MOBILE SCHMOBILE: Taking in-the-moment into in-context learning

As qualitative researcher who works a lot with kids, teens, and their parents, I see that smartphones and tablets are a very important part of the way in which they communicate. You might say smartphones are a third arm for many in our world.

The research territory around the smartphone and tablets is called mobile research. Mobile research allows us to experience our targets’ lives in 3-D. We are “with them” as they share their experiences. In other words, mobile research is an effective way to get windows into our targets’ world as our research tasks are being done. And when we provide this perspective for clients, in-context learning leads to powerful product and service insights and ideation.


Going There Without Being There

Every research method has its strengths and its weaknesses. Mobile is great for helping our clients actually “be there” with participants without the intrusion and impact of being with them during more private moments.

Yet, when we get “in-the-moment” photos/videos or even recorded audio notes, we may not get an explanation of the context of that moment. This is often the trickiest part with mobile. Consumers are willing to share it all but are not always so good at telling us reasons for certain actions or behaviors after they’ve posted great photos/videos/audio for a mobile study.

Deciding on the right research tool for your client’s objectives is always the most important consideration. Within mobile research, we need to select the best platform given the tasks needed to address our objectives.


One Version of Mobile Qualitative: Multiple Points of Question Access

Mobile access allows an online bulletin board/community participant to log in and complete certain or all activities from a tablet or smartphone, although exercises can often be completed from a computer as well. Think of this as one tool with two points of access (mobile and personal computer).

A platform with multiple points of access allows the participants to work in a way that is most comfortable for them; it gives them options. And sometimes it’s needed: consider the case if you are reviewing concept statements or discussing past behaviors via a webcam-enabled response and a mobile point-of-access that asks the participant to upload a picture or video taken when shopping.

Multiple access points create a rich dialogue for more in-depth study objectives.

Yet, in my experience, turning the mobile-access feature on for an online bulletin board or community platform requires the consumer to switch mindsets. This often results in hard-to-receive or incomplete video files. In short, it can be confusing to the participants. I often see that they upload video from their computer versus the mobile-access point to make sure they’ve “really” answered the question.


Another Version of Mobile Qualitative: A Stand-Alone Mobile Research App Often Provides Better In-Context Responses

A mobile access point that is only a mobile app provides a truly mobile experience for respondents—no scrolling, everything is optimized for the smaller screen and no toggling back and forth from PC to smartphone/tablet. Most importantly, we’re not asking participants to change their behaviors across points-of-access. Because they have only one access point for answering all questions, there is less confusion. Mobile-only studies ask the consumer to continually photograph, video or talk to “it”—almost in a stream of consciousness way. Context is seamlessly woven into their responses.

A good app will also allow the researcher to ask a series of follow-up questions directly through it, so consumers can answer quickly. Several new qualitative mobile apps allow for follow-up email probes.

The client feedback I get from using dedicated mobile research apps suggests I am better able to bring the consumer to life. I believe this is because while we can probe on all platforms, we can’t always get into the reasons things are happening as immediately as in a mobile access study.

Rules of Thumb for Creating Appropriate and Fun Mobile Activities

  • Since my primary objective for using a mobile app or a mobile access tool is to gather authentic in-the-moment video/ photos/audio, I consider which social media accounts my target consumer uses and how they are using them (some targets are into Snapchat and Vine, while others are exclusively Facebook or Twitter users). Based on this understanding, I look to create activities that work in similar ways to those the respondents are familiar with.
  • Just because someone is using a social media account does not mean they are using it in the same way others do. I try to understand what is appropriate for my audience by doing a little recon- naissance on social media before creating my discussion guide. Age and com- fort with technology often play a role in how much someone is willing to share. For instance, mom and kid audiences use mobile tools often, so asking them to post a video about their break- fast preparation isn’t too much to ask. Yet, if the target is retirees looking for the perfect vacation spot, use fewer personal shopping-related questions.
  • I keep an eye out on what promotions consumers are liking and sharing on their accounts. This allows me to know I’m asking them something that is not too difficult or uncomfortable. Since consumers are asked to share things on social media in exchange for coupons, etc., our qualitative research apps feel quite similar to how the retailer promo apps are engaging them (e.g., offering cash for uploads).


Be prepared to explain to your client that your target audience can do your exercises because you have done your research. And if they can do it, they will have fun doing meaningful, well- designed activities.

“Dos” for Getting Rich Media Deliverables with Mobile Projects

Here are my most important “must dos” to ensure you get great media uploads the essential for producing media-dependent deliverables.

  1. Recruit those who are comfortable uploading video and pictures online using their mobile device. In screening, directly ask if they already upload video and pictures to social media sites using their smartphone and/or tablet.
  2. Include “how-to-post media on this platform” instructions. Even though many do a lot of social-media posting via a mobile device, every platform has a different posting process. Make sure you have instructions easily accessible in your introduction section
  3. Post your own fun selfie example. If it will not influence participants, show participants how you might post as an example of what you are expecting from them. Be sure to be yourself. For me, it’s easy and also warms them up to my upbeat style.
  4. Be conscious of privacy. Each country has privacy laws. Yet aside from these laws, consider what people might be willing to share based on cultural norms and how you would feel if you were asked to do the activity. Would you share photos of your six-year-old bathing to strangers? Would you show yourself shaving your legs in the shower? (For me, probably not!) Better to gently push back on your clients with more appropriate activities that can still achieve to their desired media deliverables than to risk being disrespectful of consumers and not get the quality responses you need.
  5. Have fun. The world of mobile is a fun one for many respondents who see their smartphone and tablet as sources of entertainment. Create activities that feel fun to do. There’s always a way to have fun and deliver the client great insights that meet their objectives. I’m a huge fan of fun!



KISS: The Great World of Mobile Research Can Be Yours

To offer you some final advice on entering the world of mobile research, you should keep it always simple. KISS is my motto (Keep It Simple Stupid), but it’s a hard one to follow. In mobile research, many websites are becoming mobile- friendly, but it takes a lot of scrolling to get to read an article or to see the product you want to buy. Think about the real estate of a mobile screen, for smartphones especially, and also the smaller tablets. Keep your activities easy to do and short: a little bit longer than a Tweet and more like a Facebook post. Then, the world of mobile research is yours to conquer!


By Pam Goldfarb Liss

  • President/Big Brain
  • LitBrains
  • Nyack, NY
  • npam@litbrains.com

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