Busy Days

Busy Days: A program of diary studies

Over the past two years I have been conducting a series of diary studies, focusing on the day’s activities of busy people. I call these the Busy Days Studies. Thus far, 80 days of data have been collected from over 50 participants who include:

  • a project manager in a local authority
  • a partner in a candle supply company
  • two mothers of small babies
  • an art school principal
  • a website developer
  • a finance officer
  • an architectural historian
  • a student doctor
  • a post-office manager
  • a student and part-time administrator
  • a sculptor
  • a secondary-school teacher
  • a director of health and safety
  • a university lecturer
  • a furniture maker
  • a pub landlady
  • a pharmacy manager
  • 10 attendees at an international conference

The main purpose of these studies is to discover the problems that busy people encounter during the day, and thus learn about their needs — some of which may be addressable by interactive technologies. Diary studies are particularly effective for this: they are non-intrusive, and they discover problems that might not get mentioned in an interview or questionnaire. The method I use, developed and refined by myself and Marge Eldridge at Xerox, has the additional advantage of discovering how people measure success in performing activities. This provides a unique basis for testing whether technology can help them do better.

The Busy Days study has identified a variety of recurring problems in people’s lives. Some of them are relatively unsurprising; for example, coordination with other people is a frequent problem, in spite of mobile phones. Another common problem occurs in completing a writing task: this often takes people longer than they expect, resulting in deadlines being missed or other tasks not getting done. There are some surprises in the diary data, such as the infrequency of serious memory lapses. These findings offer valuable insights into people’s needs for technology.

As well as conducting studies and leading study teams, I teach the diary study method. For two successive years I taught it in tutorials at the British HCI Conference in Leeds, UK, covering this and other methods for discovering applications and estimating user benefits. The method is now included in the Perspectives on Design module of UCL’s MSc in HCI and Ergonomics.

See also:

Newman W. M. (2003) “Who Needs this Technology, and Why? New Ways of Discovering Applications and Measuring Benefits.” Tutorial abstract, in Proceedings of HCI 2003, Vol. 2, pp. 197-198.

Newman W. M. (2004) “Busy Days: Exposing Temporal Metrics, Problems and Elasticities through Diary Studies.” CHI 2004 Workshop on Temporal Structures in Work, Vienna, April 2004.

Posted November 20th, 2005 + plink