Author Tomer Sharon share a short excerpt from Chapter 4 of his book, Validating Product Ideas. Visit Rosenfeld Media to receive the full copy.

Chapter 4

What Is the User’s Workflow?

A user workflow is a process where a person takes sequential steps toward achieving a goal. A workflow has an entry point and a final goal. Your ultimate goal as a product developer is to uncover your users’ workflow to complete tasks you want to support with your product. Uncovering this workflow will guide you into designing a product that matches real-life workflows and improves them. This chapter will walk you through a lean user research technique called a diary study, which will help you understand user workflows, needs, and motivations.

Why Is This Question Important?

When people have a certain, specific way of completing a task, yet the digital product that is supposed to help them complete it forces them to change their ways, friction occurs.

Your users’ workflow is key to understanding how they function, especially for complex tasks such as planning a vacation, learning how to play a new musical instrument, learning about a health-related situation, buying a new car, etc. There are certain steps in a person’s workflow that are necessarily sequential and would never happen before other steps. For example, if a businesswoman is planning a trip to another city for a few days, her workflow might look like [TS1] something like this:

  1. Schedule meetings.
  2. Book flights.
  3. If needed, reschedule meetings based on flight schedule.
  4. Book a hotel.
  5. Reserve a rental car for the destination city.
  6. Reserve a car service for pickup at the home airport.

Let’s assume that this businesswoman wants to use a new app she heard about that is supposed to help with all of her trip’s reservations while offering good prices. If the app is going to force the businesswoman to first reserve a car and then book flights and a hotel, this workflow creates friction. It does not make sense for the businesswoman to reserve a rental car first before she knows her final flight schedule. What is happening here is a workflow mismatch. If many of this app’s users are like our businesswoman, that workflow mismatch is going to be a huge barrier for its success.

Asking and answering the question "What is the user’s workflow?" is critical for understanding and learning about complex, relatively long processes, people’s habits, and tasks where a specific sequence of actions is involved.

When Should You Ask the Question?

"What is the user’s workflow?" is a question far too few product developers answer at the right time. However, there are two great times to ask the question: somewhere in the middle of strategizing your product and after launching it during the assessment phase (see Figure 4.1).

When you strategize, you figure out a lot of things about the need for your product, your target audience, and what it wants. After you attain this knowledge, it is a good time to start learning about your potential users’ workflow. This workflow wisdom will serve you well during the execution phase, when you design the product iteratively.

During the assessment phase, your users use the product, and you can learn whether or not your product matches their real-life workflow. Beware, though. If this is the first time you study your audience’s workflow, you might find and learn things that will be very hard to fix. Implementing workflow changes in a product might get very costly. The best time to answer the question is prior to execution.

Figure 4.1

When is a good time to ask the “What is the user’s workflow?” question. The thick line represents the best time, while the thinner ones indicate other times recommended for answering the question.

Answering the Question with a Diary Study

One of the best ways to learn about your users’ workflow is through a diary study. In a diary study, participants document their activities, thoughts, and opinions and share them with you over a period of time. A diary might be a record of their experience using a product or a means to gain understanding of ordinary life situations in which products might be usefully applied. You then analyze the diary data and conclude information about their workflow, habits, and needs.

Data collection takes relatively longer than your typical usability test or interview, and might last days, weeks, and sometimes (depending on the topic, product, and industry) months and years. Diary studies are best for learning about more complex processes such as implementing a new nutrition plan, solving more challenging problems such as planning a sprinkler system for your house, or learning about how physical mail (mail that arrives with an actual postal worker) travels around the house.

In a diary study, participants are given instructions, expectations, and a kit or a tool to use for posting diary entries. They then document their activities, interactions, and attitudes. Depending on the tool used, participants either share their diary entries with you immediately or send a paper diary after data collection is completed. Typically, a diary study ends up with an interview during which participants are debriefed about their experience after you have read all of their diary entries. The outcome of a diary study can be communicated in many ways such as a workflow visualization, a journey map, personas, etc.

Why a Diary Study Works

A diary study is excellent for getting a glimpse into people's lives in a very detailed way. It is great for learning about any type of workflow for the following reasons:

Uncover what participants actually do.

Reveal behavior that would be hard to remember in interviews or surveys.

Generate high-level detail and specificity about different workflow activities.

Explore participant activities for workflows that last long periods of time or occur at times that are not reasonable for observation (e.g., late night or early morning).

Neutralize the bias of having someone observe what participants do.

Understand how products factor into regular habits.

Assess a novelty effect (quickly getting better at using something new) or learnability (how much a product supports users in learning how to use it).

Other Questions a Diary Study Helps Answer

Other than the “What is the user’s workflow?” question, a diary study is a great research method for answering the following questions as well.

How often would people use the product?

How do people from other cultures use the product?

How do people currently solve a certain problem?

Does the product solve a problem people care enough about?

Which user needs does the product satisfy?

What are the different lifestyles of potential product users?

What motivates people?

What jargon do people use to talk about a domain?

Do people enjoy using the product?

How does the product fit into people's lives?

What are people’s specific habits?

Do people want the product?

Where do people use the product?

When do people use a product?

How easy or hard is it to learn how to use the product?

How to Answer the Question

The following is a how-to guide that takes you step-by-step through the process of using a diary study to answer the question “What is the user’s workflow?”

Step 1: Choose diary type and structure.

One of the first decisions you need to make is about the structure of the diary study. There are two alternatives: structured or unstructured.

A structured diary is one where you are very specific about what participants share, when they share it, and how they share it. Structuring a diary study can be done in several ways that can be combined:

Structure by event: When it is important for you to learn about specific occurrences in a workflow, ask participants to add posts to their diary when certain things happen. For example, if you run a diary study to learn about participants’ workflow in the first week of trying out a new product, you can ask them to add the following diary posts:

Unboxing the product (if relevant)

First impressions

First interaction

First problem or challenge with the product

Questions about the product

Requests or complaints

Structure by time interval: When it’s critical to capture participants’ behaviors or attitudes in specific times or days, ask them to contribute diary posts by time intervals. For example, if you are interested in people’s morning sequence, ask for diary entries every morning.

Structure by post format: Sometimes, it is important that participants communicate their diary contribution in formats different than text. For example, a video diary might be useful when you want to overcome the bias that comes with a diary as a self-reported research technique. You might ask participants to record a video during their morning commute. Or you might ask participants to take still photos of how they cook a certain dish, or of the process of installing a new sprinkler system in their backyard. You might also ask participants to communicate certain actions in a sketch, which they update as the study progresses.

A combination: There are no limitations on choosing a specific structure, and you can always mix and match structure types to tailor the best way to learn from people during a diary study. For example, you might combine a time interval with an event-triggering structure, such as asking participants to document their behavior before, during, and after watching the Super Bowl game.

An unstructured diary is one where you leave it to your participants to decide what to share, when, and how. You may give them options and direct them in terms of focus topics (e.g., only post about things related to using your newly bought drone), but generally speaking, your participants are in control of their diary contributions. A good reason for choosing this alternative is when you are not sure about what specifically you are after or what to expect from participants. When you want to learn about a process you have almost no knowledge about, you might ask participants to just post to their diary anything related to that process. A more open-ended approach to a diary study structure has a big advantage of not limiting your participants to any type of contribution, which might lead you to more meaningful, unexpected insights.

Step 2: Set up a data collection tool.

A traditional approach to collecting diary study data involves sending participants a physical kit. Depending on your study goals and the type of information you want to collect, a kit might include a diary booklet, a camera, high-quality office equipment, graph paper, and anything that might help participants record their diary entries. Study participants then use the contents of the kit throughout the study and mail it back when they are done. Kit materials are then reviewed and analyzed.

Nowadays, diary study data collection is more digital in nature. Diary study tools might be as simple as sending an email, leaving a voice message, using SMS or MMS, or filling in a form. Diary study data can also be collected through private blog posts, shared documents (such as a Google doc or spreadsheet), or dedicated diary study web apps. A third group of digital diary study tools include the usage of instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Viber, and more. Lastly, several apps offer dedicated diary study capabilities that allow participants to post rich diary entries that include text, photos, video, audio, current location, current weather, a time stamp, and even motion activity (see Figure 4.2). Some of these apps make the data easily shareable or exported. The resource section in the book’s accompanying website ( includes a list of currently available diary study apps[2] .

Figure 4.2

Diary app: Day One offers motion activity capturing.

This chapter references Facebook Messenger as its diary study data collection tool, yet any previously mentioned alternative is recommended (at least for experimenting). Choose a tool that will be the easiest for your participants to use and won’t force them to learn how to use yet another poorly designed digital product. Be open to using multiple tools in one study. For example, if you intended to use WhatsApp, yet some of your participants don’t use Instant Messaging at all, feel free to have some participants use different tools than others. You’ll be merging all the input after they are all done into one place, so it's not extremely important to have all the participants use the same tool. The exception is if you want to collect a certain piece of data that only one tool allows you to gather (for example, current location on a map).

Step 3: Carefully recruit eight research participants.

Finding people who both qualify and are willing and available to participate in a diary study is harder to do, compared to other research techniques described in this book. The reason is the amount of effort and self-discipline required for keeping a diary.

To find participants for a diary study, follow the steps described in Chapter 9. These steps guide you through identifying the characteristics of whom to invite, preparing a screening questionnaire, and using social media to call for relevant people to fill in the questionnaire to see if they qualify to participate.

As you compile your screening questionnaire, put extra attention on the following:

The success of a diary study (i.e., whether or not it provides valid and reliable results) is highly dependent on the expressive ability of participants since most of what they'd be required to do during the study is to answer open-ended questions (even in a structured format) in a way that would help you understand what they mean. Therefore, make sure that your screening questions ask people to express themselves a little bit to give you a sense of their writing ability. If you feel it is needed, speak with them over the phone to get a sense of whether they are suitable for the study.

A diary study might take some time. Make sure that your participants don't have prior commitments such as a long vacation during the planned study duration that would prevent them from completing their ongoing diary assignments (that is, of course, assuming that you are not interested in a diary study related to vacations).

It is hard to find people who will meet all of your diary study requests. Therefore, make sure that participants understand and accept the level of effort required. Provide clear numbers to demonstrate the effort and include a mandatory screening question that verifies they understand this commitment. For example, ask "Are you aware and willing to spend up to 10 minutes every day of the 14 study days, from Monday, March 10, to Sunday, March 23, on writing diary posts?"

The best way to capture complete data in a diary study is to end it with an interview once the diary part of the study is over. Inform your participants (and make sure they are available) that you'll be conducting an in-person or remote interview shortly after they complete their diary.

Here is a sample screening questionnaire I have prepared for a video game diary study I conducted for this book. Read it and feel free to borrow questions for your upcoming diary study:

Diary studies generate huge amounts of rich data, somewhat similar to the amounts you might collect in observation (see Chapter 3) or interviewing (see Chapter 2). These large amounts of collected data directly affect your choice for the number of participants you include in the study. As in other qualitative methods, keep this number low and digestible. Eight participants is a good number, yet any number between 6 and 12 participants makes sense. More than that means this is a large study. If that is the case, you will need more time or hands when it comes to analyzing data and coming up with results.

Step 4: Prepare instructions and brief participants.

After you have lined up participants for your diary study, send them written instructions in which you set expectations, provide guidance, and specify diary assignments (in case it is a structured diary format). Your written instructions should include the following (see the sidebar for sample diary study instructions):

Diary study goals

Study dates


Diary tool to be used

General instructions

Daily plan (mostly needed for a structured diary format)

Point of contact person and details for questions

***Insert Sidebar

Video Game Diary Study Instructions

Thank you for participating in this study! It is great to have the opportunity to learn from you.


The goal of this diary study is to learn about your thoughts, habits, and behaviors in the first few days of trying out a new video game.


The study duration is 7 days, and I ask that you invest up to 10 minutes in the study every day.

Day 1: Monday, June 8

Day 2: Tuesday, June 9

Day 3: Wednesday, June 10

Day 4: Thursday, June 11

Day 5: Friday, June 12

Day 6: Saturday, June 13

Day 7: Sunday, June 14

On Wednesday, June 17, at 2 p.m., you will be interviewed over Skype for an hour about your diary experience.

Thank You

As a token of our appreciation for your time and willingness to participate in this study, we have sent you a video game with a cost value of $60, which you can keep for yourself after the study is completed.

Diary Study Tool

During the diary study, you will use Facebook Messenger to share diary entries with me through short text messages, photos, and short videos. Unlike other times you use Facebook Messenger, during the study I will not be responding to most of the material that you post. However, I might remind you of your diary assignments or ask for clarifications and some questions from time to time.


As you know, I have purchased and shipped a video game to you. Starting the moment when the package arrives at your door, document your thoughts, activities, and experience of trying the game out.

The study duration is 7 days, and I ask that you invest up to 10 minutes in the study every day. You can, of course, play the video game for more than 10 minutes a day.

Each day, post as many times as you desire. Make sure that you at least meet your daily task with one or more diary entries.

During the study, I may ask you to answer different questions about the video game.

Daily Plan—Please Read All of It Now!

Day 0: Grab a piece of paper and draw a pencil sketch of your house. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or beautiful, or extremely accurate. I need to understand what the different rooms are, where the TV is, and where you play the game. We will use it during the study to indicate where the video game is located physically. Take a photo of your sketch and send it to me through Facebook Messenger.

Day 1 (the day the game arrives):

Describe in detail everything that happened today related to the game from the moment it arrived at your home. Should be something like that: “1. It’s here!” “2. Unboxed it just now.” and so on.

Tasks for the entire duration of the study:

From this moment on, send me a Facebook message each time you start and finish playing the game. It should look something like this: “Start” or “Finish.” Facebook Messenger will take care of logging the time.

Use your sketch from Day 0 to indicate daily where the game is physically using a red number in a circle. So a red circle with the number 1 in it will be the game’s first physical location in your house, the number 2 would indicate the second location, and so on. Draw red lines between the numbers to indicate the route through which the game got to all of its locations. After each time you add a number to the sketch, take a photo of the sketch and send it to me through Facebook Messenger. Let me know if there are no changes in the location.

Day 2: Describe your first impression of the game. What it’s about? How did you know? What’s the goal?

Day 3: Describe the first interesting interaction you’ve had with someone related to the game.

Day 4: Describe with photos the first problem or challenge you’ve had with the game.

Day 5: List three complaints you have about the game.

Day 6: List three things you like about the game.

Day 7: Evaluate your progress playing the game. How are you doing? What have you learned?

Any time: Feel free to share any text, video, or photos to indicate your actions and thoughts about the game throughout the study duration. Photos are highly appreciated!

Contact Details

If you have any questions for me, please do not hesitate to contact me by sending me a message through Facebook Messenger with your question at any time before, during, or after the study.


Figure 4.3 demonstrates how one diary study participant followed the instructions in the sidebar.

Figure 4.3

First posts to a diary study following instructions.

Step 5: Launch the pilot and then the full study.

A day, few days, or a week prior to the launch of the diary study is a great time for a pilot. A pilot tests the diary study by asking participants to share one diary entry with you. This one entry from each participant is valuable in oh-so-many levels since it makes sure that participants did the following:

Installed the diary study tool.

Understood how to use it.

Troubleshooted any problem they might have had with the tool.

Understood and internalized what is expected of them.

Provided enough details in their entries.

Responded in a timely manner.

Were reassured the study is really happening. (Some people agree to participate, although they have never heard of such a weird request.)

Once you have launched a pilot, you'll probably find that you need to adjust a lot of things. Instructions will become clearer, structured diary assignments will be changed and improved, participants will be debriefed, and diary tools will be installed and explained. Everything will become smoother for you and your participants. It's time well spent that will make sure that you hit the ground running during day one of the study. In fact, you'll never regret running a pilot test. Once you have finished learning and implementing the lessons learned during the pilot, launch your diary study and immediately start tracking and monitoring your participants' behavior to make sure that you get the data that you need.

Step 6: Prompt participants for the right data.

As soon as the diary study starts and participants begin posting the entries, make an intentional effort to read each entry and evaluate its usefulness to you. If you don't understand certain words, sentences, or actions, or if you don't think the participant is providing enough details, ask immediately for clarifications. The same goes for any other entry that participants post to their diary throughout the study. There's no need to ask follow-up questions and conduct full interviews through instant messaging, but make sure that you are getting what you need compared to what you asked for from the participants (see Figure 4.4).

If participants don't understand what you mean and ask for examples, try not to give them. If you give a specific example for a “good” diary entry, you'll find that most of the diary entries from that participant will be very similar to the example you provided. Refrain from biasing participants this way by responding to the example request by saying that entries should be detailed enough so that you can understand what they mean. Ask for photos if they help, support, or even explain better what the entry is about. Provide feedback for the photos that participants submit. (What a great photo! Or too close, too far, too dark, or out of focus.)

Figure 4.4

During Day 1 of the study, one of the participants shared fewer photos than I expected and chose to post at the end of the day while providing time stamps for everything that happened during the day related to the video game. I gently asked him to share more photos and post when things happened, not at the end of the day.

Step 7: End with interviews.

The goal of holding an interview with each diary study participant at the end of the diary part of the study is to fill in gaps in the participant's diary, ask follow-up questions, ask for clarifications, understand reasons, causes, and the context for various behaviors, actions, and reactions.

See Chapter 2 for a step-by-step guide into conducting effective interviews (steps 5 to 10 are extremely helpful for planning and conducting interviews).

Step 8: Reframe diary data.

As you might expect, a diary study produces enormous quantities of raw data. Turning it into a meaningful, insightful body of knowledge requires a systematic and rigorous approach. One of the most effective ways for diary study data synthesis and analysis is to find and understand hidden relationships between diary study entries across participants. These relationships can help create new meaning, ideas, and solutions related to users’ workflows. To achieve all of that, reframe your collected diary data by tagging each entry using a tool that allows you to tag text entries and then explore them based on the tags you created. There are many such available tools and services. For demonstration purposes, Reframer by Optimal Workshop is used here for such an analysis.

Reframer allows you to tag data (see Figure 4.5) and generate a comprehensive view of the most meaningful findings of the study by exploring it based on those tags to uncover themes and critical findings (see Figure 4.6-7).

Figure 4.5

Tagging a diary study entry in Reframer.

Figure 4.6

Uncovering diary data themes with Reframer.

Figure 4.7

Exploring diary study entries with Reframer.

Step 9: Construct workflow.

After you have reframed your diary study and interview data and identified commonalities, themes, and interesting relationships related to the participants' workflow, it’s time to answer the question you started with, which is "What is the user's workflow?"

The answer is a numbered list of steps in the user’s workflow that includes a name for each step, a short verbal description, a quote or two from the diary itself, and a photo if it helps communicate the essence of what the step is about (see a sample steps workflow in the following sidebar). If you asked participants to sketch where a product or thing was physically located throughout the study, such sketches could also support the workflow (see Figure 4.8).

A Sample Workflow Constructed from Diary Entries

User Workflow: New Video Game

  1. Game arrives at home via mail.
  2. Unbox game.
  3. Check receipt.
  4. Enjoy cover art.
  5. Check out giveaways (photos, stickers).
  6. Insert game in console.
  7. Update game with patches.
  8. Pick a faction.
  9. Figure out story.
  10. Play through the story.
  11. Talk with friends about the game.
  12. Understand game pros and cons.
  13. Read online about game tips.
  14. Finish story.

Figure 4.8

Asking participants to indicate where a certain item of interest is placed around their home to better understand their workflow.

Other Methods to Answer the Question

While a diary study is a rich, reliable way for answering the “What is the user’s workflow?” question, the following are two additional methods for answering it. Ideally, if time is on your side, a combination of two to three methods is the best way for uncovering insights to help you answer this question.

Observation is a research technique for learning from people in their natural context of using products or services. It can take you a long way into learning everything you can about a problem and uncovering people’s needs. Observation involves gathering data at the user’s environment; therefore, it is the science of contextualization. Chapter 3 takes you step-by-step into conducting effective observations.

Interviewing is a research activity in which you gather information through direct dialogue. It is a great way to uncover and understand people's feelings, desires, struggles, delights, attitudes, and opinions. Interviewing people whom you believe to be your target audience (and those you think are not) is a great way to get to know your users, segment them, design for them, solve their problems, and provide value. Chapter 2 guides you through conducting interviews for uncovering needs.

Diary Study Resources

Access the online resource page for a diary study on the book's companion website at You'll find templates, checklists, videos, slide decks, articles, and book recommendations.

Diary Study Checklist

Choose a diary type and structure.

Set up a data collection tool.

Carefully recruit eight research participants.

Prepare instructions and brief the participants.

Launch the pilot and then the full study.

Prompt the participants for the right data.

End with interviews.

Reframe diary data.

Construct workflow.

Please find the full


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