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Using Digital Diaries as a Research Method for Capturing Practices in Situ

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  • University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

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Digital diaries emerge as viable methods for capturing situated practices in research participants' natural environments. In this chapter, we review what has been learned about the affordances of diary studies from various research traditions and describe our use of the digital diary method in different research contexts. We specifically explore the use of digital diaries by drawing on the application of the method in studying nomadic work practices and how it helped reveal contextual details of nomadic work. In doing so, we outline an 'interposed approach' where diary studies are preceded and succeeded by interviews with participants. Finally, we describe practical opportunities and challenges of conducting digital diaries.
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Using Digital Diaries as a Research Method for Capturing
Practices in Situ
Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi, Cami Goray, Stephanie Zirker, and Yinglong Zhang
Author version of the following book chapter: Jarrahi, M.H., Goay, C., Zirker, S., & Zhang, Y.
(2021). Using Digital Diaries as a Research Method for Capturing Practices in Situ. In G. Symon.,
K. Prichard., & C. Hine (Eds.), Research Methods for Digital Work and Organization: Investigating
Distributed, Multi-Modal, and Mobile Work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Abstract
Digital diaries emerge as viable methods for capturing situated practices in research participants’
natural environments. In this chapter, we review what has been learned about the affordances of
diary studies from various research traditions and describe our use of the digital diary method in
different research contexts. We specifically explore the use of digital diaries by drawing on the
application of the method in studying nomadic work practices and how it helped reveal contextual
details of nomadic work. In doing so, we outline an ‘interposed approach’ where diary studies are
preceded and succeeded by interviews with participants. Finally, we describe practical opportunities
and challenges of conducting digital diaries.
Keywords: Digital diaries, interposed approach, situated practices, nomadic work, digital
infrastructures
Introduction
Qualitative methods have helped researchers study the way social activities unfold in real-world
contexts. However, methods such as interviews are often criticized for recall bias and for
inadequately accounting for situated practices (Warner et al., 2005). Ethnographic methods such as
shadowing have been more effective in helping researchers observe participants and their situated
practices in the context of work or personal life (Quinlan, 2008). However, there are limits to how and
where methods involving direct observation can be used. In particular, direct observation methods
are less effective when the observation may need to span multiple contexts (e.g., research foci that
span home and work). In such situations, following and observing the participant through direct and
traditional means tends to be unfeasible.
Diary studies are commonly used in computing-centered disciplines such as human-computer
interaction and information retrieval and can be a pragmatic solution to this limitation. Diary studies
are known for their high ecological value (Czerwinski et al., 2004), affording the collection of data in
the context of participants’ natural environment (Elsweiler et al., 2010), and giving insights into
habits, behaviours and situational decisions over time (Bolger et al., 2003).
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Diary studies offer three commonly acknowledged affordances: ‘in situity’, context specificity and
longitudinality (Flaherty, 2016). In situity refers to the quality of being in individuals’ daily practices
and focuses on understanding what workers actually do in practice to accomplish work (Brandt et al.,
2007). Context specificity means information on habits, practices, attitudes and motivations is
collected within the context in which they unfold; and these contexts come with unique institutional
and social dynamics (Janssens et al., 2018). The diary study brings subtle observations to light by
encouraging participants to reflect on many elements of their environment as events occur.
Longitudinality means the diary study approach typically evaluates a research phenomenon over a
period of time (Church et al., 2014).
In this chapter, we review affordances of diary studies from various research traditions and describe
how we incorporated the diary study method into our research projects. In outlining opportunities and
challenges of diary studies, we reflect on our combined empirical projects, within which we used a
major diary study component to study multiple research contexts: nomadic workers’ use of
technologies, users’ response to digital distractions produced from mobile technology, remote work
context and users’ information search behaviours for creative tasks. To provide a more detailed case
study in the context of work and organizing, we specifically build on the use of the method for
capturing mobile work practices of nomadic workers. In the project described here, we specifically
focused on the ways nomadic workers engage in on-the-go solutions that enable them to anticipate
or respond to situational contingencies and challenges of mobile work. Our premise is the digital
diary method provides a useful means to capture some of these situated strategies.
Traditionally, organizational research has relied on a narrow set of diary study research methods.
Many diaries have incorporated quantitative data collection, such as surveys, that workers complete
in their work settings (Ohly et al., 2010). These studies have often been used for testing causal
relationships among variables, particularly in relation to the psychological state of employees (e.g.,
Peiró et al., 2019; Stollberger & Debus, 2019). However, in our application of diary studies, we
integrated both multiple-choice and open-ended questions to explore the work context. This chapter
offers a much-needed practical guide on conducting diary studies. Few writings in the past have
focused on the ‘utility’ of diary studies, including benefits and lessons learned (Janssens et al.,
2018).
Nomadic Work
The ubiquity of digital infrastructures and changing norms of work has contributed to the rise of
nomadic work (Sørensen, 2011). One of the key dimensions of this flexible work environment is
spatial flexibility through which workers are enabled to untether themselves from fixed office spaces
and work across various locations (Spinuzzi, 2015). As a result, the number of nomadic workers (as
both independent workers and organizational members) is expanding rapidly and mobile, remote
work manifests itself as a defining element of emerging knowledge-intensive work (IDC, 2013). Many
workers are increasingly becoming ‘nomadic’ (Ciolfi & de Carvalho, 2014), travelling long distances,
sometimes lacking a stable workplace or organization to which they are tied, and having the
responsibility to manage and carry their resources as they move about (Jarrahi & Thomson, 2017).
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In our case study, we examined the ways through which digital infrastructures shape different types
of nomadic work. Such work involves the unpredictability of working in unfamiliar territories; nomadic
workers have to constantly navigate and adopt strategies to overcome spatial challenges such as
lack of access to work-related information resources or internet connections in different locales
(Costas, 2013; Jarrahi & Thomson, 2017). Due to the fluid nature of these practices, with frequently
altering social and environmental factors (Ciolfi & de Carvalho, 2014), conventional and widely used
(qualitative) research methods are less applicable and useful (Merriman, 2014). For example,
mobility and shifting work environments constrain researchers’ ability to follow and observe nomadic
workers over an extended period of time. Diary studies partly address the challenge of capturing
nomadic practices by allowing research participants to self-report on their activities almost
immediately after occurrence, helping them to provide a more accurate perspective on their situated
activity.
Methods of Diary Collection
There have been many attempts to formalize diary data collection for research purposes. For
example, as a systematic method of diary collection, Experience Sampling Method (ESM) enables
participants to respond to repeated assessments at random times during their everyday lives
(Scollon et al., 2009). ESMs are systematic reports and are useful for exploring person-situation
interactions (Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014; Roig-Maimó et al., 2018). ESM questions about
participants’ emotional states usually come in a structured quantitative form, like a Likert scale.
Multiple modes have been used to record and collect diary entries. For example, in the field of
human-computer interaction (HCI), different approaches and tools have been explored to log users’
activities. Table 1 (below) summarizes some of these methods and highlights useful examples of
their application.
TABLE 1. Modes of Data Collection in Digital Diary Studies
Form of Data
Collection
Example study
Pros
Cons
Spreadsheet
Czerwinski et al. (2004)
Efficient for logging
detailed information
Automatically
organizes responses
Limited ability to
capture multi-modal
snippets
Text
messaging/email
Brandt et al. (2007)
Convenient for
participants to fill out
in the moment
Do not require as
much effort as
voicemail or video
diaries
Participants cannot
see their diary
history
The messages
have to be
formatted and
reposted so
participants can
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Texts and emails can
be automatically
distributed
review responses
later
Responses are not
stored in a central
location like a
spreadsheet
Voicemail
Palen and Salzman
(2002)
Natural way for
participant to record
observations
Does not work well
for unstructured
responses
Can become
tedious for the
participant to
record
Lack of privacy for
the participant
depending on their
location
Photo Diary
Shankar et al. (2018)
Photos provide rich
information about the
user’s environment (“a
picture is worth a
thousand words”)
Photos are useful for
stimulating recall from
post-diary interviews
because they provide
a tangible prompt
Can be used more
clandestinely than
audio
Photos lead to
inconsistency of
responses in the
data analysis
phase.
Researchers need
to label and
organize content
Video Diary
Iivari et al (2014)
Captures naturally
occurring, real-time
events and activities
as well as tacit or
unacknowledged
actions that would not
be recalled in videos
or interviews
Video diaries are a
more natural way of
capturing participant
expressions and
emotions
Like the photo
diary, captures the
symbolic and tacit
aspects of the
experience through
visual framing
More difficult to
analyze. It can be
time consuming for
both participants
and researchers to
review video
content. Unlike a
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By rewatching the
video, the participant
or researcher can
‘revisit the field’
Participant acts as the
narrator. Diaries give
participants a voice to
express themselves
and promote reflection
Participants have
more control over the
data collection
process. They can
retake the video
spreadsheet,
researchers cannot
conduct a query
search in a video
Videos can be an
intrusive
technology
It is important to note that these approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and participants
can be provided with multiple channels to share their diaries (Brandt et al., 2007). In addition, many
forms of diary studies have enabled participants to share multiple forms of data (Chen et al., 2019).
For example, Sun et al. (2011) enabled participants to enter notes, take photographs, make
annotations on the photographs, or record and share video clips or voice recordings depending on
the experience they wanted to capture. The pervasive use of smart mobile devices enables “digital
diary” studies, recording and integrating different forms of digital data across various platforms (Liao
et al., 2014; Sun et al., 2013). Table 2 provides an overview of distinct characteristics of digital
diaries. Table 2 lists the key features of digital diaries that distinguish them from non-digital formats.
Digital diary studies provide researchers with new opportunities to elicit, manipulate, and store data
during the data collection and data analysis phases. Because the diaries can generate real-time
feedback of participant activity, the digital format lends itself to better collaboration between research
team members and between researchers and participants.
TABLE 2. Key Features of Digital Diaries
Data Collection
Affords richness of data through
multimedia/multisensory data collection
(photo, video diary studies)
Immediacy and convenience of
recording data (text/email, photo, video
studies)
Editorial power - participants can re-
record responses
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Remote data collection - researchers
can more easily monitor participants'
responses online
An Interposed Approach to Diary Study
Depending on the research objective, a diary study can be an element that complements other data
collection approaches within a larger research project. We specifically used an interposed approach,
through which the diary study was preceded and succeeded by interviews with the same participants
(see Figure 1). In other words, the research participants took part in the first interview, went through
a diary study, and were then interviewed again after the diary data were analysed.
The first interview (lasting one hour on average) helped us elicit 1) a detailed picture of the
professional’s fields, responsibilities, arrangements, and workspaces, 2) general patterns of spatial
mobility, 3) each participant's interaction with various digital infrastructures and tools, and 4)
challenges and opportunities affiliated with a nomadic lifestyle and the way these may shape
adoption of digital technology. After the analysis of diary entries (more details are provided below),
we conducted the second round of interviews, which were typically shorter, more targeted and
individualized. Like the first interviews, the post-diary interviews were semi-structured; the
observations from the analysis of the diary study served as starting points for probing questions. The
participants were occasionally asked to clarify their notes or give specific details. The questions for
the second interviews were more specific in that we examined 1) complementary elements: things
that were observed in the diary study and were not mentioned in the first interview, and 2)
contradictory elements: things that may have looked somewhat different from the general themes of
the interview (a thematic analysis). Together, the two interviews and the interposed diary study
provided a rich foray into the mobile work practices of each participant.
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Figure 1: An interposed approach towards diary study
Procedure
Our initial interview sample consisted of 37 nomadic workers, selected based on their extensive
mobile work style (people who were mobile for a good share of their week). The first set of interviews
with these participants were in-depth and semi-structured. This was followed with a digital diary
study with 12 of the participants, selected from the larger pool of interview participants based on our
interest in their specific types of mobility (e.g., regular mobility between states in the U.S. vs.
constant mobility across several buildings on a daily basis), unique work practices (e.g., the habit of
working on the move), unique technology uses (e.g., interesting patterns of public infrastructure
utilization) as well as their willingness to partake in an extended diary study.
The protocol for the diary study was designed based on a holistic analysis of the first round of
interviews as well as the prior work on nomadic work practices (e.g., Costas, 2013; Jarrahi et al.,
2019). Our thematic analysis of the interviews resulted in general themes that defined the
relationship between digital infrastructures and mobile work practices but also issues that required
further verifications; for example, a list of places frequented by nomadic workers or core
technological infrastructures that undergird mobile work. Consequently, for diary entries we used a
questionnaire about work activities and specific uses of digital technologies; participants were able to
share relevant photos of their work environment, power sources and digital devices (see the
appendix for more details). These questions covered what work had been occupying our
participants’ time and what technologies they had been using.
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The questionnaire was a mix of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, and took, on average, 10
minutes to complete. A member of the research team emailed a link to the diary study participants
twice a day for 7-10 days. Reminders were sent if the participants failed to submit diaries. The diary
study was hosted on Qualtrics
1
, which allowed the participants to complete it on their computers or
mobile devices. Participants were asked to complete both diary entries per day during the duration of
the study. Participants were compensated $3 per entry, given by gift card after the completion of the
diary collection (e.g., 2 entries per day for 7 days = $42 gift card). They were also compensated $30
for participating in the second interview. Overall, the participant found this approach reasonable and
aligned with their busy schedule. Multiple research questions were easy to handle and sending
photos were easily done through the application. Reminders and other forms of communication with
participants facilitated their participation by keeping them on track. We did not encounter any attrition
among participants in the digital diary study as expectations were made clear before the study
started.
Analysis of Diary Entries
Mintzberg (2019) speaks to the challenges associated with analysing and managing data obtained in
a diary study. The diary study provides the benefit of flexibility in responses; however, the variation
in participants’ experiences can lead to challenges in categorizing the responses accurately and in
deriving meaningful conclusions. In standalone diary studies, categories are often developed as
observation takes place; Mintzberg argues in his structured observation approach that this can
enable the researcher to have adaptability in their analysis to accommodate new themes and
categories.
In the study outlined here, analysis of diary entries revolved around two objectives: 1) contributing to
the overall analysis of the use and affordances of digital infrastructures in the nomadic context, and
2) illuminating situated perspectives of each individual participant. Both objectives were tied to the
role of diary studies as a complementary method of data collection. Pursuing the first objective, we
used themes emerging from the diary entries to complement and validate findings from the first set
of interviews. In addition, analysis of diary studies helped develop new, targeted questions for the
second round of interviews (post-diary interview), which were focused on individual habits, practices,
and technology uses.
What the Diary Revealed
Use of digital diaries provided opportunities to collect data about participants’ situated practices in
naturalistic settings and over an extended period of time (Grinter & Eldridge, 2001). The data
collected through the diary study were closer to the actual unfolding of events that were of interest to
us. For example, participants were enabled to report on infrastructural breakdown in their volatile
work environments (e.g., when digital infrastructure stopped working or connecting to other
infrastructures), and they could inform us about strategies they used to handle these moments. In
practice theory, which informed this project, moments of breakdowns are often considered some of
the most effective ways of observing how work practices are enacted and transformed; these are
often referred to as instances of “practice making” (Nicolini et al., 2004).
1
https://www.qualtrics.com/
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In particular, in this study, the diary study extended findings from interviews by providing more
details on situated technology practices. The diary study also enabled us to contextualize these
practices across different spaces, examining how participants mobilize their work practices beyond
their home or corporate offices, and various technological and non-technological strategies to deal
with spatial constraints. For example, one of the diary entries provided a detailed perspective on
space-driven technological constraints and how the participant worked around them: “I wanted to
use my VPN (called Witopia) while I connected to the public WiFi at Starbucks, but it made the
connection so slow it was basically unusable. I needed to do some sensitive stuff online (logging into
PayPal and Xero to take care of some invoicing and accounting), so I decided to use the hotspot
from my cell phone’s data plan instead, which I understand is more secure than public WiFi. Then, to
avoid using too much data, I switched back to using the Starbucks public WiFi once I was done with
the more sensitive stuff.”
In her diary posting, one of the participants provided an interesting perspective on a slice of her work
context, detailing temporal challenges of working across two countries remotely: “Today was just
really busy with a lot of different requests and things to tend to. Being in a different time zone from
what I'm used to, it can be hard to balance life here and non-work things with work as I shut down
before a lot of the people in RTP [Research Triangle Park, North Carolina] do.” In another diary
posting, she went on to describe the infrastructural challenge and practices affiliated with this form of
hypermobility: “I have one phone that I am using with an international SIM card and my regular
phone that I can use on WiFi. In Ireland, there are some places that don't have readily available
public WiFi, which makes it difficult to connect at times. However, they are very far ahead technology
wise in other aspects; the public buses have WiFi which allows me to message and do work on my
phone while in transit.”
In addition, the diary study helped us to establish a more holistic perspective on the inventory of
diverse devices and technologies utilized by each participant. We built on and contributed to the
concept of ‘artefact ecologies’ from the research on activity-centric computing to conceptualize the
way participants brought together various tools and technologies in the form of an ecology of various
artefacts to support their different work activities (for more details see Jarrahi et al., 2017).
Serendipitous Findings
The English language adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” has some truth here. As the next
two examples demonstrate, important elements of situated practices can be captured in the form of
photos submitted from workplaces and work activities. Such richness is often absent in traditional in-
depth interviews. In addition, given that following certain subjects in a nomadic work setting is not
possible given their high level of mobility, photos can substitute direct observation to some degree.
As previously noted, interviews are susceptible to recall bias; furthermore, participants may not
reveal things that could be considered salient by the investigators for two reasons 1) these
interesting points could be driven by situated, tacit practices of the participants, and they may hence
be less aware of the occurrences, and 2) the participant could be well aware of them but does not
find them necessarily as important or central to their work. Our use of diaries provided some
serendipitous findings that later resulted in interesting conversations with the participants in the
second interviews. For example, one of the participants submitted the following image (Figure 2) as
part of one of his diary postings from a coffee shop. The device plugged into his laptop grabbed our
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attention, even though he had not brought it up when describing his technology practices in public
places in the first interview. The second interview enabled us to enquire about it; he described it as a
USB-powered firewall that provides a secure use of WiFi in public places and protection from
intruders who may intercept his traffic in these locations.
Figure 2. A photo of artefact ecology in a coffee shop
Diary Study Opportunities and Best Practices
Even in our own work we experimented with different uses of diary study as a research instrument.
In order to mitigate gaps in certain approaches and to reveal various benefits and challenges of diary
studies, we dedicate the following section to common opportunities and challenges discussed in the
current literature or observed across our different research projects.
Capturing Shifting Context
For research contexts that are not location-bound and that stretch beyond a specific or single
time/place, a diary study can provide a pragmatic (and more affordable) alternative to more well-
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known ethnographic approaches (Gillham, 2005). Here, the nomadic work involves frequently
shifting social and spatial context (Ciolfi & de Carvalho, 2014), making direct observation hard. In
this context, the diary study offered a different lens into the workday of these workers, enabling us to
capture how they may accomplish work across different locations and times.
Balance Between Open-ended and Simple Questions
For qualitative research, a mix of open-ended and simple questions can provide both rich insight and
ease of participation. Multiple-choice questions help capture the information that is central to the
study (e.g., list of central places from which nomadic work is accomplished). Multiple-choice
questions help ensure the documentation of experiences and events that seem ‘trivial’ or may not be
intuitive to participants (Brandt et al., 2007).
At the same, the diary can provide avenues for sharing thoughts and observations that cannot be
captured in multiple-choice questions, but that the participant finds interesting and helpful. Open-
ended questions lend that flexibility. An example of an open-ended question is: “Please elaborate on
any technological problems selected in the previous question” (see the appendix for more details).
Mitigating Recall Bias
As noted, one of the key challenges of interviews is the recall bias. Holistic analysis of diaries or
specific examples from the diary postings (e.g., a photo or note about a problem) can help alleviate
recall bias (Barriage & Hicks, 2020; Shankar et al., 2018). In the second interview, the concrete
findings from the diary study can help participants to refresh their memory and focus on instances of
events or issues that were missed in the first interview. In our research project, when we asked
participants to recount important things such as search behaviours in their creative projects, high-
level diary data (e.g., summaries of what had been done each day, challenges reported each day)
helped participants recall what they did in their daily projects. In future studies, data visualizations
could also be considered helpful in facilitating the conversation with the participant in the second
interview.
The Snippet Technique
Prevalence of mobile technologies is a catalyst for increased use of diary studies (Janssens et al.,
2018; Nelson et al., 2017). However, in mobile contexts, participants may be more likely to view the
process as a hassle and can struggle with remembering to provide information on the go (Brandt et
al., 2007). In this context, the ‘snippet technique’ can serve as a useful strategy. The technique was
first introduced by Brandt et al. (2007) as a way to optimize the benefits of diary studies in a mobile
setting and to alleviate the burden on participants. In this approach, participants only submit small
‘snippets’ of information at the time they occur; an event-contingent protocol in which entries are
triggered by the occurrence of an event (Bolger et al., 2003). Entries are compiled, entered and
stored on a website or in a database. Participants have the opportunity to later review the entries at
a time that is convenient to them and provide additional clarifying information or details if needed. As
an example, the snippet technique was used by Church et al. (2014) in their ‘Large-Scale Study of
Daily Information Needs Captured In Situ‘ and provided the basis for analysis of over 12,000 text
messages.
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In another of our own research projects on remote working, we used the ‘snippet technique’ to
maximize participation because these workers had a busy schedule which required frequent
movement. In this project, to adapt to varying remote work schedules and habits, participants had
the option of sending ‘snippets’ in their chosen manner throughout the day by text, voicemail, a
phone conversation, email, or another method suggested by the participant (individual participants
were able to select their own method). A manual approach was used in that diary entries were
maintained locally in a spreadsheet as information was received. Participants were then given the
option to add more detail to their entries at a later time.
Piloting Diary Approach
Running a full diary study can be challenging and can involve a significant element of
unpredictability. Therefore, finding the right fit between the specific methods, the nature of the
research questions/focus and the participants’ specific context is pivotal. A small-scale, controlled
pilot study can reveal specific unforeseen drawbacks and provide the opportunity to fine-tune the
research protocol. For example, to test our specific diary approach, we conducted a pilot with two
people in order to verify the questions and ensure clarity of expectations. We requested that
participants undergo a trial run of the study and inform us if there was confusion about any of the
instructions or tasks. Essentially, our objective was to ascertain if we were going to receive the kind
of feedback that we needed in order to conduct the full diary study. Clarity is a central requirement
for event-based studies like diary studies as participants must understand the kinds of situations that
should trigger entries (Bolger et al., 2003). The pilot also confirmed the study length and design.
Specifically, a pilot study can help check whether participants have trouble using tools designed for
logging diary entries. The feedback collected from the pilot study can help improve the onboarding
process and workflow of a diary study. Additionally, running a pilot study can test the viability of diary
questions. It is important to make sure that these questions can realistically capture events or
practices that are central to the research question during a diary session.
Diary study challenges
Hawthorne Effect
Like many other research methods, diary studies are susceptible to the ‘Hawthorne effect’ (Havens
& Schervish, 2001). The Hawthorne effect refers to peoples’ tendency to change their behaviours
when they know or feel they are being observed (McCambridge et al., 2014). The participants'
awareness about the research purposes and the mere fact that they are being observed may render
them self-conscious and influence their behaviour and how they self-report. Participants may be
selective in what they share and intentionally leave out interesting or relevant details in their diary
postings. Therefore, they may omit information they do not feel comfortable sharing and may ‘over
rationalize’, presenting information that is inconsistent with their normal behaviour. Likewise,
participants may perform the reverse, where they over-observe based on what they believe is
appropriate behaviour. Redmiles et al. (2019) recommended a solution to this problem: give
participants some flexibility in the number of times they report but still compensate them the same
amount. We believe our interposed approach towards the diary study alleviates some of these
problems, where the first and second interviews provide opportunities to further converse with the
participants and clarify researchers’ confusion.
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Interrupted Temporality
Longitudinality affords an understanding of events and practices over time but it often requires some
nontrivial commitment from the participants. According to the principle of longitudinality, the time
frame for the study should be based on the expected amount of time needed for the phenomenon
under study to occur. As such, selecting the time frame is a careful balance between minimizing
effort for participants and maximizing results. Another primary challenge with diary studies is
interrupting the participants’ workflows. For example, journaling might add to the interruption of the
flow of daily events (Czerwinski et al., 2004). This is often more pronounced in the case of ‘in-situ
logging’, which requires participants to report extensive and exact details right after they engage in
an activity of interest (Flaherty, 2016). A partial solution here is the use of the snippet technique,
which tends to be less disruptive of workflows.
Another temporal challenge of diary study is tied to punctuated observation, which may inevitably
lack important consideration of transition in work rhythm and practices. That is, diary studies seem to
lack a sense of movement or action. For example, shared photos show various things that
participants use. But what cannot be gathered from the still photos is an understanding of how
people move in relation to their environment; how they physically engage with objects and if there
are things (e.g., coffee or music) that move in and out of their space throughout the day. As such, we
tend to not see diary studies as a standalone method, as it may not offer a holistic perspective. For
instance, supplementing the diary study with in-depth interviews could help provide an
understanding of physical movement as well. The same applies to video diaries.
Fatigue and Continuous Participation
Diary studies typically span multiple days, and participants are required to frequently report events or
information that they see and encounter. So participants could be overburdened easily when the
number of events reported is too large (Brandt et al., 2007). One simple strategy we built on that
helped mitigate this problem was asking participants to rapidly capture prompts that are
comparatively easy to record (e.g., photograph), and then providing the opportunities to describe
them at a later time.
A detailed guide can facilitate continuous participation. The first interview can be used as an
onboarding opportunity, helping those that participate in the diary study understand what is expected
of them and gain a clear understanding about the way diary posting will be collected. Depending on
the goals of the research project and what information about the participant has already been
collected, the first interview may only serve as an initial briefing rather than an intensive research
‘interview’. Additionally, it is important to share a digital copy of the diary study guide with
participants. Participants might not remember all the details that have been discussed in the first
interviews.
Finally, a check-in procedure helps remind participants about diary postings. This requires
continuous monitoring of each participant's postings during the study period to ensure their postings
are consistent. The check-in procedure can be initiated automatically by the survey platform or by
the researcher. Some survey platforms will send the participant a follow-up email if lack of activity
has been detected. However, it is also important for the researcher to manually review the
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responses early in the diary study period to make sure that the participant has correctly interpreted
the instructions. The researcher may implement a check-in procedure on a weekly basis to provide
more structure to the study or to promote a recurring dialogue between researcher and participant
(Garcia & Cifor, 2019). Consider whether the study reminders will be consistent or varied. In a study
of mobile search behaviours, Church et al. (2012) chose to vary the times that participants received
daily reminders to collect information about a more diverse range of experiences. In any case, in
digital diary studies in which participants share entries immediately, the research team has to
constantly monitor and evaluate the diary entries as they come in, and make sure to encourage
continuous and consistent participation by staying in touch with the participants.
Incentives can be an effective strategy to encourage active and continuous participation. We used a
contingency approach towards incentivization in which we offered monetary incentives proportional
to participation level. In effect, the incentive should align with the amount of commitment needed on
the part of the participants (Flaherty, 2016). Researchers will need to compensate participants for
their time appropriately. Researchers can learn from a pilot test the average time it takes for a
person to fill out the diary. Getting time estimates correct is especially crucial because of the
frequency of reporting demanded of participants (Williamson et al., 2015)
Incentives and reminders help; the first interview can also clarify the goals and pragmatics of diary-
based data collection. Automatic (or manual) reminders help the participants to establish a habit of
filling out the form, encouraging sustained participation.
Under-Reporting
Previous research indicates that a pervasive challenge of the diary study method is that a lack of
responses can impact the external validity of the research (Roig-Maimó et al., 2018). In many
cases, participants hide information or do not record all necessary data. This could be due to a
lack of trust between the participant and the research team. Establishing trust in a short period
of time can be difficult. However, Larson and Csikszentmihalyi (2014) stress the importance of
the research alliance, that is, the mutual understanding between participants and researchers
about the procedure and ends of the study. Participants have to be invested and interested to
some extent in the focus of the study and its outputs to encourage participation. While this
mutual trust is true for many forms of research, it particularly holds for such a time-intensive
study like a diary study. For this reason, researchers should consider using a screener survey
so that they recruit a sample that can effectively help demonstrate the research problem and to
ensure that the participants are well aware of the time commitment (Hillman et al., 2016).
Usability of Diary
The digital diary method builds heavily on the use of smart devices and digital applications. As such,
the participants have to be comfortable with the data collection interfaces. A more usable diary
application and a more individualized data collection approach are conducive to greater participation.
For example, not only should participants have a clear understanding of what data is being collected,
but they should also have control of when and how the data is being collected (Sun et al., 2013).
Pilot studies are helpful for revealing the usability issues with the data collection channels or more
broadly, other logistical issues. For example Chen et al. (2019) developed an exclusive mobile
15
application to support modal commenting during a live streaming; however, the pilot study indicated
the system was not stable enough for live streaming. As such, the research team decided to resort
to a combination of Facebook Live and Facebook Messenger systems to offer reliable possibilities
for live streaming as well as observing the modalities under investigation.
Researchers can also use a pilot study to assess if the duration of the study or frequency of
reporting needs to be adjusted, which would impact how the researchers set the incentive amount.
The pilot should be conducted with a small sample. Feedback from participants (through cognitive
testing or an actual trial run) may reveal if there is any confusing terminology.
Ethical Considerations
The ethical considerations of diary studies have often been neglected in past research (Waddington,
2012). With any of the data collection forms of diary studies above, it is important to make sure to
have the participants’ informed consent. Researchers should explain to participants exactly what
data they are collecting and why as well as how the data will be anonymized. Even after the diary
study has concluded, participants should be able to request that any of the quotations, video
recordings, videos or images they submitted not be stored in the researchers’ database or published
in an academic paper. Participants may also be at risk of over-exposure, especially with
unstructured diary study formats; they may share too much information in the diary (Bartlett &
Milligan, 2015). Furthermore, researchers should be aware of the vulnerability of not just the
participants but also the people who interact with the participants. For example, the participant
recording the video diary may accidentally capture the voices or videos of people who are unaware
that they are being filmed (Williamson et al., 2015). Due to the complexity of informed consent, we
recommend researchers take sufficient time to create their study protocol and review pilot tests.
Reflecting on the use of the digital diary method, we believe a line of honest and continuous
communication with our participants about the goals and procedure before, during and after the diary
study enhanced their participation experiences. The method provides some unique affordances that
complement and enrich other methods of data collection, but it does come with nontrivial challenges
for the participants. We found that our participants approached the diary study with potentially
different motivations. Recognizing and capitalizing on these motivations helped us encourage
prolonged engagements. For example, even though the gift card as a token of appreciation was
important to some participants, others were motivated by the broader impacts of the research. We
were able to discuss how the findings from this work can provide grounded implications for more
effective design and management of information systems that support nomadic work. Several
participants expressed interest in seeing the outcome of their contribution. By sharing the outcome
of our study in the form of the final report, participants could see how their work was made
meaningful. Others were motivated because they found the study a means to reveal and recognize
their invisible work practices as nomadic workers. The diary study helped discover patterns of
‘articulation work’ that are often invisible to outsiders but are key defining aspects of a non-traditional
work arrangement (Jarrahi & Nelson, 2018). Several participants took interest in learning these work
patterns.
Finally, as a digital method, diary studies are hindered by technical issues. In the project on digital
distractions, we made an effort to identify potential technical glitches early on by testing the diary
application on multiple types of phones. This in turn led us to add a question about smartphone type
16
in the initial questionnaire. Even before the pilot test, we were able to evaluate our own survey in the
field. This is similar to the industry concept of dogfooding, in which product designers test their own
beta product. We recommend research teams test the digital diary application on multiple operating
systems and formats, including mobile and desktop, before the study starts.
Conclusion
Diary studies offer the means to get a situated perspective on participants' daily practices and
routines. The qualitative methodology positions participants as the data collectors in which they
document activities and experiences in a particular domain over a specified time span.
In the future, diary studies will continue to evolve and enable more natural data collection options;
specifically, there will be a greater focus on accessibility. An emerging direction that can enrich diary
studies is integrating passive data collection. For example, the diary study data is supported by
sensor or GPS-location data that can be collected on participants' mobile phones (Elevelt et al.,
2019). In addition, researchers are improving the timing and mode of notifications, with the desire to
find ways to motivate continuous participation. For example, participants may receive daily SMS
reminders to fill out the diary study. (Rigby et al., 2018) The goal is to craft customizable reminders
that succeed in engaging the participant without annoying them.
In this chapter we described the use of a digital diary approach to capture the mobile work practices
of nomadic workers; nomadic workers’ frequent movement can make them a difficult research
population for direct observation. Moreover, data collection methods such as interviews typically
require the participant to step away from their day-to-day work and to make time and space for the
interview process. As indicated, diary studies provide a viable alternative and open up the potential
to research nomadic work.
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Appendix: Digital Diary Questions
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