participant diaries


I’ve written a little about this before, but I really love participant diaries!

In qualitative research, you are often trying to understand the lives, experiences and motivations of other people. Through methods like interviews and focus groups, you can get a one-off insight into people’s own descriptions of themselves. If you want to measure change over a period, you need to schedule a series of meetings, and each of which will be limited by what a participant will recall and share.

However, using diary methodologies, you can get a longer and much more regular insight into lived experiences, plus you also change the researcher-participant power dynamic. Interviews and focus groups can sometimes be a bit of an interrogation, with the researcher asking questions, and participants given the role of answering. With diaries, participants can have more autonomy to share what they want, as well as where and when (Meth 2003).

These techniques are also called self-report or ‘Contemporaneous assessment methods’, but there are actually a lot of different ways you can collect diary entries. There are some great reviews of different diary based methods, (eg Bolger et al. 2003), but let’s look at some of the different approaches.

The most obvious is to give people a little journal or exercise book to write in, and ask them to record on a regular basis any aspects of their day that are relevant to your research topic. If they are expected to make notes on the go, make it a slim pocket sized one. If they are going to write a more traditional diary at the end of each day, make a nice exercise book to work in. I’ve actually found that people end up getting quite attached to their diaries, and will often ask for them back. So make sure you have some way to copy or transcribe them and consider offering to return them once you have investigated them, or you could give back a copy if you wish to keep hold of the real thing.


You can also do voice diaries – something I tried in Botswana. We were initially worried that literacy levels in rural areas would mean that participants would either be unable, or reluctant to create written entries. So I offered everyone a small voice recorder, where they could record spoken notes that we would transcribe at the end of the session. While you could give a group of people an inexpensive (~£20) Dictaphone, I actually brought a bunch of cheap no-brand MP3 players which only cost ~£5 each, had a built in voice recorder and headphones, and could work on a single AAA battery (which was easy to find from local shops, since few respondents had electricity for recharging). The audio quality was not great, but perfectly adequate. People really liked these because they could also play music (and had a radio), and they were cheap enough to be lost or left as thank-you gifts at the end of the research.


There is also a large literature on ‘experience sampling’ – where participants are prompted at regular or random intervals to record on what they are doing or how they are feeling at that time. Initially this work was done using pagers, (Larson 1989) when participants would be ‘beeped’ at random times during the day and asked to write down what they were doing at the time. More recent studies have used smartphones to both prompt and directly collect responses (Chen et al. 2014).


Secondly, there is now a lot of online journal research, both researcher solicited as part of a qualitative research project (Kaun 2015), or collected from people’s blogs and social media posts. This is especially popular in market research when looking at consumer behaviour (Patterson 2005), project evaluation (Cohen et al. 2006).


Diary methods can create detailed, and reliable data. One study found that asking participants to record diary entries three times a day to measure stigmatised behaviour like sexual activities found an 89.7% adherence rate (Hensel et al. 2012), far higher than would be expected from traditional survey methods. There is a lot of diary based research in the sexual and mental health literature: for more discussion on the discrepancies and reliability between diary and recall methods, there is a good overview in Coxon (1999) but many studies like Garry et al. (2002) found that diary based methods generated more accurate responses. Note that these kinds of studies tend to be mixed-method, collecting both discrete quantitative data and open ended qualitative comments.


Whatever the method you are choosing, it’s important to set up some clear guidelines to follow. Personally I think either a telephone conversation or face-to-face meeting is a good idea to give a chance for participants to ask questions. If you’ve not done research diaries before, it’s a good idea to pilot them with one or two people to make sure you are briefing people clearly, and they can write useful entries for you. The guidelines, (explained and taped to the inside of the diary) should make it clear:

  • What you are interested in hearing about
  • What it will be used for
  • How often you expect people to write
  • How much they should write
  • How to get in touch with you
  • How long they should be writing entries, and how to return the diary.


Even if you expressly specify that your participants should write their journals should be written everyday for three weeks, you should be prepared for the fact that many won’t manage this. You’ll have some that start well but lapse, others that forget until the end and do it all in the last day before they see you, and everything in-between. You need to assume this will happen with some or all of your respondents, and consider how this is going to affect how you interpret the data and draw conclusions. It shouldn’t necessarily mean that the data is useless, just that you need to be aware of the limitations when analysing it. There will also be a huge variety in how much people write, despite your guidelines. Some will love the experience, sharing volumes of long entries, others might just write a few sentences, which might still be revealing.


For these reasons, diary-like methodologies are usually used in addition to other methods, such as semi-structured interviews (Meth 2003), or detailed surveys. Diaries can be used to triangulate claims made by respondents in different data sources (Schroder 2003) or provide more richness and detail to the individual narrative. From the researchers point of view, the difference between having data where a respondent says they have been bullied, and having an account of a specific incident recorded that day is significant, and gives a great amount of depth and illumination into the underlying issues.


Qualitative software - Quirkos


However, you also need to carefully consider the confidentiality and other ethical issues. Often participants will share a lot of personal information in diaries, and you must agree how you will deal with this and anonymise it for your research. While many respondents find keeping a qualitative diary a positive and reflexive process, it can be stressful to ask people in difficult situations to reflect on uncomfortable issues. There is also the risk that the diary could be lost, or read by other people mentioned in it, creating a potential disclosure risk to participants. Depending on what you are asking about, it might be wise to ask participants themselves to create anonymised entries, with pseudo-names and places as they write.


Last, but not least, what about your own diary? Many researchers will keep a diary, journal or ‘field notes’ during the research process (Altricher and Holly 2004), which can help provide context and reflexivity as well as a good way of recording thoughts on ideas and issues that arise during the data collection process. This is also a valuable source of qualitative data itself, and it’s often useful to include your journal in the analysis process – if not coded, then at least to remind you of your own reflections and experiences during the research journey.


So how can you analyse the text of your participant diaries? In Quirkos of course! Quirkos takes all the basics you need to do qualitative analysis, and puts it in a simple, and easy to use package. Try for yourself with a free trial, or find out more about the features and benefits.


Tags : participantdiariesmethodologiesresearchqualitativejournals