Editor's note: Ken Berry is president of Jibunu, a Leominster, Mass., research firm.

As the percentage of people taking online surveys on a mobile device continues increasing, there has been concern over the user experience as well as a shift toward more simplified and shorter studies. It’s undeniable that we are on the road to a reality where the majority of online research will not be done on a PC. While we can’t change where the road is headed, we can ensure that it’s properly paved.

It’s widely assumed that studies utilizing advanced techniques, or any survey content that needs a large amount of screen real estate, cannot be properly done on the screens that are available to mobile users. This is a dilemma, as not all research can be done with a series of standalone, five-answer, single-punch questions. So what is a researcher to do? Do we torture the most important people in our research process with instruments that are, for lack of a better description, annoying? Do we continue to create surveys that require more zooming in and out than an “extreme close-up” on a segment of Wayne’s World?

Not to worry. With a little creativity and the tools that are available to today’s Web programmer, we can ask the questions that need to be asked without asking too much of those we trust to give the answers. We have a responsibility to the individuals who supply us with our research sustenance. Let’s not ask them to travel this road to the future on a bus with bald tires and a driver that is a few days behind on his shower schedule. Instead, let’s be aware of their needs and use the technology that has been created along the way to pick them up in our limo and ride down this road together in style. Better yet, let’s retrofit the limo with some hover conversion and eliminate the road altogether. Great Scott!

Caused hand cramps

In the past 10-15 years, researchers have seen vast advancements in how the world can be asked for feedback. The move to the Internet has allowed us to create questionnaires that would have previously caused hand cramps and required multiple sharpenings of a No. 2 pencil. Advancements in Web programming have allowed us to make surveys more engaging (via shelf sets, drag-and-drop exercises, sliders, etc.) and have reduced data collection bias by making surveys more in line with how people make choices in the real world (via conjoint, discrete choice, max-diff, etc.). Many of these capabilities and advancements have been enabled by steady increases in computer screen real estate and because of plugins that allow increased interactivity. Some of us have been in the online research game long enough to remember having to deal with 640x480 resolution. How were we able to get by? The answer is simple: We hadn’t grown out of it yet. Atari is pretty awesome when you’ve been playing Pong. I sure do miss my 2600!

A 640x480 screen is akin to your first apartment, or better yet, your dorm room. You can fit everything you need in it because you don’t need a whole lot. Over the years we have moved out of the dorm room to the apartment, and then to the house, and then to the bigger house. I moved into a mansion last year when I purchased my first 2560×1600 monitor. But now, with the ubiquity of mobile devices, we have to move back into the apartment – albeit a deluxe apartment (um . . . in the sky – sorry, I couldn’t resist). So what are we going to do with all those things we need? Do we put them in storage and live miserably while reminding ourselves how cool it was when we lived in a house? Or do we use the advancements in technology to make this deluxe apartment DY-NO-MITE!? I think most of us would agree that the latter is far less depressing.

Fortunately for those of us passionate about market research, we aren’t going to go backwards with the move to mobile devices and their apartment-sized screens. While screen sizes are getting smaller, the resources that are available for us to creatively solve the problem are increasing. So we don’t have to be miserable in our technologically-advanced apartments! Rather than saying things like “Remember when our bathroom was the size of this living room?” we can say things like, “Remember when we had to brew a pot of coffee all at one time?”

Other industries have been tackling the screen-size problem for a while now and it is time for ours to join the party. Have you shopped on Amazon or used Google recently on your mobile device? Did you notice that they did not redirect you to m.amazon.com or m.google.com and serve up a lesser version of the site? No, they offered you pretty much the same functionality you are accustomed to on your PC in a format that works well on your phone. The experience can be so pleasing on a mobile device that not only will you not avoid the site, you will actually use it more often. Consider this snippet of inner dialogue: “I have a few minutes here . . . just me and my mobile device. You know, I haven’t called my mom in a while. Let’s see what deals there are on Amazon.” (Sorry mom!)

Now imagine that the last sentence was “Let’s knock out one of those online surveys that I love so much!”

We have to change our goals before we attack the problem. The goal is not to make online research bearable but rather to make it an enjoyable experience. And before you say to yourself “This guy is delusional,” I am well aware that people who can’t wait for their next chance to take an online survey will not be the norm. We are never going to get to the point where your survey is the highlight of someone’s day. Still, we can make it so that after the survey is done there is a feeling that it was enjoyable enough that they wouldn’t mind doing it again sometime soon. This used to be easier when there was only one screen resolution and browser options were limited.

Make it more responsive

One of the most recommended ways to make a Web page work on multiple devices without changing its core content is to make it responsive. In simple terms, responsive design is technology that will automatically adjust the content and navigation of a Web site to the screen size it is being viewed on. Instead of having a separate mobile site with different templates, with responsive design there is one template and one set of content. Additionally, the experience on all devices is tied together by the design. Because there is only one design, there is more cross-device consistency. This is imperative in the research world, as a consistent instrument means consistent data. Not to mention, researchers don’t have the time or money for an entirely different survey template for their mobile participants. Responsive design is inherently forward-thinking. Because it adapts to the screen size, – no matter what the latest cool device your audience get their hands on this year or in years to come – your study will adapt accordingly.

The digital publishing industry has fully embraced this technology. Years ago, it faced the same challenge that we are facing now with many of its readers moving toward an online and then mobile method of getting their daily news and their favorite periodicals. Its solution has been to, with very few exceptions, move to a responsive design. Sites like Time.com, Newsweek.com and BostonGlobe.com are all examples of responsive solutions to the variability of the browser. The browser is so varied in its specifications that JavaScript pioneer Douglas Crockford once referred to it as “the most hostile software development environment ever imagined.” Never before had I heard it summed up with such perfection.

Cannot afford to lose these people

With all of the advances in Web development at our fingertips, it is our job, nay, our duty to make the user experience pleasing to those who are kind enough to give us their opinions (while getting an incentive :-P). We cannot afford to lose or irritate these people. Is there anything more biasing than emotion? Imagine this as a survey intro: ”Today we’d like to understand what your opinions are about our client’s new idea while under duress from the survey instrument that you will be using. Please scroll way down to the bottom of the screen to click the button to begin your ordeal.”

They don’t deserve it and they won’t continue to put up with it.

Although it is geared toward mobile consumer sites, some statistics from Google’s research on how people react to sites not designed with mobile in mind are telling. In September 2012, 50 percent of people in a Google study said that even if they like a business, they will use it less often if the firm’s Web site isn’t mobile-friendly. If that holds true for a business that they like, what does it mean for online surveys?

So what are people looking for when they do things on mobile devices or on the Web in general? The top two answers are speed and usability. Let’s face it: We live in the age of tools like Visa Checkout, where people are expecting to make purchases online with one hand while catching footballs from three of their favorite quarterbacks with the other.

Let’s get “real world” for a second. While catching footballs from famous quarterbacks is not an everyday activity for most, there are many daily activities that do eliminate the use of our other hand. Let’s make it easy for the coffee drinker to participate in the coffee study. Let’s make the survey on baby wipes simpler to answer for a mother or father who is holding a baby. In addition to making the survey content look good on all devices, let’s use a little ingenuity and some JavaScript to make them easier to take. Together we can stop daily activities from being a deterrent to giving feedback about one’s daily activities.

Way of thinking

While the technical solutions would be based on what you are looking to accomplish, I can suggest a way of thinking as well as mention a few things that we think are important when creating a survey tool. To save you from reading it over and over again, let’s preface every statement in this section with “To the extent that you can. . . ” Additionally, I’m hopeful that you will not dismiss any statement with “I can never do that.” Agreed?

Let’s start with the permission-to-play items. For starters, make sure your content is visible on smaller screens. Most call them mobile devices but, from a content standpoint, it is easier to think of them by their screen size, as the other details matter little to content. Earlier we talked about using responsive design to get this done.

Next, you need to ensure that your page can handle touch events. Without adding touch support, much of your instrument’s fancy click functionality won’t even work. There are plenty of JavaScript libraries out there that make adding this as simple as adding one line to your html header. This also makes development easier, as you don’t have to write a handler for both click and touch.

Lastly, consider your bandwidth. While the advancements in mobile broadband are mind-boggling, there are pockets of slower service, phones that are not able to use the more advanced service and plans that are limiting to data use. Make this something that your users don’t have to worry about by ensuring that you don’t use any more bytes than you need. Until these items are taken care of, it’s most likely impossible to work on the more progressive advancements in ways to ask questions.

We need to think of our surveys and how people take them. Let’s put ourselves on the other side of the survey tool and make an effort to improve the experience. It’s not about making the five-minute exercise take four minutes but rather the two-second transaction take one. Okay, it’s about both. But the latter happens on every survey, sometimes hundreds of times. It should not take a few seconds for someone to successfully hit the bull’s-eye that is a radio button or checkbox. Add JavaScript to the area around the input to increase the clickable space. Better yet, bind a click on the answer text itself to the input to make it even easier. To go the extra mile, add a style to the answer to show that it was selected and eliminate the radio button or checkbox altogether. That is one less thing for you to find space for. Once you start addressing one concern, other advances become apparent. Suddenly you are like Forrest Gump out for a morning jog. “I figured I ran this far, might as well keep on running!”

Difficulty clicking on inputs is primarily a mobile device problem. But there are ways to increase transactional efficiency on a PC as well. I’d like to suggest that the most efficient way to get information from a PC user is not the mouse. Wired or cordless, laser or rollerball, standard or trackball, the mouse can turn our surveys into digital Ouija boards. Oh great and powerful Ouija, on a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your overall satisfaction with this product? In no way am I saying that the mouse is not an amazing and useful tool and I mean no disrespect to Douglas Engelbart, its inventor. A mouse will not be as efficient as a keyboard until you design one with 101 buttons. Um . . . and not then either. And yet, aside from text inputs, we’ve all but ignored the keyboard as an input device. If you ever get the chance to see a PC gamer work in a desktop environment, you will have a new appreciation for the power of the keyboard. Gamers use a keyboard like a Jedi uses The Force. All it takes is a little JavaScript, ingenuity and some light user instruction to offer some additional freedom from our rodent-named pointing device to the rest of the population.

But usability does not stop at reducing the time survey takers need to do certain actions. If the action is a requirement, let’s do it for them! Automating the required is at the core of creating efficiency. We should not need our survey-takers to shut off their blinker after taking a right-hand turn. Yes, not all efficiency enhancements are flashy! We are already doing this on a low level. When entering text in a “specify” box checks the associated input, that’s automation. But we can automate other actions like scrolling a grid when an item is selected. If we couple that with creating a grid that only shows one row at a time, and sprinkle in a little responsive design, we’ve got a grid question that is mobile-friendly and requires zero scrolling from the survey taker. Yahtzee!

A better understanding

Regularly putting ourselves on the other side of our research instruments gives us a better understanding of the people who give us our information. Being more in touch with them is our goal as researchers. It will allow us to ensure that our tools create an efficient environment for them to give feedback. A good survey is like a good referee: They are there to make sure everything goes smoothly but they do not affect the outcome.

There are many gains to be made from looking at the survey-taking process as a whole and adding responsive design, usability enhancements and automation. Your abandon rate will be lower, your length of interview will be shorter, your data quality will be better and the people taking your surveys will be less fatigued. If we build instruments that are respectful of their time, they will be more likely to give it.