Posted by: bbannan | March 16, 2009

Diary studies – Terri Ann

In the article, “Diary Studies as a Tool for Efficient Cross-Cultural Design”

(available at http://www.amber, Robert Gillham supports diary studies as a cost-efficient and rich way of extracting usability data in human-computer interaction from cross-cultural audiences.  According to the author, diaries combine the benefits of usability testing and ethnographic studies.  It offers insight into the context that surrounds the use of a product (the ethnographic half), as well as raw data into the actual use of the product (the usability half).


Usability testing via diaries is of particular benefit when testing products with international audiences.  A traditional lab-based usability test is a contrived situation, the design of which is often influenced by Western culture that may noticeably impact the performance of a research participant from another culture. Ethnographic studies involve detailed observations of international audiences within their own context.  This may provide more accurate insights into the use of the product, but conducting an ethnographic study can be very time consuming and costly.


The advantages of a diary study include reduced cost (teams are not required to observe the participants in person), and rich data extraction (we see both actions and context).  As you read through this article, compare and contrast what the author writes with the articles we read on multicultural teams and multicultural considerations.  Do you feel, as the author does, that diary studies are a viable method for running cost-effective and rich multicultural usability studies?  Are there considerations that the author did not include?  If so, what else should be considered when running a multicultural usability study using the diary method?


Finally, an apology in advance anyone of South American descent regarding one of the comments made by the author on page 6.



  1. Terri Ann, this is a very timely blog for me because I have been asked by another group to keep a diary regarding my website use and I didn’t really understand this methodology. This helped me understand the cost benefits of this type of approach over a specific time period and I can also see how it provides valuable feedback on how the user’s interest and knowledge evolves regarding a website. Thanks, you have motivated me to be more attentive to the diary that I have been asked to maintain.

  2. Who among us has not kept a diary at one time or another? We each have the urge to define a small mark on the time we have, and to hope that others will remember us through that mark. People have been using this form of memory for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The use of penned memory is one of the best methods for determining what has occurred during a given period in a person’s life. It is rich with memory, concise with perception, and usually given with freedom.

    A diary, no matter the home of the keeper, tends to be very much the same. It is a chronological log of the experiences, questions, fears, expectations, and results that person has experienced during a span of time. For this reason, the use of a diary during design and development of an end-product of any kind is a rich look into the mind of the subject who is given the chance to interact with it. Unlike more formal testing, where the tester may unwittingly cause results that are skewed, simply having the subject record their thoughts and reactions to the item presented can ensure that the results will be as unbiased as possible.

    For this reason, it is important that the design of a ‘guided’ diary be as non-directing as possible. With minimal instructions regarding what is wanted, the subject is then free to explore and comment on their findings without worry they are giving ‘wrong’ answers.

    This look into the mind of the user can almost always lead to information useful to the designer, and ultimately, useful to the intended user population.

  3. Nancy – That’s so funny that you should mention that, given that I’m from the group that has asked you to keep a diary of web use. 🙂

    Ed – I agree with your post, with one caveat. While I do agree that it must be made very clear that there are no “wrong” answers, it’s still important to provide guidance on the type of information that will help drive design. It’s tricky to do this without actively coaching the kind of responses one might like to see. I have to wonder if there are ways to address this, either by having a larger pool, a longer diary period, or accepting that some of the data may not be useful for a current study, but may be of use in related studies.

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