“To design is to have a ‘project’. Getting the design process moving is to expose and transform this ‘project’ in a conversation with those that it might eventually affect” (Buur, Binder, & Brandt, 2000).

In the early stages of design, rather than evaluate or validate specific user requirements or priorities, we are interested in exploring possibilities. As the opening quote suggests, we seek to engage with the various stakeholders the design project may eventually effect and gain an understanding of the unique design situation from their perspective. In Zimmerman et al.’s  (2004) framework for discovering and extracting knowledge during the design process, this is known as the Discovery phase of design. In this article we introduce Mobile Diaries as a field work method that can be utilised in the early stages of design to immerse into people’s everyday life.


This exploratory approach to self-reporting allows participants  to create and share a rich picture of their world, be they grandmothers, bankers, students, young parents or employees. In this article we describe Mobile Diaries, and provide examples of the kinds experiences they can enable.



A little background on self-reporting

In self-reporting, research participants are responsible for the data collection, allowing for the gathering of contextual data over-time and in situ, without the physical presence of researchers. Self-reporting can provide access into the private, personal and mobile aspects of people’s lives that are often difficult, or impossible, to access through traditional methods such as observation or interviews. The sustained personal reflection inherent in self-reporting makes available aspects that would otherwise remain tacit. So much of our lives are routinised and automatic, it is not until we are asked to document or consider certain activities that we are able to identify key junctures in our own understanding of a topic or a behaviour.

Self-reporting studies can take many different forms and the degree of formal structure is one of the things that differentiates approaches and determines the type of material collected. For example in the Electronic Sampling Method approach known as ESM (Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1983) or beeper studies, the participant is directed to systematically log specific things at specific times. In more open-ended approaches (such as cultural probes (Gaver, Dunne, & Pacenti, 1999) or visual diaries) data collection is only semi-structured around a particular topic. In this case participants are treated as active contributors and interpreters in the design process and select what, how and when to report. This encourages more playful and creative representations, important to an explorative and collaborative approach.

Over the last 10 years digital, online and mobile technologies have been incorporated into self-reporting methods in a range of ways (see end of article for some examples of other studies and platforms). These everyday tools can be easily integrated into people’s daily lives and support the generation of a range of different media forms such as video, images, text and audio.


Mobile Diaries

Mobile Diaries are a hybrid method that incorporate many of the creative and playful aspects of probes and emphasise the daily reflection of visual diaries. A range of different analog and digital technologies are used that allow participants to share and reflect on various dimensions of their day-to-day life.

A typical study

The exact design of the study (as always) is dependent on a number of factors such as:

  • A definition of the problem space;
  • The goals and objectives of the particular project;
  • The theme of the study (e.g is it a personal project or focused on the workplace);
  • Budget (how many people can we recruit and how, what kind of incentives might be required);
  • The profile of the participants (e.g teenagers, adults or whole families); and
  • Their current technology knowledge/competence and use (e.g how they might respond to the technology involved, how open are they to using new technologies).

Generally studies run from 1-3 weeks with between 1-10 participants. Topics explored depend on the study but could include, for example: sustainability in your everyday life; the role of mobile technologies in your life; or a ‘behind the scenes’ look at your job. Participants receive a ‘Mobile Diary Pack’ with various tools and instructions which direct the data collection around the particular design topic.

Mobile Diary Tools

A number of custom platforms have been developed to support online diaries, however, to date we have preferred to configure Mobile Diaries from existing platforms such as WordPress and Tumblr as this gives us greater flexibility over format, functionality and cost. Below we show the packs from a typical study (the list of available tools is growing and changing all the time, here we show typical ones we have used in the past).

self-reporting tools

During the study

Over the period of the study participants create collages, mind maps, videos and blog messages and send in mobile reports which appear on the blog. They also receive prompts, questions and reminders via the mobile phone and the blog.  The conversation is bi-directional: as we are receiving reports we are also responding with new questions or digging deeper into particular areas, and potentially redirecting the focus of the study as a result.

interaction during the project

What do we see and learn?

The output of Mobile Diaries is a particularly provocative, experiential and sensorial insight into participant’s lives. As one of our clients described it “[we were able to] hear in people’s own words the challenges and learn about the context of sustainability in their day-to-day lives”. We share some examples below of the kinds of material generated and shared through this approach.

Life as it happens

life as it happens



Using their phone, participants capture images, text and audio and send this to the blog throughout the day. These reports give us a deeper appreciation of the activities that make up people’s daily lives and we are able to ‘see for ourselves’ actual examples and instances of things that might otherwise be anecdotal. Through these reports we can track events, locations, and a sense of participant’s emotions across the days and weeks. Over time, daily rhythms and habits emerge. The (near) real-time reporting increases the sense of immersion in people’s lives as we experience the activities ‘as they happen’ (Masten & Plowman, 2003).  This is complemented by more reflective accounts at the end of the day via the blog or with the video camera.

Personal Spaces and intimate stories

A video tour

The use of video encourages in-depth descriptive accounts of events and surroundings from the participant’s perspective. The stills above are from one participant’s tour of their apartment building, which focused on areas relating to sustainability in the home. By giving participants video cameras and asking them to take us on a tour of their home we are able to explore and wander with the participant. This reveals some evocative spaces otherwise inaccessible to a design researcher; in addition to the explicit content being shared the video also conveys emotion and expression.

In another study focused on teenagers and their relationship to technology one participant gave us a tour of his shed, playing instruments as he told stories about the importance of this particular space to him.  These personal stories bring us closer to the participant’s world creating a sense of intimacy and proximity to the participants which is difficult to replicate in a one on one interview, discussion group or even during participant observations.

Inner thoughts and feelings, moments and metaphors

In addition to descriptions of external events and activities, Mobile Diary reports also capture emotions, feelings and inner thoughts. The examples above show emotional reactions and descriptions of personal feelings at particular moments in time. In some, the participant’s have used objects to serve as metaphors or symbols for representing emotions or ‘states’. This allows the participant to share inner thoughts and feelings that might have otherwise remained hidden. The open, honest and personal nature of these reports fosters empathy, often describing experiences we can relate to. That some are delivered in (near) real-time further increases the sense of connection; in that moment, we knew something of what the participant was thinking and feeling.


Action & Transformation

“Not only did it help us, the impact on participants and their way of thinking about sustainability was really interesting… the project really opened their eyes to their own patterns and behaviour and sparked some changes and definitely increased awareness” (feedback from client).

The process of self-reporting is an intervention designed to allow people to self-reflect and share aspects of their daily life; this process can also trigger participants to question their choices and everyday behaviours (Grinter & Eldridge, 2001).  The content of the Mobile Diary packs and the nature of the questions included can provoke new realisations and possibilities. For example, our self-reporting studies into sustainability in everyday life resulted in participants questioning personal behaviours and making changes in their lifestyles[i]. For one participant, a discussion about sustainability with flatmates led to the installation of a composting unit in the household.

The interventionist nature of the method can be more intentionally activated through the inclusion of specific activities and questions within the packs. For example, in one study into sustainability we included sustainability challenges – new lifestyle habits –  that participants were asked to try and document throughout a week. These activities were particularly provocative at revealing emotional and infrastructural barriers to behaviour change.

And then…?

As the image below suggests, material generated from Mobile Diaries can be used in numerous ways. Mobile Diaries externalise aspects of people’s everyday lives through visual, tangible artefacts. These become shared resources that help us to understand current practices, provide a spring-board for ideation and allow us to envision how any future design might be taken up within the existing ecology of the participants life. For designers, the visual nature of the material allows for more active interpretation in ways not possible with written research reports.  For participants, the process of doing the Mobile Diaries means they are better equipped to reflect on and analyse their own practices, during follow up interviews and workshops (similar to primer tools), becoming active interpreters of the material and what it might mean for future designs.

What happens after?



The material generated through Mobile Diaries is not something to be reduced down into a traditional written report. The raw form of the material and the subjective picture it provides of the participants’ lives and world-view are essential to its immersive quality and its value for fostering empathy and connection with participants (Mattelmäki, 2005; Mattelmäki & Battarbee, 2002) [ii].

However, this does need to be balanced with normative business expectations of a ‘research outcome’, and the need to synthesise the data in a meaningful way for the client to then transmit to other stakeholders. Effective ways to share this tangible and personal material with those who were not directly involved is the subject of current research, e.g., (Sleeswijk Visser 2009). Our process includes the development of a multimedia ‘report’ that can support all the different formats of material generated. These reports introduce the participants through their own words and images, illuminate the themes that have emerged and identify some future possibilities to be considered. We have also found significant value in creating opportunities for co-interpretation of the material by clients and other designers, whilst this can be more time consuming, it is utlimately a more effective use of the material than simply ‘handing off the research’.

We have also found that the value of such methods is greater than their role as data collection activities. A personal connection is made with participants that can be of value well beyond the particular study. However, there is a tension between this and the day-to-day realities of client and agency practices and models which focus on deliverables and project phases, in between which there can be significant lags or breaks. There is still work to be done to articulate and communicate the value of such methods beyond their capacity to generate data ‘about people,’ and to embrace their ability to involve participants in a more ongoing and sustained way throughout the design process.

Mobile Diaries are a playful, immersive experience for the design team that allow us to discover something of the messy intricacies of participant’s daily life, valuable for both inspiring and grounding the design process as well as engaging directly with stakeholders. We’d love to connect with other designers employing similar approaches.



Big thanks to Chris Gaul for images & Will Evans for feedback and comments. Thanks also to Dr Toni Robertson and the @IDHuPLab at UTS, Digital Eskimo, Zumio, our clients & participants N.B Examples come from specific studies in which permission was granted for publication for the purposes of research. Our approach has been heavily informed by the ongoing research into generative methods inspired by Cultural Probes (Gaver, et al., 1999) and the work of Liz Sanders (www.maketools.com) as well as other research into self-reporting studies such as (Hulkko, Mattelmäki, Virtanen, & Keinonen, 2004; Masten & Plowman, 2003; Palen & Salzman, 2002).


Buur, J., Binder, T., & Brandt, E. (2000). Taking Video Beyond ‘Hard Data’ in User Centred Design. Participatory Design Conference PDC2000, New York, NY, USA.
Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti, E. (1999). Design: Cultural Probes. Interactions, 21-29.
Grinter, R., & Eldridge, M. (2001). y do tngrs luv 2 txt msg. ECSCW, Amsterdam.
Hulkko, S., Mattelmäki, T., Virtanen, K., & Keinonen, T. (2004). Mobile Probes. NordiCHI 04, Tampere, Finland.
Larson, R., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1983). The Experience Sampling Method. In H. Reis (Ed.), Naturalistic approaches to studying social interaction: New Directions for Methodology of Social and Behavioral Science: Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Masten, D., & Plowman, T. (2003). Digital Ethnography: The next wave in understanding the consumer experience. Design Management Journal, 14(2), 75-81.
Mattelmäki, T. (2005). Applying probes – from inspirational notes to collaborative insights. CoDesign, 1(2), 83-102.
Mattelmäki, T., & Battarbee, K. (2002). Empathy Probes Paper presented at the PDC 2002, Malmö, Sweden.
Palen, L., & Salzman, M. (2002). Voice-mail diary studies for naturalistic data capture under mobile conditions.  CSCW, Louisiana, USA.
Sleeswijk Visser, F. (2009). Bringing the everyday life of people into design (PhD Thesis), Technische Universiteit Delft, Delft.
Zimmerman, J., Forlizzi, J., & Evenson, S. (2004)  “Taxonomy for Extracting Design Knowledge from Research Conducted During Design Cases.” Futureground 04, Melbourne, Australia.

Additional examples of other remote self-reporting techniques & studies & mobile/online tools

Digital Ethnography (pdf)

Digital Diaries

Digital Cultural Probes

Sticky Research (Video Diaries)



[i] There is no way for us to tell how permanent these changes were, we can only be sure that particular practices were bought to people’s attention, and steps towards change were made.
[ii] The original Cultural Probes (Gaver 1999) were not designed to gather specific information, but rather to be a source of inspiration and empathy. Rather than being codified, transformed or translated into a report, probe material was designed to stand on its own as a rich visual resource for designers.

Penny Hagen

Penny is a Design Strategist with over 10 years experience in interactive technologies having designed or produced a range of online and interactive community projects in Australia and New Zealand. She specialises in social change projects and recently completed her PhD in participatory design methods for social technologies at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Natalie Rowland

Natalie is an independent qualitative researcher who partners with individuals, agencies and clients to provide market, social and design research. She helps teams discover and share rich insights about the ever-changing landscape in which people, brands and society operate.

9 comments on this article

  1. Nik on

    It would be fantastic to see an example of a participants blog where all the information is aggregated to get a real idea of how the diary develops over time..

  2. Pingback: The Magpie Reports: 22nd July « Campbell's Digital Soup

  3. Terri on

    Great post, very informative and insightful. Following up from Magpie’s link, has there been any experience tying into services like Foursquare or GPS push technologies?

    I’d be interested to hear if there are any other stories that emerge by adding more lower level self-reporting measures into the process.

  4. Terri on

    Great post, very informative and insightful. Following up on Magpie’s link, has there been any use of tools like Foursquare or GPS targeting? It would be interesting to know if tools that require less conscious effort provide different types of stories.

  5. Pingback: Weekly Roundup: Design Related Links #27 « Discovery Session… by Gerard Dolan

  6. Pingback: Weekly Roundup: Design Related Links #28 « Discovery Session… by Gerard Dolan

  7. Excellent work Penny and Natalie! Makes my own efforts seem terribly amateurish! http://bit.ly/cF07KX

    One thing I often hear is that such research is not necessary for projects where the final product is something like a website. What are your thoughts on this, do you think diaries as you have described them are only applicable to situations where you’re aiming to design ‘real world’ products?



  8. Loucas on

    Hi Penny & Natalie,

    I just wanted to congratulate you for your great post!

    I am already familiar with ethnographic research, and design probes…however your post is a wonderful, short, sharp and into the point summary for discovering daily life. Keep up with the good work, and I’d like to keep me updated if you have any newsletters or publications.


  9. Pingback: Urban water workshop « Zumio