatively-made paper-pencil diaries are significantly better suitable than mobile diaries. Online diaries are constantly improving, mainly because videos deliver unique insights into the reality of life and emotions of the participants.

The Market Research Event 2011 is November in Orlando, Florida, hosted by IIR USA, deals with the topics Online Research and Mobile Research (among others). I'm curious what they will tell us about diaries.

About the author: Christian Dössel is blogging about market research in German language here and here. After having worked for TNS, TBWA\ and other strategy and market research agencies he now holds the position of Senior Research Director at MM-Eye in Hamburg / Germany with special responsibilities for MM-Eye's new media and online research approaches.