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Managing mobile research: How it's different and why it matters

Article ID:
March 2013
Dinaz Kachhi-Jiwani, Jacob Tucker and Lisa Wilding-Brown

Article Abstract

It is critical to understand how mobile research differs from other data collection modes and its implications for researchers in terms of designing, targeting and fielding surveys. This article seeks to understand the impact of conducting surveys on this platform and offer direction and best practices.

Editor's note: Dinaz Kachhi-Jiwani is senior manager, research insights; Jacob Tucker is research analyst; and Lisa Wilding-Brown is vice president, global panel and sampling operations at uSamp, an Encino, Calif., research company. They can be reached at, and, respectively. This article appeared in the March 25, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.

In 2011, mobile was considered an emerging data collection method. The following year, the research industry began to overcome the challenges of mobile's high cost and limited reach and witnessed a surge in adoption. More sophisticated technology and affordable pricing increased smartphone penetration and mobile as a mode for data collection could go where in-person, telephone and online research could not - engaging respondents on-the-go to gather in-the-moment insights. As mobile research continues to gain momentum, it is critical to understand the types of research for which it is best suited.

To start, researchers and project management teams must understand a respondent's interaction with and usage of a smartphone. Equipped with this knowledge, they can set realistic expectations, target relevant audiences and encourage higher engagement rates.


Patterns in smartphone usage


USamp conducted a survey to capture patterns in smartphone usage and behavior in accordance with basic demographics. More than half of mobile owners have smartphones and mobile penetration is helping researchers target harder-to-reach demographics like young adults (25-to-34-year-olds). Fifty-eight percent of respondents have owned their smartphones for more than two years and 98 percent of respondents feel comfortable using them. Forty-four percent of respondents in the 45+ age range reported that they have owned their devices for more than two years and 98 percent of that group feels comfortable using them.


These findings reiterate that smartphone ownership is at an all-time high and respondents across different demographics are well-versed in mobile technology. In terms of ethnic differences, minority groups such as African-Americans (72 percent), Hispanics (61 percent) and Asian-Americans (60 percent) have owned a smartphone for a longer duration (more than two years) than Caucasians (54 percent).

Top activities performed on a mobile include sending, checking and receiving e-mails; receiving or making calls; and accessing social media. Researchers can learn to leverage these behavioral findings by targeting mobile respondents through multiple channels including apps, e-mail or social media message and/or text alert.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents were on their smartphones during the mid- to late-afternoon time frame (11 a.m.-4 p.m.). Nineteen percent of 35-to-44-year-olds and 16 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds were engaged in academics, business and other social activities on their smartphones from late night to the early morning (8 p.m.-5 a.m.).

These findings contradict the hypothesis that mobile respondents would be most active in the early morning or evening (before or after work). Unlike other modes of research, which typically experience large peaks and valleys in respondent activity based on the time of day, mobile has demonstrated a more constant, steady distribution of respondent activity throughout a 24-hour period, which ultimately results in shorter field times.

The round-the-clock availability of mobile respondents can streamline inefficiencies inherent in other methods of data collection. Telephone research, for example, may involve multiple callback attempts to achieve a desired number of completes. Similarly, the response rate for online surveys varies based on the time of day and duration of fielding. This issue also generates non-response bias, which needs to be accounted for while conducting data analysis.


Mobile operating systems


When asked about their mobile operating system (OS), 58 percent reported iOS and 39 percent cited Android. Only 1 percent of respondents used an OS other than Android/iOS. Two percent admitted that they did not know the OS supported by their smartphones.

To accommodate both Android and iOS, surveys must be properly formatted for both systems and be device-agnostic. The questions should be formatted with the user experience in mind, as well as optimized for screen size and resolution. In mobile research, the overall design is just as important as the content of the questions. Researchers must consider device functionality at every stage of the research process. With the growing excitement of this new method for in-the-moment data collection, it is easy to overlook the details. The transition from desktop to mobile must be taken seriously because the medium definitely does determine the message.

Five percent of the targeted respondents started but did not complete the study. In this case, a loss of signal could have easily interrupted respondents who were completing surveys during transit or while in a big-box retailer. This drop-off makes a good argument for developers to design a feature that enables respondents to complete a survey offline and transfers the data once reception is available.


Opinions about mobile surveys


In keeping with other modes of data collection, the main driving force to participate in mobile surveys is to earn rewards. However, respondents also find mobile surveys easy to complete (75 percent) and view them as fun, exciting and interesting (50 percent). These findings reflect what respondents expect from a mobile survey. Therefore, researchers and project managers would be wise to must the length of interview within the recommended five-to-10-minute range.

Additionally, to maintain the fun and exciting perception of mobile surveys, the questionnaire design needs to engage respondents in ways beyond self-reporting. Geofencing technology can trigger alerts based on a respondent's location and respondent participation can also be optimized via the use of mobile features such as picture and video cameras, scanning and audiorecording apps. In turn, these rich media insights help researchers better contextualize data, validate responses and deliver quality analysis.

The number of years of ownership has a direct correlation with preference for mobile. Respondents who owned their smartphones for more than two years were more likely to prefer mobile surveys (60 percent), as well as be more comfortable with the functionalities of the device.


Transcends barriers of time and space


Mobile technology can provide unparalleled demographic reach that transcends barriers of time and space, as smartphone users can be alerted at any point throughout their day and night because they are wired around the clock. In terms of applications, mobile survey research is relevant to a wide range of verticals including CPG, retail, banking and finance, marketing, branding and advertising agencies.

Overall, the findings indicate that mobile as a data collection method holds great potential for researchers but will require rewriting the online sampling rules. We cannot assume that online will seamlessly translate into mobile. Each method must be given a different treatment - from the design of user interface to the types of questions and length of survey and feature.

As with the emergence of any new methodology, critics' concerns must be weighted alongside the enthusiasm of early adopters and there are challenges that must be addressed to leverage the mobile platform to its full capability. Operating system dynamics, user interface, reception and network connectivity and battery life must be viewed as seriously as survey design. Researchers must take these elements into consideration to provide the fun-and-exciting dynamic that users expect and to gather quality data for better business intelligence.

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