Using a video diary room to capture thoughts, feelings and lived experiences is commonplace in reality television. However, the many benefits of this method are yet to be exploited in the world of scientific research. Surveys and formal interviewing are great when a participant is engaged, but under conditions of stress, fatigue or disengagement, a diary room may provide a more attractive option. The diary room is particularly appealing to participants who struggle to express themselves in writing or who find the thought of more formal research methods intimidating, time-consuming or just plain dull.
“A video diary room involves momentarily taking participants out of an experience, and into a private space, to reflect verbally on that experience in front of a video camera.” (Cooley et al., 2014).
Over several years, my research group has used diary rooms to explore the great outdoors, higher education, elite sport, multiculturalism, disadvantaged youth and even sailing expeditions. I draw from this experience to share with you 8 things to consider when adding a video diary room to your research toolkit.
1. It can fit inside your pocket
A video diary room does not need to be glamorous. The bare essentials needed are a recording device and a private space to reflect. Diary rooms can be portable and flexible enough to be set up almost anywhere. A park bench, meeting room, tent, phone booth, courtside… the possibilities are endless!
2. It is flexible
The diary room is pragmatic. It fits with most sampling techniques (I typically adopt purposive sampling to ensure diversity). The diary room can also be used in a variety of research designs. For example, responses could be collected at a single time point or by following participants over a period of time. It can also be flexible in how it is conducted. If a participant is uncomfortable being video recorded, offer a dictaphone instead or suggest that they note down their answers before beginning their entry. You could also allow the entry to take the form of a ‘mini’ 1-to-1 interview by talking through the questions. From my experience, emphasising confidentiality (i.e., that entries will not be shown to anyone other than the research team) also promotes engagement.
3. No specialist skills are required
Running a diary room does not require finely honed research skills. The person left to run your video diary room need not even be a researcher as long as they receive some training. The procedure simply involves selecting your participant, providing them with any relevant documentation (e.g., informed consent, study information sheet), and a short briefing before they begin. I typically emphasise that there are no right or wrong answers, participants have the freedom to talk for as much or as little as they wish and to skip between questions as necessary.
4. It can be directed to any research question
If you choose to leave your participant alone in the diary room, providing question cards helps to keep entries on track with your research question. These questions should be open-ended, ensuring the participant provides detailed answers rather than “Yes/No” responses. It is useful to begin with an easy warm-up question (e.g., “How has your day been so far?”), rather than jumping into questions requiring more thought. You can use a more advanced question structure, directing participants to different questions depending on their answers (e.g., “If this experience has been beneficial, please answer the blue question card. If not, please answer the green card…”). Make sure questions are understood before a participant is left to answer them.
5. It is empowering
Being alone in a video diary room hands control over to the participant. They are free to stop and ponder, skip back and forth between questions, be brutally honest, and offer as much or as little detail as they wish, all with less fear of direct judgement from the researcher. This unique aspect of the diary room helps to address the perceived power imbalance between participant and researcher, which is particularly prevalent in youth and vulnerable populations.
6. It is efficient
A single diary room entry can last only a few minutes and is therefore minimally intrusive. The short participation time means the diary room works well ‘in the moment’, by momentarily removing a participant from their experience while it is unfolding, rather than collecting data in retrospect. Also, the absence of the researcher during the diary room entry itself means there is less reliance on time spent rapport building to gain open and honest responses. This efficiency enables a broad sample of participants to be recruited over a relatively short period of time.
7. Quality rather than quantity
A diary room facilitates open, candid and rich data. The spontaneous nature of the diary room means participants will often take part during positive and negative experiences. In my first study using a diary room (Cooley et al., 2014), 40 particpants gave entries lasting less than five minutes on average. Whilst this amount of data is far less than most qualitative academic publications, the quality was such that two very detailed thematic maps were produced, warranting one stand-alone publication.
8. It encourages reflective learning
The very nature of the diary room encourages participants to reflect on questions they may not have otherwise considered. This reflection may go on to influence their future engagement in an experience. The practice of giving a diary room entry may also aid in the development of communication skills, articulation, confidence and self-esteem. These potential benefits are great for the participant and other stakeholders, as the participant is also gaining something from their involvement in your research. However, this also means the diary room can become part of the very experience you are investigating. While this may not pose a problem for cross-sectional designs, this would need to be considered in longitudinal research.
When it comes to research methods, one size does not fit all, and this goes for diary rooms too. It works best when used alongside other approaches, either qualitative or quantitative. Providing participants with a choice of methods gives a voice to those who may not have engaged and enables phenomena to be explored from multiple angles. Combining other methods will also allow you to follow-up on diary room entries, especially when you’re not present in the diary room to further explore responses as they happen. The video diary room is, therefore, a valuable supplement to your existing research toolkit, not a replacement.
About the Author: I am a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham (UK), working in the fields of sport and exercise psychology, outdoor adventure education and positive youth development. My research is typically conducted in an applied setting, from a pragmatist, action research standpoint. If you’ve liked what you’ve read, please share this post with others!
Cooley, S. J., Holland, M. J. G., Cumming, J., Novakovic, E. G., & Burns, V. E. (2014). Introducing the use of a semi-structured video diary room to investigate students’ learning experiences during an outdoor adventure education groupwork skills course. Higher Education, 67, 105-121. doi:10.1007/s10734-013-9645-5