🪄What are best practices when using the diary method?

A researcher's guide to observing in situ human behavior using the diary method

What are best practices when using the diary method?

Written by Tarushi Mohan

Running a qualitative diary study is a powerful research method that offers a unique window into the inner world of participants over an extended period. This approach allows researchers to dive deep into the thoughts, behaviors, and experiences of individuals in a way that few other methods can match. By asking participants to regularly record their thoughts, reflections, and experiences, researchers can capture the nuances and subtleties of their lives as they unfold over time. This longitudinal perspective can uncover patterns, changes, and complexities that might be missed in more traditional research methods. 

As a qualitative researcher I’ve had the chance to run several research projects, with participants ranging from a 19-year-old to a 72-year-old, aimed at understanding eating habits, jewelry habits, coffee habits among others. Based on my experiences here are some tips to help you plan and conduct a successful qualitative diary study yourself:

  1. Participant Selection and Recruitment: Ensure your participant pool is diverse and representative of your target population. Consider factors like age, gender, ethnicity, and relevant demographics. Use various recruitment methods to reach a wide range of potential participants.
  2. Informed Consent: Clearly explain the study's purpose, expectations, and any potential risks. Provide participants with a consent form that they can sign or electronically acknowledge. Ensure that all collected data are stored securely and anonymized. Reiterate the importance of confidentiality and data security.
  3. Diary Format: Choose a diary format that suits your research objectives and participants' preferences. Be flexible and open to different formats (e.g., text, audio, video) if they help participants express themselves better.
  4. Instructions: Provide clear and concise instructions for diary entries. Specify the frequency and duration of entries. Include prompts or questions to guide participants' reflections.
  5. Reminders and Engagement: Send gentle reminders to participants to encourage regular diary entries. Maintain open communication with participants throughout the study. Foster a sense of engagement and rapport.
  6. Data Management: Develop a systematic method for organizing and labeling diary entries. Consider using a coding system or software for efficient data management.
  7. Triangulation: Combine diary data with other sources (e.g., interviews, surveys) to validate and enrich your findings. Cross-reference diary entries with external observations or relevant contextual data.

Remember that diary studies require careful planning and attention to detail, but they can yield rich qualitative data that can deepen your understanding of participants' experiences and behaviors over time. Whether through written diaries, digital entries, or other formats, qualitative diary studies provide a rich source of qualitative data that can lead to a profound understanding of the human experience in various contexts, making them a valuable tool in the researcher's toolkit.

Cover photo by: Michaela

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