Times change – navigating the shift to online data collection for time use studies


Times change – navigating the shift to online data collection for time use studies

By Chujan Sivathasan

Whether it’s online banking, streaming music or Zoom meetings, it feels like everything is going digital these days. Time use studies, which measure how the public spend their time, are not immune to this trend. In recent years, UK time use surveys have moved away from face-to-face interviews and paper diaries to digital equivalents.

This shift has brought about many benefits, including better survey functionality, lower costs and faster data availability. However, it has also raised challenges, such as lower participation without the support of an interviewer and higher risk of digital exclusion.

A review conducted by the National Centre for Social Research as part of the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence (ESCoE) research programme explores the current state of online time studies in the UK and outlines potential improvements to drive efficacy for both respondents and data users.


The review draws three key insights for creating an optimally designed online time use study:

  1. Ensure the online tool is intuitively designed

    The design of the online tool is crucial for the success of the time use survey. Study participants are asked to fill in time diaries on a platform, providing information about all their activities on two random days allocated to them by researchers. Without an interviewer present to provide support or motivation, the online data collection tool must be intuitively designed. This includes ensuring it is accessible to those with visual, dexterity and other impairments, for example by allowing keyboard-only completion. Clear guidance is essential to ensure participants can navigate the tool and enter data independently, as well as resolve any issues. This guidance could be through video or text-based instructions. The interface should be user-friendly and visually appealing, adopting a mobile-first design approach. This not only helps to facilitate participation but also keeps respondents engaged throughout the study. The latter is key, as online time use studies consist of a non-linear survey, often made up of different components. This means that participants can pick and choose the parts of the survey they wish to respond to, and the order that they respond to them.

  2. Think about the digitally excluded

    According to 2021 data, nearly two million households in the UK have no access to the internet at home. An even bigger group – around ten million adults – lack the skills to fully complete a set of eight basic digital tasks that includes connecting to Wi-Fi and opening an internet browser. In this context, it is important to ensure that online time use studies are accessible to as many people as possible. One potential solution is to offer respondents an offline method to complete the survey, such as by telephone. This also offers an alternative for those who may have internet access but are hesitant to participate in online surveys. Our review has shown that providing a telephone option results in a slightly higher response as well as an improved sample profile (e.g. more older people taking part). However, the advantages of enhanced inclusivity need to be weighed against factors such as additional costs, increased complexities in data collection and the potential for mode bias (where a particular survey method causes different data to be collected).

  3. Consider paper support materials

    The shift online provides various advantages compared to paper surveys, such as the ability to access the tool across different devices. However, it also increases the likelihood of participants being required to recall past activities, often hours or even days earlier. This is even more likely if telephone participation is offered as an option. To counter this, paper support materials can help to simplify the experience for respondents and improve data quality. For example, providing participants with a paper memory aid booklet allows them to make notes during diary days. Experimental data suggests that participants provided with a paper booklet were more likely to take notes and refer to them when completing online surveys, compared to those without. However, the impact on response was mixed, potentially due to some respondents feeling they were having to record their activities twice. This shows the importance of aligning the paper booklet as closely as possible to the online data entry process and emphasising that its use is optional.


Time use studies provide valuable data for researchers and policymakers across multiple areas, including employment, gender roles, health, and wellbeing. Going forward, they are likely to play an important role in the collection of economic statistics that go ‘beyond GDP’. Time use surveys can also capture activities like unpaid household work and childcare that often go under the radar with traditional economic metrics.

For this reason, it is crucial that data collected from online time use studies is reliable and representative of the population. Introducing strategies such as well-designed diary tools, offering an offline survey option and providing paper support materials can all contribute to achieving this goal.

Chujan Sivathasan is a Senior Researcher in the “Attitudinal Surveys and NatCen Panel” team at the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen). He currently works on the British Social Attitudes survey and the NatCen Panel, the UK’s longest-running probability-based research panel. He has contributed to seven waves of the UK online time-use studies, run in collaboration with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Centre for Time Use Research (CTUR).

ESCoE blogs are published to further debate.  Any views expressed are solely those of the author(s) and so cannot be taken to represent those of the ESCoE, its partner institutions or the Office for National Statistics.

About the authors

Chujan Sivathasan