Weeknotes 5: It is possible to run a successful paper diary study.

Holly Challenger
Nov 1 · 3 min read
This photo by Jen Collins is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For the past 10–12 days people have been participating in a diary study about memory that I’m leading on.

From the very start I really wanted the diary to be a physical thing that participants received in the post. I wanted it to be something that delighted them, made them feel like taking part was a special and valued experience. So many diary studies are run via online tools now and I wanted to do something more creative and include cultural probes and not be limited by the capabilities of these platforms. Because the study is all about reminiscence, I really wanted participants to stop, reflect, and externalise thoughts/feelings using old fashioned pen and paper.

But I’d never done a paper diary study before. In fact I’d always shied away from running one because everyone always warned me against it. “People will never complete it, they’ll never post them back.”

All of this has proven to be untrue. All 14 participants have stayed engaged all the way through, zero drop-outs and incredibly engaged responses. And participants are feeding back as we speak about how much they enjoyed participating. I’m astounded by how well it’s gone.

So other than just feeling like we got lucky with an amazing recruit of people, I think there are some learnings here on running this kind of thing successfully. So here it goes:

  1. Combining paper and Whatsapp worked a dream. We asked participants to complete the tasks on paper and then photograph them and send them to us on Whatsapp. This meant there was visibility of who had done the task each day. It also meant I was less worried about packs getting lost in the post at the end!
  2. Being flexible about how moments could be submitted meant individuality came out. We gave our participants lots of freedom around how they submitted ‘daily moments’. We said it could be text description, voice recordings, videos, annotated photographs… Everyone had their own style. And giving them freedom meant more of their individual personalities were revealed
  3. We designed the actual diary pack to be delightful. My colleague David put a lot of effort into making it a thing of beauty that would encourage participants to value it and feel valued in return
  4. We tested the tasks A LOT beforehand making sure the tasks were clear with no room for misinterpretation
  5. Adding a personal touch created confidence. We included photos of ourselves with a brief introduction in the pack so that participants felt like they knew who we were. Because we were asking them to share quite personal information we felt like they should know who they’re talking to.
  6. Responding like a human person to their responses built rapport. When a participant mentioned they’d had a rubbish day or were feeling low, I responded like a human person and acknowledged what they’d shared with me. I feel like this really helped to build a relationship over the course of the study
  7. Building in rest days. This was quite heavy emotional stuff at times. Giving participants the option of taking 2 days off during the study meant they could fit it around their lives and take a breather. We just asked that they told us if they were doing this via Whatsapp. It got a little complicated keeping track of who was doing what day, but it worked.
  8. Starting simple and building complexity. Building the tasks from minimal time/engagement on day one meant participants were eased into the topic slowly, with tasks building in complexity as the study progressed.
  9. Adding a financial incentive to post the pack back. This seems to have worked so well — participants are doing this without me having to even ask them!

So yes, it’s possible to run a successful paper diary study. It’s taken the work of the whole team and a lot of effort stuffing envelopes etc. But getting all the completed tasks back in all their richness, creativity and variety makes it all worth it.