Online Diaries, Method, User Experience

What are online diaries and when should you consider them?

Online diaries are qualitative tools that allows to gather contextual information from users. The information from the participants can be collected online from anywhere.

05 MIN

What are online diaries?

Online diaries are qualitative tools that allows to gather contextual information from users or participants.

The information for online diaries is collected online, so participants can use smartphones, laptops, or desktop computers. There are different types of information collected during the online diary: it can be a behavioral information (such as shopping behaviors, eating habits), an information about experiences (how is a new website interacted with and perceived), or even an information about specific activities (travel planning, renting a flat).

The questions need to be answered during a certain time window, so most of the time the online diary will be open between 5 and 7 days, but can also last up to a month.

Depending on the goal of the study, new questions can be shown to the users or participants every day or can be unveiled after the user or participant has performed an action (for example, some questions could unveil after a participant has documented a specific purchase).


When should you select online diaries as the appropriate method for your project?

There are a lot of different situations, in which you should consider online diaries.

If you want to gather insights of a behavior, an experience, or an activity that takes more than a couple of hours and can stretch over a longer period of time, you can’t use traditional interviews or focus groups.

There are also situations, where it’s not possible to run field studies, situations which has become very apparent recently with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another problem is, that it is difficult to find the respondents, because of factors like the scarcity of the population, the geographical spread, or the fact that the topic is sensitive.

As you can see, the use of online diaries can be useful in all of these situations.


Exemplary questions

In the following, you will see some example questions that can be answered by conducting a diary study:

  • How do users approach the purchase of some products? Of competitor products? Of my products?
  • What are the specific steps and workflows for completing longer-term tasks?
  • How do users use my products – for what occasions? What are potential usage occasions for current non-users of my product?
  • How do users navigate and interact with my piece of software? How learnable and efficient is a system? How would they improve it?
  • How do the needs and requirements change over the course of action/customer journey?



Despite many advantages, there are limitations of online diaries, too.

  • First of all, it is not a quantitative tool, so the sample size is limited. We usually do not recommend having more than 20 participants, but it can be stretched to 30 if needed. For this reason, statistical analysis is theoretically possible but depends on several criteria, so the number and quality of answers should, for example, not be the ultimate goal of the tool.
  • In addition to that, it is, to some extent, not a direct observation of the respondent’s behaviors, experiences and activities, because they are only reported by the user.  This can lead to recall biases and social desirability biases.



Advantages of this methodology vs. other methodologies:

  • The first advantage of the online diary tool is, that there are no geographical limitations as long as the users and participants have a smartphone or a computer. This proves useful to gather information from difficult to recruit populations.
  • Another benefit is, that users can participate when they want and where they want. This ensures a high quality of answers, as participants will take the time to answer questions (they can plan ahead) and can answer in a cozy and comfortable environment.
  • The fact that the moderator is invisible ensures honest answers from users and participants and minimize the Hawthorne effect, which is also positive.
  • In addition to that, online diaries are interactive, so you can probe based on the participant’s answers.
  • Furthermore, everything people say is saved and can be accessed. This has the advantage that you can extract all participants answers at any time during and after the diary.
  • The participants can share screenshots, audio, video and drawings in their diaries, or even interact with a picture or a screenshot, so the next benefit is the huge amount of collected information.
  • Another important advantage is that you can choose to expose participants answers to other participants, e.g. to initiate a discussion.  You can also choose to hide their answers so that participants’ answers remain private, depending on your research needs and the sensitivity of the discussed topic (e.g. cat food vs. digestive disorders).
  • Finally, it is also very beneficial that data can be extracted from the platform and manipulated (for example with filters) or analyzed with the analysis tool offered by the platform.


So, all in all you can see that online diaries can be very useful in a lot of situations, especially if you take the limitations of this methodology into consideration.


Jonathan Singh

Jon conducts UX studies since 2008. His main focus is medical device usability/human factors engineering, among which he has been running human factors studies (formative and summative) for all types of medical devices, but has also been on the other side, being hired as the usability engineer at clients. He has an in-depth knowledge of industry standards and regulations (e.g. FDA guidelines, AAMI HE75, IEC 62366 and EU MDR) and Usability processes. Jon also has extensive experience in digital biomarkers (sensor-based endpoints) and companion health apps. Furthermore, he's interested and experienced in automotive work. Jon co-founded uintent in July 2018 and is based in our Swiss office in Basel.

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