Mobile research has its critics but it is undeniable that the relationship we have with our smartphones and other personal devices; always-there, always-on, makes mobile research an immensely desirable and potent prospect for researchers and clients alike.
Traditionally, research captures opinion after an event has taken place. Individuals are asked to recall and ruminate on an experience which could have taken place (at best) hours ago but more likely days or weeks before. This process is reflective, relies on memory of the event and poses the possibility that the data collected is diluted and not a true reflection of the individual’s experience.
The belief is that mobile research holds the key to unlocking richer insight and boosting data quality by giving access to consumers ‘in the moment’ allowing surveying or data collection of attitudes, preferences, experiences and behaviours in real time, live at source. Be that in-store making purchase decisions, at home consuming products or out and about viewing advertising stimuli — mobile research has the power to do it all.
The Unspoken Challenge of Mobile Research
The paradox is however, that while we talk a good talk, in reality much of what is described as ‘mobile research’ is not. It is usually respondents completing surveys at home, away from context, reflecting on their experience and reporting it retrospectively….only on a Smartphone. The only ‘mobile’ aspect is the device; all the contextual features of mobile research are absent.
Where this disconnect comes from is complex to ascertain and worthy of a blog of its own. Briefly, we believe there is a tendency to see mobile as an extension of online research. Constructing it in this way places undue emphasis on the device and promotes thinking around convenience at the expense of context. We suggest mobile research should be seen as something different, separate to online research. Where context is king and the device is the conduit to reaching through to the situation. Mobile research is not about giving respondents another mode through which to complete surveys.
The ‘in-situ’ aspect of mobile research should be its defining feature and tapping into this effectively has unique implications at all stages of the research process which are not the same as online research.
So what Can Researchers Do?
There is no simple recipe when carrying out mobile research in-situ, but here are a few practical tips to get started with to maximise the opportunity for success.
1. Design for mobile. An obvious point but critical. Make it as easy as possible for people to complete research in-situ by recognising and responding to the constraints small touch-screens impose on them. No matter how willing a participant, the act of submitting data during mobile research is likely to be interruptive to their normal behaviour and of secondary importance to them. Under these circumstances time is a precious commodity and will not be wasted on interfaces that are not fit for purpose.
Surveys should be short with clearly worded questions that are simple to complete. Avoid grid questions entirely or any other question types which require left to right scrolling or zooming — these are guaranteed to create frustration and data drop-outs. Be liberal with the use of white space, this creates a feeling of clarity and brevity. Utilise interactive touch-screen elements such as drag and drop questions or sliders for intuitive and user friendly surveys.
Finally, use progress bars or completion indicators to reassure participants of their progress through the task.
2. Design for the situation. This relates to the task. Whatever data collection method(s) you employ (short survey, diary or multimedia capture) put yourself in the participant’s shoes and consider the appropriateness of it in the situation you are trying to reach. Be mindful of the level of complexity, time to complete, perceived relevance and effort required. Ask yourself, are these compatible with the situation? Keep it simple, ask only what you need to know and keep it quick.
A significant challenge of in-situ research is the range of other demands that impinge on the participant and compete for their attention. These can be external factors of the location itself (noise, presence of other people, time constraints etc) and also ‘on screen’ from their device too — emails, social media notification and update pose tempting distractions. Under these circumstances even the most engaged participants may struggle to maintain focus and a task that is incompatible, complex or confusing will result in drop outs or low quality data.
3. Have a strategy. Before embarking on mobile research take time to think strategically. Have clarity on how ‘in the moment feedback’ will enrich your insight and which research objectives it satisfies. A full understanding of this is important to ensure that your choice of techniques or applications is compatible with the situation and thereby facilitate completion rates. Remember the old adage, less is more!
4. Blend technique & creativity. Be willing to blend techniques. Mobile research can provide rich insight but its time constrained nature does not lend it to long surveys or complex tasks. On its own it is unlikely to satisfy all research objectives, its power comes as a complementary channel of insight. The best applications of mobile research are likely to be those that use it alongside other forms of insight.
Short surveys are not the only data capture technique available with mobile research. Photos, videos and text can all be used to bring observations to life and may provide a more engaging or convenient participant experience too.
5. Leverage location based technology. Undoubtedly, the hardest question mobile research poses is how to actually initiate participation ‘in the right place at the right time’ or indeed validate that the data collected was obtained ‘in the moment’. For mobile research to flourish, location based technologies will have to be increasingly used.
Geo-fencing is a major growth area and opportunity. By creating a virtual boundary around areas of interest such as a retail store or public location, market research can be delivered to individuals via push notifications either as they enter or leave the location.
Geo-fencing lends itself to best to reasonably large areas and may not be appropriate for small scale studies or location at a granular level — specific areas of a store for example. In this case, QR codes may offer a more appropriate solution, while they are a less automated solution; they do offer flexibility in their applications. Apps with their GPS integration and push notification abilities also offer another route.
The Potential Impact of Mobile Research
But let’s not get too carried away. Yes mobile research opens a new window on the consumer but it also poses a real challenge to traditional notions of privacy. Not only does mobile research ask people to surrender their location privacy, it also potentially asks that they consent to passive data about themselves being collected and used. Obviously there is the potential to build up a detailed picture of that person which might not be expected or wanted.
It is the duty of the research community to ensure that this is transparent and we continue to fulfil our commitment to operate under informed consent. How we as researchers best navigate this requires considerable debate.