Mobile.  Mobile.  Mobile.  Everyone wants mobile research.  Mobile access can put research in context like never before.  It’s the ultimate in meeting the consumer where they are rather than bringing the customer to where we are.

For years, researchers have begged for more mobile.   We researchers see the promise and we love the idea of just-in-time feedback.  There is a beautiful synergy between researchers and respondents since both groups want to utilize mobile devices more.  Even so, mobile research is growing but it has never boomed.  Why not?

Decipher just released a white paper titled, “Update:  Participation of mobile users in online surveys.”  The Decipher study shows that survey starts for mobile devices are steadily rising but dropout rates for smartphones are almost twice as high as for desktop or laptop computers.  Their data is based on very large samples over 1 million surveys per quarter.

Respondents are quickly adopting the use of mobile devices to participate in research.  The Decipher study shows mobile device survey starts increased approximately 300% in the past two years from about 7% at the beginning of 2012 to about 20% by the end of 2013.  Roughly 2/3 of mobile respondents start the survey with a smartphone (13%) and about 1/3 by tablet (7%).

More mobile research is good news, right?  It allows us to get that valuable “in context” response.  The problem is that dropout rates for smartphones are twice as high as dropout rates for desktop computers.  According to the Decipher study, 76% of those who start a survey on a desktop complete it compared to only 59% who start a study on a smartphone.  So, only 3 out of 5 respondents using a smartphone actually complete the survey.  This dropout rate would be unacceptable standing alone.  Fortunately for researchers, the high dropout rate is masked by the 80% of respondents who still respond to online surveys using a desktop.

As researchers, we want mobile because we want in-the-moment respondent access.  As researchers, we have been largely unwilling to adjust our methods and expectations to take advantage of the contextual promise that mobile offers.  Decipher rightly points out that screen size and ease of data entry are significant barriers to mobile research completion.  These problems will become more acute as respondents’ smartphone use grows.  Extrapolating Decipher’s data indicates that by the end of 2015, smartphones will account for 20-25% of all survey starts, double today’s rate.  At that point, today’s 40% dropout rate will become glaring and unacceptable.

We are entering an era when researchers must evolve.  We must provide dual interfaces that are optimized for the device respondents choose to use.  Screen size, data entry functions and length of surveys must all be adjusted to fit our respondents’ situation, not just our need to know.

So, why is all this on a qualitative blog?  Because these findings all apply to qualitative, maybe more so.  At 20|20, we see smartphone login trends very similar to Decipher’s numbers, even for those studies that are not designed to be “mobile studies.”  Problematically, typical online qualitative methods do not translate well to a smartphone’s small screen.  Text entry and image evaluation are simply much more difficult as is browsing a large data file such as a bulletin board conversation.

As researchers, we need to understand and appreciate that smartphones are becoming our respondents’ device of choice and we need to design to the trend.  The good news is that researchers are doing just that.  In the past year, 20|20 has seen a 127% increase in our mobile journal platform (LifeNotes) entries.  LifeNotes is designed specifically to be smartphone friendly.  Experienced online qualitative researchers are learning that pictures and video really are worth 1000 words, particularly from a mobile device where those pictures and video provide context for a more nuanced understanding.  Researchers are also learning how to squeeze value out of shorter mobile text or audio responses that may be short on words but long on immediacy and context.

Researchers who want to get in front of this trend can follow three steps.

  1. Realize that the world is changing.  Don’t resist, respond.
  2. Optimize research for the platforms respondents will use.  Provide options for both desktops/laptops and for mobile, specifically smartphones.
  3. Learn how to analyze and interpret the data best collected by smartphones:  pictures, video, short text fields and audio

Technology feasibility is about tipping points.  In the next two years, respondent mobile access to research will reach a tipping point that researchers will not be able to ignore.  The question is, “Will research adapt their methods and expectations or will they find themselves with unacceptable dropout rates and frustrated respondents that leaves everyone wanting more?”

Originally published on Qualblog as "The Looming Smartphone Research Crisis: Meeting the Challenge"