Data collection geeks like me can learn a ton at the CASRO Digital Research Conference. While the name of the event has changed many times over the years, the quality of the presentations and the opportunity to learn from experts in the industry are consistently good.
One topic that came up many years ago was conducting surveys via cellphones with SMS texts. This was at a time when most people had cellphones, but it was still a couple of years before the smartphone explosion. I remember listening to one presentation and looking down at my Samsung flip-phone thinking, “There’s no way respondents will take a CMB questionnaire this way.” For a few simple yes/no questions, this seemed like a fine methodology but it certainly wouldn’t fly for any of CMB’s studies.
For the next two or three years, less than half of the U.S. population owned smartphones (including yours truly). Even so, SMS texting was getting increasing coverage at the CASRO conference, and I was having a really hard time understanding why. Every year was billed as “the year of mobile!” I could see the potential of taking a survey while mobile, but the technology and user experience weren’t there yet. Then something happened that changed not only the market research industry but the way in which we live as human beings—smartphone adoption skyrocketed.
Today in the U.S., smartphone ownership among adults is 72% according to the Pew Research Center. People are spending more time on their phones and less time sitting in front of a computer. Depending on the study and the population, anywhere from 20%-40% of survey takers are using their smartphones. And if it’s a study with people under 25 years old, that number would likely be even higher. We can approach mobile respondents in three ways:
- Do nothing. This means surveys will be extremely cumbersome to take on smartphones, to the point where many will abandon during the painful process. This really isn’t an option at all. By doing nothing, you’re turning your back on the respondent experience and basically giving mobile users the middle finger.
- Optimize questionnaires for mobile. All of CMB’s questionnaires are optimized for mobile. That is, our programming platforms identify the device type a respondent is using and renders the questionnaire to the appropriate screen size. Even with this capability, long vertical grids and wide horizontal scales will still be painful for smartphone users since they will require some degree of scrolling. This option is better than nothing, but long questions are still going to be long questions.
- Design questionnaires for mobile. This is the best option, and one that isn’t used often enough. This requires questions and answer options to be written with the idea that they will be viewed on smartphones. In other words, no lengthy grids, no sprawling scales, no drag and drop, minimal scrolling, or anything else that would cause the mobile user angst. While this option sounds great, one of the criticisms has been that it’s difficult to do advanced exercises like max-diff or discrete choice on smartphones.
One cautionary note if you are thinking that a good option would be to simply disallow respondents from taking a survey on their smartphones. Did your parents ever tell you not to do something when you were a child? Did you listen to them or did you try it anyway? What’s going to happen when you tell someone not to take a survey on their mobile device? Either by mistake or out of sheer defiance, some people will attempt to take it on their smartphone. This happened on a recent study for one of our clients. These people tried to “stick it to the man,” but alas they were denied entry into the survey. If you want “representative” sample, the other argument against blocking mobile users is that you are blocking specific populations which could skew the results.
The respondent pool is getting shallow, and market research companies are facing increased challenges when it comes to getting enough “completes” for their studies. It’s important for all of us to remember that behind every “complete” is a human being—one who’s trying to drag and drop a little image into the right bucket or one who’s scrolling and squinting to make sure they are choosing the right option on an 11-point scale in a twenty row grid. Unless everyone is comfortable basing their quantitative findings off of N=50 in the future, we all need to take steps to embrace the mobile respondent.
Jared is CMB’s Field Services Director, and has been in market research industry for eighteen years. When he isn’t enjoying the exciting world of data collection, he can be found competing at barbecue contests as the pitmaster of the team Insane Swine BBQ.
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