So you want to run a diary study: Five steps to successfully onboard participants 

February 14, 2024

A diary study is one of the most effective methodologies for tracking a user’s experiences over time. At Bold Insight, we’ve designed, managed, and successfully run complex diary studies with thousands of participants across the US and globally. There are many logistics to consider for diaries, especially related to participant onboarding. We’ve learned a thing or two about what it takes for these projects to succeed.  

There are a few phases involved when onboarding diary study participants. One step involves onboarding participants to the app or prototype being evaluated. The other step facilitates access to the data collection tool. For this post, we’ll focus on giving participants access to the study stimuli.  

How to avoid delayed timelines and low completion rates

It doesn’t matter whether you’re running a US-based diary with 15 participants or a multi-country diary with 900+ participants: without a plan in place for onboarding participants to the product or concept being tested, project timelines can be delayed. Participant completion rates can also be at high risk if there are issues gaining access to the study stimuli or unexpected participation requirements.

Here are five points to consider (even before you start recruiting):

Ensure the team understands the process for onboarding. 

It’s crucial to understand the onboarding process (and any nuances) from start to finish to ensure accurate and clear instructions are provided to participants. Confusing or incorrect information and unforeseen issues with technology can negatively impact project timelines and also cause participant frustration, whether around needing to accommodate study delays or receiving unclear information around how to get started. While product teams are often on tight timelines, ensuring there is enough time in the preparation phase to establish processes, develop clear communication, and pilot the onboarding process internally will improve the efficiency and success of the diary launch. 

The team should know what is required to successfully onboard to the study app, this will result in accurate timeline development, assessment of study blind and/or General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance requirements, and clear roles and responsibilities for the research team. Questions to consider include: 

  • Are there any technical requirements, such as software or device?
    Ensure participants can access the product and minimize the need to replace participants (which costs time and money) by including known requirements early during the recruiting phase. 
  • What is required for the participant to access the app, and are there multiple ways to accomplish the setup?
    Instructions should be clear, detailed, and account for a variety of experiences. For example, will Android users see different screens or need to go through different steps than iPhone users to access the app or prototype? Including instructions for only one operating system may drive a segment of participants to need additional support and time to get set up. 
  • What information must participants provide and what needs to be shared with stakeholders?
    One way to mitigate participant attrition is to set participant expectations during screening about what personal information will be required. Depending on what personal information needs to be shared (e.g., email address for product team to grant access to app), study blind requirements (restrictions around what participant/client information can or cannot be shared to the other party) or what needs to be included in the consent form can also be impacted. 
  • Are there any known or anticipated challenges?
    Identifying possible challenges, pre-assigning responsibilities, and having a strategy for troubleshooting will help the team develop an efficient process and be nimble should potential issues arise. 
  • Is there anything participants need to do with the app once they have it (before kicking off the diary)?
    Is it important to verify that participants see the right app/prototype version? Is additional setup needed prior to tackling the diary tasks? Plan upfront to reduce unanticipated time and effort needed for communicating with participants and tracking these final steps.  

Test the process internally before launching to participants.  

Just as with the diary itself, the onboarding process should be piloted internally to identify areas of potential confusion or unforeseen technical issues. Meticulous review of the instructions while going through the process creates opportunity to address potential issues prior to launching the onboarding process.  

Establish systems to (1) track/monitor onboarding progress and (2) communicate directly with participants. 

The next step after participants begin onboarding is to track onboarding completion to determine who is ready for the next phase of the diary. With a tracking document, the team can note completion, follow ups, issues, and dropouts, which is especially important when working with large sample sizes.  

Having a method to interact directly with participants is also key to keeping onboarding on track. Providing this support throughout the onboarding phase helps ensure they can access what you’re testing and ultimately be able to fully participate in the diary. 

Don’t underestimate how much time it takes to onboard participants.

Despite the best-laid plans, there is always a chance that obstacles arise, especially with large sample sizes or when operating on a global scale. Include extra time for onboarding so that the team has time to help participants or adapt the process as needed. 

Consider lessons learned that may pertain to global diary counterparts.

For studies with a global component, review the same considerations above for each country, which may have different app access paths, study blind/GDPR regulations, or anticipated challenges. Work with your local research partner to provide guidance.

We strongly recommend staggering country timelines. Conducting the diary in one country first allows for learnings to be shared across markets and time for adjustments across countries, if needed. Staggering also allows time for refinement of onboarding instructions before the steps are localized and translated.

Setting diary studies up for success

At Bold Insight, we are dedicated to establishing proven research processes to ensure top-quality insights from our studies—a commitment we love to pass on to our clients to inform their project objectives. If you’re interested in starting a conversation about your next diary study, reach out. We’d love to hear from you!