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Day in the Life Studies: A Unique Method for Gathering User Context

Use this immersive study to dictate a direction for future projects and get a better understanding of who your user is. 

Words by Karen Eisenhauer, Visuals by Kate Degman

As user researchers, we spend a lot of time trying to better understand our users’ relationship with our product(s). But how well do we actually know our user?

What do they do on a daily basis? What challenges are they navigating? What are they thinking about beyond our product? (Can you believe they aren’t thinking about us 24/7?!)

A Day in the Life study can provide a clearer picture of who your user is—and ways that your product can better fit into their space. It can be extremely beneficial to your organization’s overall strategy, but does tend to be a larger lift.

Below we’ll explore when to use this type of study, when you shouldn’t, how to conduct one remotely, and an example study design.

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What is a Day in the Life study?

A Day in the Life study takes a broad, contextual look at participants’ lives and routines.

Most studies in the product research space might revolve around the use of a product: “Show me every time you use your TV,” “Show me every time you interact with your smart home products,” “Show me every time you use our app,” etc.

A Day in the Life study takes everything a step back. Instead of targeting a product moment, the scope zooms out to understand the whole aspect of a participant’s experience, whether it directly has to do with the product or not.

This design style can attend a huge array of questions about participant’s lives, including:

  • What specific routines look like: Commuting, working, getting dressed, self-care, etc.
  • What they do at certain times of the day: First thing in the morning, right before bed, etc.
  • How products and processes fit into a participant’s life: Using their phone, ordering objects and services, workplace tool setups, etc.
  • How specific emotions arise and how participants handle them: Anxiety, joy, frustration, boredom, etc.

What unifies these designs is that they’re outside of the immediate context of product testing and improvement. Instead, the research goal is simply to get a thorough and intimate understanding of your users: who they are, what they do, and what they need to make their lives better.

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Why use a Day in the Life study?

Day in the Life studies are investments in your product and research practice. They offer some advantages that are unique to a study this foundational:

✔ Get a better understanding of your product’s space

Day in the Life studies are a truly bottom-up approach to understanding your product’s space. By not invoking your product’s name, you’ll get a more complete and less skewed picture of your users’ lives.

While these studies won’t provide any detailed information about your product and its use, they will provide a comprehensive view of the context that surrounds it.

✔ Discover things you that didn’t know you didn’t know

Running a Day in the Life study produces a ‘fire hose’ of contextual data. This has the benefit of producing insights that you may not have discovered (or even thought to ask about) in a more targeted study.

You may also observe meaningful moments that your participants wouldn’t otherwise think to show you. For example, you could see moments where your product is notably not on your users’ minds. Or perhaps you discover a need that isn’t articulated by your participants but is very present in their behavior that could inform future product strategy.

✔ Inform your long-term strategy

When designing future products, Day in the Life findings are invaluable resources to have. You can explore potential use cases that arise in your study, and have these amazing in-context moments to illustrate your point when pitching future roadmaps to internal stakeholders.

✔ Provide context for future studies

Some leaner, more pointed studies about users’ interactions with a product will miss out on context that could be useful. Running one of these studies can pay dividends later when you want more foundational information to fall back on.

✔ Establish a panel

Working closely with a set of your customers or users in a Day in the Life study establishes a baseline of knowledge, trust, and connection that you can draw upon in later studies.

Recruit the same panel of people down the road for more targeted diary studies, product testing, or in-depth interviews.

✔ Build empathy

Your clients are people. Getting to know them outside of the question of, “Do you use my product or not?” or “How is this product working?” can be a good tool for both your research team and your stakeholders.

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When should I consider a different approach?

As useful as Day in the Life studies are, one strategy can’t answer every question. There are a few scenarios in which an alternative approach is a better match for your study.

✔ When you know exactly what you’re looking for

Day in the Life studies are a generative, bottom-up approach. If you know that you’re only interested in a very particular kind of moment—such as a moment where your product is being used—this style isn’t for you.

Design a Diary study that answers your question directly instead.

✔ When you have a specific product-related question

If you’re looking to see how your product specifically interacts with people’s lives, don’t expect a lot of fidelity in your answers. You may be able to tell how often your product arises organically, but don’t expect much more detail than that.

Instead, design a diary study where you particularly look just for moments of your product usage, and use it as an opportunity to deep dive into your question.

✔ When you don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to fielding or analysis

Day in the Life studies tend to be extremely time-intensive for both participant and researcher, since they often involve multiple submissions of data per day.

If you’re looking for a more ‘set it and forget it’ study, this might not be for you.

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Should I conduct this study remote or in person?

Day-in-the-life studies are traditionally an in-person method. Researchers physically follow around a participant through part or all of their day and take notes, record video or audio, take pictures, and ask follow-up questions on why someone is behaving the way they do.

The in person method has some benefits. Researchers can robustly observe someone’s physical environment—their desk space, their homes, and other things. They can also decide in the moment while observing what emerges as important, and follow-up in an ad-hoc manner by asking more details, taking pictures, etc.

However, in-person also has drawbacks. Logistical issues are an obvious stand-out: It takes a lot of time to physically travel and spend a full day with a participant. It may be difficult to coordinate with a participant too, since they must consent to being followed around, including to spaces like the office, where permission may be difficult to grant.

Plus, many of us work remotely. There’s also a more theoretical problem. How sure can we be that a participant is “acting naturally” when there is one or more researchers following them around, taking photos, and scrutinizing their every move?

That’s why personally I prefer conducting Day in the Life studies remotely. Remote Day in the Life studies are an adapted version of a Diary study where participants are asked a broader diary prompt than usual.

Granted, the view into someone’s life is going to be a little narrower than an in-person follow-along, since we can only get momentary glimpses into someone’s day instead of a continuous set of data.

However, there are advantages that, in my opinion, really give it the edge:

  • Logistical flexibility: Researchers can observe without having to be physically present, making recruiting and fielding much easier to coordinate.
  • Less bias: Participants don’t have the feeling of someone physically standing over their shoulder, potentially decreasing the effect of observation on their data.
  • More access: Gather data from moments that would be hard to reach in person, such as morning and evening routines or closed work spaces.
  • Participant agency: Participants have the option to keep sensitive topics or non-consenting people hidden from sight, which can be an important ethical consideration.
  • Comprehensive documentation: The moments you do capture will have full recordings, along with a variety of scout-submitted metadata, which will help with analysis.

Below, I’ll take you through how one might conduct a remote Day in the Life project and how to set yourself up for success during the fielding process.

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Example Day in the Life study

Let’s walk through an example scenario.

Danielle works as a researcher at a company that produces smart home assistants. Her company is looking to expand functionality, but are unsure of what direction to move in.

The company has an idea that they are particularly interested in improving the lives of young couples with children. She decides to run a Day in the Life study with young couples to understand what their day-to-day routines look like, and where they could use a little extra help from her company’s product.

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Recruiting for a Day in the Life study

First of all, she’ll need to decide what kind of day or days she wants to see, and what kind of person to hear from.

When screening, she needs to make sure that her recruits are extremely in line with what she’s looking for. If she follows people through a select few days, she wants to be as sure as possible that the scenarios she’s looking for will arise.

Day in the Life studies are probably best done with a limited number of segments, and with around 5-15 participants per segment. It helps to keep things small, because she’s going to be collecting a lot of information.

She should also communicate to potential participants that this style of study will require a lot of bandwidth on their part. Telling them the specific dates that she intends to run the study, and getting written confirmation that they are available.

She should also check that they are not going to be breaking from their average routine during that time—no vacations, big plans, family visiting, etc.

Danielle wants to understand the needs of new parents. The reason her company is interested in this audience is to see the specific struggles of organizing while child-rearing—so she makes sure to recruit parents who identify as the primary caregivers and who mark that they engage in child care every day.

She also wants to see pain points, so she selects parents who report struggling with their situations. She is interested in how her company’s product already plays a role in people’s lives, so she selects two segments: those who are power users of her product, and those who don’t own one at all, so she can compare the two experiences.

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Day in the Life diary prompts

A Day in the Life study, done remotely, is a type of Diary study. Instead of remotely observing every single moment, she should select out a handful of key moments that she’ll want to see every day and follow those.

The differentiating factor between an average diary study and a Day in the Life study is that the triggers tend to be broader, and much more frequent, than a standard diary study.

What she specifically wants to track is up to her, but it’s important to keep it broad enough that she won’t be leading participants to give her an overly curated experience of their day.

Remote Day in the Life studies may have multiple triggers surfaced to the participants at once, designed to grab the widest amount of data.

A couple of ideas on how she could structure it:

✔ Time-based

Time-based triggers require participants to check in with the app a certain number of times throughout the day. This is a true grab-bag style of fielding—it collects a random cross-section of participants’ days. A prompt for this kind of trigger may read something like:

For the following day, we will require you to submit an entry four times a day: once at 9 am, once at noon, once at 3 pm, once at 6 pm, and once at 9 pm.

✔ Event-based

Instead of assigning times, Danielle may instead be interested in key moments in participants’ days. This achieves a similar goal but allows more targeting and flexibility with the kinds of moments seen. A prompt for this kind of trigger would look like:

Today, we want to see all of your commuting moments. Fill out an entry each time you commute—one when you begin your commute, and one when you end. There should be a total of four entries by the time you’re done.

Today, we want to see how you get ready in the morning. You’ll show us one entry for each part of a morning routine that you do: one for waking up, one for getting dressed and ready for the day, one for eating breakfast, and one for anything else that you do in the morning.

✔ Activity-based

In order for this to be a Day in the Life study, Danielle should choose an activity that is very common, and not bias her data toward the use of a particular product.

Examples may be “Every time you go on your phone,” “Every time you leave your house,” or “Every time you collaborate with someone.” These activities might even be a feeling, such as “Every time you want a snack” or “Every time you feel anxious.” A prompt might look like:

For the next three days, we want to see every time you turn on your TV or computer. When you are about to use your TV or computer, take out your dscout app BEFORE you jump on, and show us the process!

For further advice on setting up an activity-based Day in the Life study, take a look at Charles Perry’s piece on how to make your project remote-ready.

✔ Free-form

For the broadest possible results, Danielle can ask participants to show her any moments in their day that they feel might help her understand them. She can ask them to introduce her to their daily routine, or she could ask them to show you moments that help you to understand them in a particular role.

For the next two days, we want you to show us moments that you think best sum up what a day in your life is like. Show us five moments each day. Each moment should capture a different aspect of your daily routine. Give us the broadest picture possible!

For the next five days, we want to see what it’s like for you to be a worker in your office. Each day, submit three moments that exemplify what it’s like to work in your job. These could be common tasks, opening and closing routines, break times, or anything else that gives us a good picture of a day in your life as an employee.

Danielle decides that she cares specifically about the experience of common home routines, because that’s where her product likely plays the biggest role.

She settles on five key routines to ask her participants about: getting ready for school, daytime responsibilities, kids arriving home from school, making dinner, and getting ready for bed.

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Tips for success

The key to writing a successful Day in the Life diary part is brevity. You’re asking your participants to submit a lot of data, so it’s important that you make the parts as easy-breezy as possible to fill out. Consider 10 questions to be your absolute max, with no more than two or three open-ended questions.

If you’re using a tool that has video capabilities, they will really shine in a mission like this. If it’s not socially awkward, ask participants to film themselves in the moment, with or without narration. If it’s too socially awkward to capture directly in the moment, you can also ask for direct retrospectives.

Bolster the video with some close-ended metrics, such as:

  • Where are you?
  • Who are you with?
  • On a scale of 1-7, how do you feel?
  • Which of the following products are you currently using?
  • How satisfied do you feel with the products you’re currently using?

You can also ask a small number of open-ended questions. Make sure you really want to know the answer, since open-ended questions greatly increase the time and trouble of filling out an entry in the moment.

Questions could be something like:

  • What’s the most frustrating element of your experience at the moment?
  • What happened right before this moment?
  • What’s one thing that you would fix about this moment?
  • If you could have a futuristic AI robot to help you with this moment, what would you have it do?
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Structuring a study

A Day in the Life study is a highly flexible style of study, and the length and scope can vary widely depending on your needs.

Part 1: Getting to know you

Ask participants basic questions about themselves to get them used to the remote style of participation and to gather some more background about their lives.

Example questions:

Sum up your life in three words. Why did you choose those?
How satisfied are you with [topic you’ll be diving into]?
What are the products you use most often in your day, and why?
What’s your biggest passion? What do you do to involve yourself in it?
What is one thing you would change about your daily routine, and why?

Part 2: Day in the Life

Here’s where you collect the bulk of your data. If you’re collecting based on a single trigger (like a common activity, or a repetitive routine), you can just use one part. But if you are collecting multiple experiences or times of day, you can take advantage of dscout’s Part structure to make it easier for you and your participants to follow along.

For example, you could have a “morning routine” part and a “nighttime routine” part open at the same time, and communicate that participants will need to submit one entry in each part every day for the length of the study.

Please note that these questions are broad to serve as a general example, the questions you create would likely be more specific here.

What is this entry about? Give us a “headline” labeling this moment.
In a 2-minute video, record and narrate what you are doing right now. Show us as much as possible to give us a sense of how this moment is going. If what you’re doing takes longer than 2 minutes, explain to us in as much detail as possible how the moment will go after you finish your recording.
Is anyone else involved in this moment? If so, who?
How would you rate this moment on a scale from 1-7? Why?
If you could change one thing about this moment to make it better, what would you change?

Part 3: Reflections

Day in the Life studies can prompt a lot of introspection from the participants. End your mission by asking scouts to reflect on their experiences. Ask them about highlights and lowlights of the study, or about patterns they noticed about their own behavior. They may pick up on things that you didn’t!

Example questions:

Look back over the entries you submitted in Part 2. Which moment was the best experience, and why?
Which moment was the worst experience, and why? Could that moment have been avoided?
Do you have any observations about your behavior over the course of the study? Do any patterns stick out to you?
Did you learn or notice anything about yourself through filling out this study? If so, what did you learn?
If you could invent a tool that would make your life easier, what would it do?

Live Mobile follow-up

If there is a part of a scout’s day that you’d like to see in more detail, consider hosting a follow-up study on dscout Live or another mobile interview technology. Here, you can ask people to run through a small part of their day—like commuting, cooking dinner, a beauty routine—in real-time.

Schedule some participants for a time you know they’ll be doing this task (which you should know from their Diary study). Dig deep and ask follow-up questions for a better understanding of that task. Be sure to continue to keep it broad and not overly product-specific or leading!

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Notes on fielding

As mentioned, this type of study requires a larger lift and there is a lot of data to analyze. Creating a system to stay organized throughout the process is key!

✔ Give yourself time

Running a mission like this usually has a short fielding length, but takes a lot of time and attention while it’s live. To the extent that it’s possible, give yourself ample time during live fielding to make sure that the data that’s incoming is what you’re looking for.

✔ Catch and correct

In this style of mission, it’s vitally important to monitor participants’ incoming data and make sure they’re showing you the kinds of moments you’re asking for. Be ready to monitor data as it comes in on your first day and gently correct participants who might not have understood you.

✔ Prioritize time-sensitive management

Remember that this is very time-sensitive—this is true for participants, but it’s also true for you. If you’re asking for timed responses, be ready to follow up on those requests as the deadlines approach or pass.

Send reminders in the case of missed entries promptly, so participants understand that there is someone on the other end waiting for their moments.

✔ Encourage people and pay them accordingly

It’s a big commitment to participate in a study like this. Make sure your participants know they’re appreciated by thanking them at the end of each day and setting them up for success the next day.

It’s also important to make sure you’re paying your participants well for the amount of time and effort they’ll be putting in.

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How to analyze Day in the Life data

It’s hard to give concrete advice on how to analyze a study like this. Day in the Life studies are usually very foundational, which means research goals can vary widely from study to study. You may even find yourself returning to the research multiple times with different goals in mind.

That being said, here are a few things you can do upfront that can help organize your data and make it more manageable:

✔ Sort your data using tags

A top priority for using this data will be to sort it into usable categories. Look through your data and figure out what categories would work best for you. My instinct would be to sort based on activity (e.g. a work moment, a play moment, a cooking moment, a chore moment, a traveling moment, etc.).

But there may be other categories that work for you, like prevalent emotions, times of day, tools used, etc. Don’t be afraid to choose multiple organization systems if that’s what would help you the most.

Once you’ve decided on your categories, treat them as a kind of organizational tag. Spend a day or two tagging every moment in the survey based on your categories, as well as an “exclude” tag where you can throw all your off-base or low quality data.

This is a lot of up front work, but it will pay dividends as you begin to try and glean findings from this mountain of data.

✔ Look at the best and worst moments

If your study design asked people to rate their moods, this can be a strong method for you. Filter the highest-rated moments and see what’s causing good points in people’s days, and do the same for the really low moments.

You can do this qualitatively by looking manually, or quantitatively by generating crosstabs. Your close-ended questions and tags will be very helpful here—you can see if high or low moods are correlated with times of day, activity, tools used, etc.

If you didn’t ask people to rate their moods, you can also bookmark when positive and negative emotions come up organically in the videos you've recorded.

✔ Look for your tools or your competitors

Another fruitful exercise is to hunt for moments where your product (or a competing product) is being used. You may have asked scouts to document tool usage in their entries already—if not, bookmark those moments using tags.

Filter to those moments specifically and see if there’s anything in common: time of day, emotional reactions, jobs being done, pain points, delights, or anything else.

For instance, let’s return to Danielle from our example above. Here’s how she might tackle analysis:

Danielle digs into her data. First, she divides up the routines she collected in to sub-categories. In her ‘night routine’ data, she tags people as “reading stories,” “brushing teeth,” “bath time,” and the like; she repeats for all her other subcategories.

Then, she digs into highs and lows. Using her crosstabs, she sees that many of the lowest moments are tagged “cooking dinner.” She digs in qualitatively and finds that the multitasking involved in time-sensitive cooking while watching kids is very stressful for parents.

Lastly, she looks at where her home products are being used. She finds that her power users are having a slightly better time cooking than the non-users. She observes that power users use her product’s tools to set timers and control facets of the home experience (like the TV) while their hands are busy cooking.

She brings this insight to her marketing department. It might be good to highlight the power users’ use cases to other new parents to make the product more interesting.

She also begins to wonder whether multi-tasking is an issue in other parts of her data, and how her product may expand its usefulness by playing in spaces besides cooking.

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Final thoughts

From there, it’s really up to you! What exactly your data should be used for depends on what information your participants provide. Understanding your users’ days, or empathizing with a particularly emotional process, is sometimes insight enough.

As mentioned above, if you want to take your findings a step further, you can start looking for distinct opportunity spaces for your product within their daily lives. And you can always follow up with these participants for future studies or add-ons to learn more.

Learn how dscout can help support your next Day in the Life study—speak with a member of our team today!

Karen is a researcher at dscout. She has a master’s degree in linguistics and loves learning about how people communicate with each other. Her specialty is in gender representation in children’s media, and she’ll talk your ear off about Disney Princesses if given half the chance.

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