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Diary and Probe Studies in Technology and Physical Sciences

Audience

This page is intended for use by students and researchers in the University of Cambridge Schools of Technology and Physical Sciences whose research involves asking people to collect information for you their own everyday life. It is part of a larger set of research guidance pages on work with human participants.

 

Ethical review guidance

The issues raised in diary and probe studies tend to include both aspects of survey methods, and also of instrumented software.

 

Definitions

A diary study is one in which participants keep records of their activities, at regular intervals, over a period of time. These may be a record of their experiences using technology, or as a means for the researcher to gain understanding of ordinary life situations in which technology might be usefully applied.

An experience sampling study, like a diary study, collects data about ordinary experience, but with the intention of capturing information about situations that are completely unremarkable, and that participants might not think to record in a diary. This is done by prompting the participant at (semi)random intervals to make a note what they are doing at that precise moment.

A cultural probe study is one in which participants are asked to reflect on their own situation, providing data that is more open to interpretation by technology designers, such as postcards, photographs or more imaginative media.

A technology probe study involves placing a new piece of technology into some context of use, but without predefined conceptions of how it ought to be used. As with cultural probes, researchers take a more interpretive approach to the data that is collected, in contrast to an evaluative approach.

 

Practicalities

Participants in studies of these kinds usually need to be thoroughly briefed in advance, in the course of which they will have given consent to participate. Each contribution they provide is also made voluntarily. As with all studies, it should be made clear to participants that they are free to withdraw from the study at any time.

All data should be stored and processed anonymously, for example using serial numbers or initials of the participants rather than their full names. If it is expected that publication of the research will involve direct quotations from diaries, participants should give permission for this to be done.

It is increasingly common to carry out diary and experience sampling studies using mobile devices, for example sending participants an SMS message at random intervals, asking them to record their location or activity at the moment they receive it. In a study like this, it can be very convenient to use recording capabilities of the device to record audio, video or photographs. If it is necessary for a research publication to include an image captured by participants, those images should not include any identifiable faces - if they do, then permission should be obtained before publication, from the person whose face appears.

 

Authorship, extension and corrections to this page

The initial version of this page was drafted by Alan Blackwell. If you wish to give feedback on the page, suggest corrections or provide further information, please see the page on guidance feedback.