Category B: Diaries

Category B: Diaries

What is it?

Diaries are a documentation of a user’s experiences over a period of time where the experiences are described or rated on different scales. The method is useful if you need direct knowledge about the preferences and behavior of users over a longer period of time but can’t be physically present with them for that period of time.

How is it done?

Limit the challenge to a field of inquiry

You begin by finding out exactly what you want to know something about.

Find the informants

Your informants are the people whose experiences you want to see documented.

Prepare the diary package

This package contains a diary and an instruction. The instruction describes what you want to see documented and for how long. It should also contain instructions on how you want the informants to complete the diary. Make sure the instructions are accurate and don’t demand too much from your informants. The diary should only contain relevant information.

Hand out instructions and diary

Set up a meeting with the informants and make sure they understand the assignment.

Collect the diaries and analyze them

After a suitable interval, you collect the diaries and read them. Use direct quotes and gather the opinions that the informants agree upon. What does the informants tell you about your field of inquiry?

Use your new knowledge

The insights from the diaries can be used as grounds for decision-making or further ethnographic inquiries.

What does it take?

Time frame

Diaries can be conducted effectively in 1 week. Preparing the instructions and the diary itself takes about 2-3 hours.


  • Instructions for filling out the diary.
  • The diary itself.
  • A computer and a whiteboard for gathering quotes and main points and for establishing a general view of the material.


The method takes 1-2 employees. They don’t necessarily need to have any specific skills.



Emily works for a car rental company. She hands out the keys for the cars and receives them again once the rental is over. The company has many different types of cars and the customers have to choose for themselves, which kind they need. However, Emily’s supervisor is not sure that the range of cars accurately reflects the customers’ needs so Emily suggests using diaries to find out if they need to make adjustments to the motor pool.


Emily and her colleague develop a diary with different text boxes to be filled out depending on the use of the rented car. If the car is rented for business, they have to fill out the boxes about comfort, mileage and cargo storage. If the car is rented to families, they have to fill out the boxes about noise levels, kilometers driven per day and safety features. Emily and her colleague make sure it’s not too much work to complete the diary from day to day. They hand out the diaries to everyone renting a car for a week to be returned with the car a week later.


After collecting the diaries they read them and compare the experiences described in the text boxes with the different types of cars. From the material they find that most family cars are more popular with the business clients. They are more comfortable despite a poorer mileage.


Based on the diary results, Emily suggests a faster replacement of the cars in the motor pool. This will enable them to stay attentive to the needs of their clients and shape their services according to them.

More on the method

This method is especially effective in combination with other ethnographic methods such as cultural probes or semi-structured interviews .

Further readings on diaries:

Kelley, Tom (2005) – Ten Faces of Innovation –Currency: Doubleday

Myers, Michael D. (2008) – Qualitative Research in Business and Management – UK: Sage Publications