A qualitative approach to guide choices for designing a diary study

Karin A M Janssens, Elisabeth H Bos, Judith G M Rosmalen, Marieke C Wichers, Harriëtte Riese

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Background: Electronic diaries are increasingly used in diverse disciplines to collect momentary data on experienced feelings, cognitions, behavior and social context in real life situations. Choices to be made for an effective and feasible design are however a challenge. Careful and detailed documentation of argumentation of choosing a particular design, as well as general guidelines on how to design such studies are largely lacking in scientific papers. This qualitative study provides a systematic overview of arguments for choosing a specific diary study design (e.g. time frame) in order to optimize future design decisions.

Methods: During the first data assessment round, 47 researchers experienced in diary research from twelve different countries participated. They gave a description of and arguments for choosing their diary design (i.e., study duration, measurement frequency, random or fixed assessment, momentary or retrospective assessment, allowed delay to respond to the beep). During the second round, 38 participants (81%) rated the importance of the different themes identified during the first assessment round for the different diary design topics.

Results: The rationales for diary design choices reported during the first round were mostly strongly related to the research question. The rationales were categorized into four overarching themes: nature of the variables, reliability, feasibility, and statistics. During the second round, all overarching themes were considered important for all diary design topics.

Conclusions: We conclude that no golden standard for the optimal design of a diary study exists since the design depends heavily upon the research question of the study. The findings of the current study are helpful to explicate and guide the specific choices that have to be made when designing a diary study.

Original languageEnglish
Article number140
Number of pages12
JournalBMC Medical Research Methodology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 16-Nov-2018


  • Ecology momentary assessment
  • Experience sampling methods
  • Diary design
  • qualitative research
  • PAIN

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