Running mobile diary studies via SMS

Text messaging is a great way to get qualitative data for ethnographers, UX researchers and market researchers

Benjamin Humphrey


This relatively unknown method of running diary studies gives you contextual, qualitative data from people living their life while they actually live it, not after the moment has passed. Everyone knows how to send and receive text messages, all phones support it around the globe, and it’s easy to set up while being cost-effective. All of these benefits make SMS a great way to conduct diary studies!

The present; not the past

Rather than asking people to recall what they did or how they felt in a particular moment—like you might do with a survey—interceptive texting allows participants to respond quickly and immediately with a short message using a method they’re already familiar with.

Busy participants don’t need to fill out a long journal entry at the end of an exhausting day. Simply replying to a few text messages throughout the day feels more lightweight than slogging through an entry or survey, so you can expect a lower dropout rate with SMS-based studies.

Research conducted in this fashion is excellent for following people throughout a process. For example you might wish to learn about people’s experiences house-hunting (something I’m doing right now).

Would my parents be able to figure this out?

Yes! Everyone knows how to send and receive text messages, including your parents. Likewise for kids. A great use case I heard the other day was around a social services agency using SMS-based research to get children’s perspectives throughout the adoption process.

The language of 6 billion people

SMS is a world standard. It’s been around for a long time, so all mobile phones in all countries support it by default. This allows you to run truly global studies with a large and diverse pool of participants. You don’t need to rely on them owning a smartphone, installing an app, or even having a data connection for SMS to work.

Create your own SMS diary study with Dovetail. It supports automatic question/probe scheduling, long-form replies, multiple countries, and has built-in analysis to help you complete your research with less tools. Best of all, it’s currently in beta, so there’s no cost to try it out.



Benjamin Humphrey

Founder & CEO of Dovetail. Previously lead designer at Atlassian and Delicious.