The Next Big Trend in Research: Taking Surveys on the Commode?

We all do it.  When we get that urge that can’t wait, we excuse ourselves to the nearest lavatory and while handling our business on the porcelain throne we whip out our phones to check text messages, emails, Facebook/Twitter updates, and pretty soon – a number of us will use this time to take a quick survey.  It may sound a bit farfetched at first, but consider this: mobile surveys are one of the most adopted research techniques today and with nearly 75% of us using our smartphones on the toilet, the correlation here is pretty clear!  So now that your sensibilities have been pricked, let’s consider the more important notion here – mobile market research – and why it may soon impact a great majority of researchers and survey respondents alike.

The mobile revolution is already upon us.  Mobile devices are practically indispensable to us today, which explains why they’ve penetrated just about every environment that people occupy:

  • According to Gongos Research, 90% of Americans have their phones within 3 feet of them — 24 hours a day.
  • A study by Boston Consulting Group shows 70% of workers admitted to checking their smartphone each day within an hour after getting up, and 56% did so within an hour before going to bed.
  • Google Research tells us 80% of smartphone owners use their phones for shopping and shopping-related activities and 70% use their phones in stores.
  • 40% of U.S. smartphones owners use their devices while watching TV on a daily basis, according to data from Nielsen.

Considering this high rate of mobile usage, cell phones (and smartphones in particular) are primed to possibly be the next wide-spread, efficient, and most flexible mode of data collection to date.

This summer’s Market Research in the Mobile World Conference (MRMW) gave us tons of insight into the advances in mobile research as well as previews for future methodologies and applications.  Infosurv attended and noted key takeaways around where the mobile research movement is headed.  Since then, the research industry has been a buzz with even more discussion and development.  Here we’ll talk about our most notable observations from the conference and other trending industry discussions, as well as our recommendations for leveraging mobile research effectively.

Ideal Data Collection: Greater Response Rates and Passive Data

Many reasons point to why mobile phones are an ideal medium to collect a wide range of data from survey respondents.  Data collection is a crucial component of the research process, so conducting fieldwork intelligently plays a major role in the insights we can deliver.  Mail surveys have long-suffered with low response rates and high costs, and with more cell phones than people in the U.S., it’s become increasingly difficult to reach samples through land-lines for the once coveted phone survey.  Even online research has experienced declining participation rates and drawbacks when it comes to finding samples that are entirely representative of a population.  Mobile research endeavors to overcome these mounting hurdles.

Currently 88% of U.S. adults own a cell phone, with 49% of all U.S. adults accessing the Internet via their cell phone at least occasionally.  Studies show that by 2013, more people will surf the web with their smartphone than with their PC.  This high prevalence of mobile phone users with Internet access gives way to a broad, untapped population for research.  Furthermore, certain demographics, including on-the-go and tech savvy younger generations as well as business professionals are much easier to reach via their mobile device than other methods.

Because people actually enjoy engaging with their mobile phones, mobile surveys also stand to mitigate the decline in respondent motivation to complete surveys.  Mobile surveys can be taken anywhere at any time, with their results available in real-time via the Internet.  This added flexibility is shown to return high and fast response rates for mobile surveys.  A study from Globalpark Research observed a 35% completion rate within 2 hours – an impressive feat to say the least.

Respondents today are also more difficult to identify within certain geographies and environments (i.e. home, retail center, workplace, etc.), without asking them outright.  In the mobile sphere, it’s become increasingly easy to configure survey applications to record and track a respondent’s location, websites they visit, purchase transactions, date and time of survey completion, and much more.  This information, known as passive data, helps researchers track respondents’ behavior and send them more relevant surveys.  Research technologies can even be designed to automatically send out a survey when mobile respondents enter a particular environment (be it retail, dining, or entertainment).  It is these revolutionary capabilities that will transform how, when, and what type of data researchers collect in the future.

Mobile Research Designs Transforming the Data We Collect

While mobile is indeed faster and cheaper than traditional approaches, it delivers much more than that.  A common theme echoed throughout MRMW was how mobile research has allowed for increased qualitative feedback through diverse techniques.  The true nature of this diversity lies in the capabilities of mobile devices themselves and how we creatively exploit them.

One of the biggest benefits of mobile research is being able to interact with and survey respondents at the point at which a behavior happens.  This is especially useful for ethnography researchers, given that mobile devices are excellent at capturing passive data that tracks respondents’ behaviors leading up to a desired action (i.e. purchase or engagement with a product).  This gives us insight into the “why” of a behavior like never before.

Trends also show that cell phone users are much more likely to provide personal and unconventional responses compared to other methods of data collection. Considering its highly individual nature, giving feedback through a cell phone instinctively puts respondents in a mind frame of personal and emotional response.  This is remarkably beneficial to researchers given the importance of measuring emotional response and the valuable insights those sentiments can reveal.

Studies show that emotions often override human logic and are a stronger driver of our actions than any rational conclusions we draw.  In addition, many behavioral elements that are often over looked in cognitive measurement can be extracted through emotional measurement.  For these reasons measuring emotions is becoming a standard research approach, rich with an untapped understanding of consumer behavior and future intent.  Because mobile platforms are prone to elicit emotional responses, their relevance is made that much more impactful.

Demonstrating the cell phone’s personal nature even further, smartphones have become a multipurpose lifeline for most people and have replaced all other cameras as the standard for picture taking.  Nielsen reports almost 55% of U.S. mobile subscribers own smartphones as of June 2012, and with decreasing costs and improving technology, a further upward trend is expected.  Advances in smartphone technology allow researchers to creatively adapt modern study methods to the smartphone environment.  Moving beyond simple SMS text surveys, researchers can now immerse themselves in a respondent’s life, yielding insight like never before.  Playing a simulation game, tracking their drive routes through GPS, or taking photos during a shopping trip are all ways respondents can provide feedback.  Gamification, GPS tracking, and pictures/videos are just a few of the key emerging technologies that can be optimized through the mobile platform.  Careful considerations, however, need to be made when designing mobile studies.

Back to the Drawing Board – Mobile is a Whole New Ballgame from Online

Given the advances in smartphone technology, mobile surveys are no longer just online surveys on a mobile phone.  Perhaps the most important consideration for mobile research is the user experience.  Making research fun and interesting for the respondent will yield better results and open the respondent up to different ways of thinking.  Mobile research must then take full advantage of the mobile experience (i.e., touch screen, enhanced graphics, location information, voice/data/image integration, etc.).

Even with these new capabilities, researchers are cautioned to not get fixated on the technology itself.  Mobile surveys need to be designed to understand behaviors with the user experience top of mind.  In certain environments, app-based research may be the best approach, whereas SMS messages will be most useful in others. Mobile surveys should have short questions and layouts that accommodate different screen sizes.  Any complex questions should be kept to a minimum and placed toward the end of the survey.  In addition to design, there are also other factors to take into account with sampling and fielding.

Consider the Limitations – Internet Access, Privacy Concerns, and Sample Frames

Every research approach has its weaknesses, especially those still testing their strengths.  Researchers should be aware that mobile is actively developing and certain limitations should be considered when designing a mobile study (i.e., fatigue from typing long comments or reading lengthy texts, smaller text/image sizes, etc.).  The most noted considerations are identifying an efficient way for respondents to access web based surveys and also developing privacy policies to protect respondents.

With only about half of those owning a cell phone actually using it to access the Internet, it’s important to consider if those invited to the survey via their phone can actually take it without incurring additional data charges.  In addition, strict and explicit privacy policies need to be put in place so that respondents understand how their data will be used and identity protected.  These considerations also present issues with controlling the sample you’re surveying.

While it’s true that 88% of U.S. adults now own a cell phone, one must also consider the representativeness of any mobile sample, as some data suggests certain socio-economic groups as well as select age brackets may be excluded from samples.  Ensuring compatibility between different mobile browsers is also critical, as incongruences here could result in botched data.

An Evolving Methodology

Mobile research is still very much in an exploratory phase.  Industry standards for conducting mobile research are not yet in place – which most researchers agree is ideal right now.  The dynamic and evolving nature of mobile research gives way to un-stifled innovation and positive growth.  Mobile research will see new models and approaches to collecting and analyzing data from the free range of mobile applications being explored today.

Researchers should feel free to experiment with different approaches, taking note of failures and advancing those methods that yield desirable results.  It’s also advised that any study using mobile research be combined with other methods to offset any risk during this exploratory phase.  Taking these steps will indeed usher us into a new generation of research that will reach wider audiences, and probe respondents in innovative ways, while delivering deeper, more valuable insights than the previous.

So when the mobile research dust finally settles, and you’re taking cell phone surveys on the commode, just remember to clean your hands after – and your phone!

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