Dear Diary… An ode to Diary Studies

Good design needs good research. You’re probably familiar with usability testing, but how well do you know Diary Studies? Though it takes some time and energy to conduct, it’s such a powerful tool that it is absolutely worth your effort. Because I’m a fan of the method, I’ll give you three take-aways.

Unlike usability testing, which is best for the validation phase of your design, Diary Studies should be applied in the exploration phase. That’s why I recently used this method for a project about a delicate topic: our customers’ experience when a loved one passes away. People tend to say what they might do, but it gets complicated to verify what they feel and think. The diary study helped me to have a conversation about our customers’ feelings and emotions, without focusing on a specific solution.

An ode to my favorite research method

Because I’m a fan of the method, I’ve written this article as an ode to Diary studies. I’ll give you three take-aways and reflect on how powerful it was. It changed the mindset within the organization and even had an emotional impact on myself. But first, let’s start with what a typical diary study is.

Instead of doing an interview, you prepare people with a physical diary with prompts. Since they thought about the subject beforehand, they provide deeper and more meaningful answers during the interview.

An envelope, a printed paper booklet and cut out pictures expressing emotions.
Diary study used for projects at Rabobank. An example of a prompt is a sticker sheet.

I used this method for a delicate topic about our customers’ experience when a loved one passes away. This diary study makes it easier for them to talk about a difficult topic. It also allows us to conduct open-ended explorations of people’s feelings and emotions.

Three lessons learned

#1 – The booklet
I wanted to make something that people felt like they could doodle on, make them curious, and stimulate their thinking. I wanted them to use it and fill in their own answers.

One of the ways to do that is to make it as accessible as possible:

  • explain the purpose;
  • tell them that no answer is right or wrong;
  • and leave questions open for their own interpretation.

The booklet had five assignments, and the package included a paper sheet of words, a metaphor for how to display the bank, and a timeline of their journey. The booklet itself didn’t look fancy or neat. All this was designed on purpose; to make them feel comfortable using it.

User’s feedback when using the booklet with the word sheet: “It helped me to find words about my emotions. There were ones that I didn’t think about immediately”

It’s important to make each assignment tangible (for example, by using a sticker sheet). Having something physical to create stimulates people to think about why they choose a specific answer. This is a thinking process for them too; which emotion is most applicable for me, and why?

Different pages of a diary booklet.
Complete booklet including sticker sheet and emotions as prompts.


A handwritten remark, saying: “keep thinking about different emotions of different people”.
An example of a personal message written in the diary.

#2 – Let them interpret the questions
One of the topics was to draw a timeline with past, current, and future. I simply posed the question: describe your process and use the sticker sheet (if desired). I assumed that people would fill in their own steps.

Since my question was broad, it was very surprising how people interpreted it. Instead of practical steps, they all described their emotional journey.

User’s feedback: “I didn’t understand which process you meant because it’s an emotional process of grieving. So I filled it in like that, if that’s ok?”

It gave a beautiful and realistic picture of how people deal with their personal situation.

Cut out printed words with emotions, pasted on a timeline that is printed on paper.
A timeline filled in, which shows how emotionally draining this journey is.

# 3 – Use a metaphor to make different connections
The last topic that surprised me was the use of a metaphor. I gave them an overview of different animals and asked them how they describe the role of the bank in an animal. I was hesitant to use this at first, because it might feel childish and perhaps even something that people wouldn’t take seriously enough.

But surprisingly everyone was very clear which animal they referred to and why. During the interview, they explained their chosen animal by sharing personal experiences with the bank. The metaphor helped to have a richer conversation about the role of the bank and people’s expectations towards it.

User’s feedback: “It was actually fun to do this exercise, the metaphor made it easier to answer”

Richer insights lead to better explorations, and suitable solutions!

When I started this project, I thought; well, diary studies are just my way to understand the customer better. I saw it as part of the rest of the research; I make the diary, conduct the interviews, document the insights, and continue optimizing the journey.

But instead, it led to so much more space to explore new things. I showed it to the rest of the design team and the stakeholders, which opens up conversations. One of my stakeholders even said that by putting so much effort in the diary study, it shows how important we as an organization find this topic.

This made me realize how large your influence as a designer is, with genuine curiosity as starting point. As an organization, we learned that we need more time to deep dive in research by using more of these methods to really understand our users.

So the next time you need to explore a deeper understanding of your users, I challenge you to do a diary study. You’ll be surprised by all the insights!

Resources that I used

About the author

Ruddy Rodriguez
Design Lead Banking App Consumers

Ruddy is the design lead for the banking app of consumers. She is an experienced service designer and researcher. Driven by customers’ daily issues, she strives to find the most suitable and feasible solution.

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