Recipe for a Successful Diary Study

Rajasi Desai
Sep 11, 2018 · 5 min read

Written by Varshine Chandrakanthan, Sonia Salunke and Rajasi Desai


Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. For many of us, that is a mindless routine. However, 1 in 5 UC Berkeley students reported skipping meals to save money (Berkeley Food Pantry) and about 12.7% U.S. households reported being food insecure in 2015 (U.S. Department of Agriculture).

“Food security [is] a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”

- The State of Food Insecurity 2001

The three of us value mental and physical wellness, thus a project focused on food insecurity resonated well. We chose this topic in hopes to gain practical experience, while making an impact that we were passionate about. As a result of this personal connection and the widespread prevalence, we decided to work with the ASUC Director of Food Security at UC Berkeley to answer the following key research questions:

  1. What is the current understanding of food security among students?
  2. What steps should be taken by the client to appeal to the target population?

This information would help the Director of Food Security to raise awareness and initiate events that would effectively increase food security amongst campus students.

Research Overview

We ran a mixed methods study which included surveys, observation study, competitive analysis and a diary study. Each method used fueled the steps for the next study which ultimately helped propose recommendations to our client. For instance, surveys helped us recruit participants for the diary study and the personas from the diary study helped understand what parameters would be suitable for competitive study.

An overview of the research methods used in the project.

You can find more details about these methods here.

While all the methods played an important role in uncovering insights, we received a lot of interest and questions from our peers about how we conducted the diary study. Thus, we wanted to delve deeper into the details and highlight that diary studies can be conducted effectively in a short duration of time. Read on to find out how we approached the diary study.

Diary Study


Since the project had strict timelines, we created a research plan. Drafting a timeline kept us focussed and helped us plan ahead for our diary study — sourcing participants, the format of the study, the incentive and communication.

Sourcing participants

We sourced participants for the diary study by circulating a survey online and physically at a farmer’s market stand on campus. 22 out of 55 survey participants opted in for participating in the diary study, which was very encouraging, although we were mindful of participant attrition.

Out of the 22 participants who opted in, 13 started the study and 8 completed it, successfully logging their meals for 7 days.

Format of the study

We designed the diary study to test our hypothesis that student life does not promote healthy eating. It was therefore important to know the source of the food, the reason for choosing a particular source and what the participant did before and after the meal.

We included the following attributes in our study:

  1. Date
  2. Time
  3. Food
  4. Source (A dropdown with five options — store bought, home cooked meal, restaurant, street-food, fast-food)
  5. Name of source (e.g. Subway)
  6. Why did you eat from here?
  7. What activity were you doing before this meal?
  8. What activity were you doing after this meal?

The study was conducted online using google sheets, with the document shared between the participant and one researcher from our team.

You can view the format here.


To increase the participants’ motivation and to express our gratitude, we organized a raffle for a $30 amazon gift card.


One researcher from our team was dedicated towards handling communication with the participants. We believed that being reached out to by multiple researchers would confuse and overwhelm the participants.

The researcher sent all participants a welcome email explaining the study, kept track of the participants progress on a daily basis and gave the participants a nudge when the diary was not updated for more than 2 days.


While data gathering was the more time intensive portion, it would not be useful without analysis. In order to better understand the different types of students in relation to their eating habits, we decided to develop personas from the diary study results. This was done by analyzing each individual and summarizing general trends/characteristics that were present in their eating habits. We then compared the key characteristics of the individuals and categorized wherever similarities were present. This process resulted in 3 personas:

  1. The Timely Saver - primarily considers convenience and affordability when making meal related decisions
  2. The Healthy Eater - takes nutritious facts into consideration when selecting food
  3. The Dependent Eater - has meals provided to them through an external entity


Based on our research, we found that:

  1. Lack of time was a barrier to healthy eating for 80% of students in our sample population.
  2. School schedule played a vital role in student’s eating habits.
  3. The layout of food options on and around campus played a significant role in deciding the source of meal for a student.

Based on the client’s current awareness and our research, we proposed the following recommendations to effectively tackle food insecurity on campus:

  • Collaboration with the Food Pantry at UC Berkeley
  • Marketing campaigns on social media to increase awareness about the ASUC and its collaboration with the Food Pantry
  • Incorporating easy to make recipes on the website to encourage students to eat home-cooked meals
  • Introducing food trackers to help students keep track of their eating habits
  • Introducing new events on campus, such as food donation drives, farmer’s market pop up shop, etc.


Always, always have a research plan

Doesn’t matter if your research is for a school project or at a big organization, having a research plan takes you a long way! For your school project. it doesn’t have to be fancy, but as long as you know what you’re doing and what each member of the team is responsible for, it is good enough.

You can find our research plan here.

Pilot your survey

The last thing you want to see on a survey is overlapping age ranges (18–21, 21–25) which confuses your participants. To avoid errors in your final survey, always proofread your surveys, and then proof-read them again. Then, send them out to a few people you do not intend to include in your final study — it could be your classmates or your friends or your fellow researchers. If there are errors or confusing questions in your survey, they will point it out. Correct these errors and send out your final (error-free, perfectly worded) survey.

Feedback from your peers and mentors is invaluable

We presented our project idea and initial ideas to our class and the feedback from our peers and professor helped us realize ways to improve our approach and gave us a better direction.

We would like to thank our Lecturer Steve Fadden for his guidance, encouragement and support throughout the project and for his invaluable feedback on this article!

Rajasi Desai

Written by

Grad Student at UC Berkeley School of Information. UX Researcher.

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