A Closer Look at Diary Studies with Children and Teenagers

Designing for Children

Early engagement in the digital world

July 9, 2012

Diary studies have been a traditional research method in the behavioral and social sciences for many years. More recently, the fields of user experience, human-computer interaction, and design research have also adopted diary studies as a method of collecting user insights during the product development process.

Diary studies are self-reporting research exercises, in which participants periodically log entries describing their experiences with a particular task, product, or activity in their lives. Researchers conduct these studies over a fixed period of time that can last for a couple of days or a few weeks or even extend over months.

Conducting diary studies with younger demographics can be a challenging endeavor. In this column, I will describe the process of preparing for and conducting these types of research activities with children, pre-teens, and teenagers.

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When to Use Diary Studies

You can use diary studies at the following stages in a product development cycle:

  • at the beginning of the design process—Diary studies help you to generate insights for initial ideation activities.
  • at late-stage design iterations—During the development process, you can do diary studies once high-fidelity mockups or live code exist and the design is at a stage when users can use a prototype without needing guidance—for example, an online game after its beta launch.

  • at the post-launch stage—When a product is already live and you need to do qualitative research to learn how and why participants are using certain features, do a diary study.

Diary studies are generally part of larger research initiatives. Sometimes researchers pair up this approach with larger quantitative data analysis methods to dig deeper into users’ particular behaviors, motivations, and perceptions. At other times, they serve as homework exercises and provide the basis for in-person research sessions.

What Format Works Best When Doing Research with Young Demographics?

Your choices include the following formats:

  • paper diaries
  • digital diaries, using
    • mobile or personal computing platforms
    • social networking platforms
    • texts and email messages

Paper Diaries

Paper diaries can be fun to complete for younger kids, in the age range between 6 and 9 years of age. However, these need to be in the form of activity books, workbooks, or explorer journals that support journaling activities with which children are already familiar. They may contain additional elements that add fun to the experience such as stickers, badges, images, or arts and crafts materials.

Generally, using paper diary studies with young children is more effective in the generative stages of a product development process, when the design team is looking for insights with which to start an ideation process from scratch.

What you need to account for:

  • children’s ages and their cognitive and physical abilities—For example, are they able to read or communicate by drawing? Before preparing the diary for a study, it is helpful to read about child development stages and get inspiration from the activity books children currently use at the different age ranges. This helps you to define the kinds of activities to include in a diary that would help to answer your team’s larger research questions.
  • involvement of caregivers—Young kids would likely need to partner with their parents or caregivers to complete the study activities. Therefore, you need to plan for tasks and questions that involve both parents and children and can yield informative insights from both sides. You might also consider combining different activities for parents and children—for example, setting up email entries for parents, in combination with an activity book for the children.
  • time constraints—Preparing paper diaries for children is time consuming. You need to allocate time for the preparation of tasks and activities, questions and instructions, book design and production.
  • delivery of the materials—You should make it easy for participants to receive and send back the diaries and any additional materials to your research team. Generally, children get excited when a package arrives in their mailbox with their name on it—so if possible, try mailing the diary directly to the child.

Digital Diaries

You can conduct digital diary studies in a variety of formats. This is generally a good approach to use when working with children above 10 years of age, under the supervision of their caregivers. While these studies can be faster and more convenient to set up than paper diary studies, it can be challenging to obtain permission from parents to conduct a digital study with their children, because of privacy concerns and digital safety risks.

Therefore, it is imperative to keep parents or caregivers involved during all stages of the process. Here are some important guidelines to follow:

  • Set up an in-person visit with the adults and children, and provide all of the necessary legal documentation, as well as proof that you are a researcher working for an established company. If possible, you should meet with them at the company’s headquarters or in a place where they feel comfortable meeting you.
  • Describe what the project is about in depth, the activities that both parents and children would perform, how you’ll use the data that you obtain, and how you’ll communicate with the child and the adults throughout the process.
  • If an older child can complete the diary by himself or herself, you should still be sure to keep parents involved. Let them know how the process is going and provide examples of the types of responses you are receiving from the child. In these cases, you can use other forms of research to include the parents’ perspective if it is relevant to a project—for example, interviews or surveys.
  • Be sure to manage everyone’s expectations. How much involvement should parents have in a child’s completing the diary? How many times a day or week should they log entries and when? Let them know how the platform you are using works, too.

Now, let’s explore some of the formats you can choose to use when conducting digital diary studies.

Mobile or Personal Computing Platforms

There are many tools you can employ when conducting diary studies online using a computer or smartphone. Useful features include the ability to create entries with text, images, and even video. Some platforms also provide convenient tools that help a researcher sort through all the data and reduce analysis time.

These platforms usually require some initial setup and the creation of user credentials. Some examples include Revelation and DScout.

General guidelines to keep in mind include the following:

  • For children between 10 and 13 years of age, these studies need to be conducted in partnership with their parents or caregivers.
  • Children who are between 13 and 16 years old might be able to complete the diary on their own, but their parents might restrict their time online, and their access to computers or smartphones might be limited. It is important to work together with their parents to understand their family routines and restrictions.
  • Teenagers who are 16 years of age and older might have fewer restrictions on Internet access or their use of digital devices, but it is still important to follow any parental or legal guidance that is in place and work around those constraints.
  • For mobile studies, you should design questions or tasks in a way that doesn’t require typing lengthy answers. Most participants are not comfortable typing long paragraphs of text on a mobile device, and the nature of the device sets their expectation for quick check-ins rather than long, written self-reflections.

Social Networking Platforms

Recently, researchers have been experimenting with using social networking platforms such as Twitter, Tumblr, Posterous, and Facebook for user research. These are naturally engaging ways for younger audiences to log daily or weekly entries about their life experiences in the form of snippets.

However, because of age restrictions and privacy policies, you should use these platforms with participants who are older than 16 years of age. Parents should still be able to monitor the study.

If possible, work with platforms that the participants currently use, so they already understand how they work. Furthermore, best practice dictates that a researcher create new accounts for study participants and set up all of the privacy controls that are necessary to make sure participants’ responses do? not get broadcasted to the public. Once you’ve done this, clearly communicate to both the participants and their parents that you’ve taken care of all safety measures and will delete the accounts once the study ends.

Texts and Email Messages

Teens and pre-teens who have access to cell phones are generally heavy texters. This is a preferred method of communication at this age and one that youngsters feel very comfortable with when communicating experiences on the spot. However, there are two main challenges when using texting for user research: parental permission and controlling the quality of the entries. Most teens quickly text short messages that might or might not offer insights.

On the other hand, this demographic does not typically use email, so completing an email diary study may require a bit more of participants’ downtime. Therefore, this method works better when asking participants to recall and reflect on experiences that happened during their day or week rather than as they happen.

Parents may also have concerns about their children using email as a research tool. You can mitigate their concerns by creating new email accounts for the study, then deleting them once your study concludes; as well as by periodically communicating with the parents so they can monitor how the study is going.

Some Final Points to Keep in Mind

There are many general guidelines to keep in mind when conducting diary studies. The list of recommended reading at the end of this column provides links to some of them.

Some of these guidelines become especially relevant when participants are children or teenagers—particularly the following:

  • participation incentives—Diary studies require a good amount of effort on the part of participants. The effort might be greater for young participants. Be sure to offer fair compensation to both parents and children, according to their involvement in the project.
  • recruitment of participants—Since diary studies last for a fixed period of time, there is a good chance that some participants might drop out of the study because of unexpected time constraints. Therefore, it is important that you recruit additional participants in proportion to the number of responses you want to receive. Since diary studies involve both parents and children in different ways, you would ideally conduct these types of studies during weekends or school breaks.
  • clear communication throughout the study—It is important for you to set participants’ expectations for the study correctly by specifying the minimum and maximum numbers of entries they should log during a specific time period. You should also continually follow up with participants regarding the entries they are posting—both to guide them in the right direction and to thank them for their hard work.

Diaries Studies Are Just One Step in a Research Process

As I mentioned earlier, diary studies are generally part of a larger research effort. Once the diaries are complete and you’ve performed your initial analysis, you should select some of the participants who provided the best responses for an in-person follow-up session. This is especially important when working with the younger children, because you might have a greater need to hear both their and their caregivers’ explanations of their entries and learn about the context in which they produced them.

Depending on the nature of your research project and the ages of the participants, you might want to ask both parents and their children to participate in these on-site sessions. You can conduct research sessions with teens and pre-teens alone, while their parents wait nearby. Activities that take place at this stage can include any relevant qualitative research methods such as interviews, participatory design, or cognitive walkthroughs. 

Further Reading

Houck-Whitaker, Julia. “Using Digital Diary Studies to Understand the Customer Experience.” Effective UI Blog, March 29, 2012. Retrieved July 6, 2012.

Karis, Demetrios. “Diary Studies in HCI and Psychology: Why They Are Useful and How to Conduct Them.” UPA Boston’s Tenth Annual Mini UPA Conference, May 25, 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2012.

Sapounakis, Erietta. “The Dos and Don’ts of Diary Studies.” Eri on the Interweb, July 10, 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2012.

Senior User Experience Researcher & Manager at Google

San Francisco, California, USA

Catalina Naranjo-BockA UX designer and researcher, Catalina specializes in the development of ideal experiences for children and young audiences for both tangible products and interactive applications. She has collaborated on children’s media and toy design with creative departments in numerous firms, in the US, Europe, and South America. In a variety of design-related contexts. Catalina has served as adjunct faculty, guest speaker, invited author, and international juror. Catalina holds a BFA in Industrial and Digital Design and an MFA in User Experience Design and Research from The Ohio State University.  Read More

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