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Should I make an app or a mobile website? Diary studies can help

When designing a new digital product or service to be used on mobile devices, a common question we are asked is whether it’s better to deploy it as a native app, such as those found in the Apple App Store or Google Play, or a mobile-optimised website.

There are factors to consider when assessing how appropriate each solution is. Business development and maintenance costs are undoubtedly going to influence the decision. But there are several other factors, dictated by the activities and preferences of the end user, which should also be considered. A Diary Study is one method you can use to find out what these are.

So what is a diary study? #

A diary study is a research methodology that can help understand users’ behaviours over a period of time. Each diary study involves participants logging information around certain activities that they take part in, often over a period of one or two weeks. As an example, customers of a particular bank may be asked to log an entry in their diary whenever they engage in a money-related activity.

The format of a diary study is well-suited to capturing the context-dependent nature of mobile app or website usage. It allows us to observe two key things:

It is these changes, trends and differences that can point to user habits or attitudes that are directly relevant to deciding whether to build an app or a website.

Observing the change in activities for one participant #

As with a personal diary or journal, entries in a diary study are largely based around two things; location and time. These attributes can be identified more reliably in a diary study than in lab-based research because the reflection and logging usually occurs closer to the event taking place. Both the location and time at which an app or website is used can highlight a diverse and subjective range of requirements for it.

Location can affect app or website usage and user performance because:

Time can affect app or site usage and user performance because:

Where possible, it is important to gather additional information within each diary entry to offer explanation for each event. Looking at prompts for the activities and common follow-up steps, for example, allows us to establish detailed context around people’s usage of the app or site and their requirements for performing a particular task.

In addition to the factors above, which are related to the physical situation, there are likely to be findings that vary between participants in different cultures or different geographical regions. Diary studies can take into account the fact that the app or website is likely to have a different place or priority in each user’s life, depending on their personal goals and beliefs.

Cultural factors that may affect the app or website’s usage include:

Findings such as these will be raised in different ways by different people. Another benefit of diary studies is that they normally allow each participant to record their thoughts in an unstructured way, giving them the flexibility to elaborate on what they feel is important to them at the time.

Moving forward #

It is often a good idea to follow up a diary study with one-to-one depth interviews with the same participants. This allows each person to reflect on the comments that they made in their diary and offer a more detailed explanation. Reactions and attitudes will have been formed from previous experiences and one-to-one depth interviews provide an opportunity to better understand how and why these preconceptions were formed.

In order to get the full benefit of diary study findings, it is useful to incorporate diary study research early on in the design process. The output from these projects can be used to create design principles, personas and other tools that can not only help to answer the app vs. mobile website question, but also to inform the product’s design and future developments.