Similar to a 14-year-old who’s just been gifted their first iPhone, the research industry is borderline obsessed with mobile devices. Wherever you look, mobile devices are being used to facilitate all manner of research. From in-the-moment surveys and in-home usage tests to shop-a-long studies, consumers are sharing their selfie insights on a variety of occasions. This mobile mania has coincided with the rise of a number of mobile research platforms and tools begging for the attention of the researcher. This mobile mania can leave a researcher’s head spinning, dizzy from the options and wary of insights that can be achieved with the little glowing screens in consumers’ pockets. Some researchers are rightfully skeptical of mobile research platforms.

Take the qualitative researcher who values the opportunity to sit face-to-face with her research subjects, for example. It makes sense that she would be skeptical of this one-on-none approach, especially when she’s not sure how she – or her talents – fit into the mobile qualitative research equation. When we speak of the researcher’s talents, we’re speaking of the incredible amount of empathy she brings to the table when developing a discussion guide or speaking to her subject. The discussion guide isn’t static; it’s flexible. Like a great improviser, the researcher goes into her session with the research participant and carefully hits the beats of her guide while seamlessly breaking off script to do a deeper dive on something the participant just said. That’s where those surprising insights – those insights she makes a career from – are buried. How can that level of insight be achieved when you keep the researcher miles away from her participant?

Fear not! Not only are good qualitative insights achievable via mobile research, but the researcher and her empathetic talents are still the most important part of the equation. At their best, mobile research platforms simply allow – and require – the researcher to focus on the part of qualitative research equation that she is particularly gifted at, albeit in a different way. We’ll get to that later. First, let’s look at the equation for good qualitative research, an equation which doesn’t change for mobile.

You find the right people. In the past, this integral part of the research process may have been the most cumbersome. The researcher develops a screener based on specific demographic / psychographic parameters, then goes forth into the great big world and carefully (read: painstakingly) finds qualified participants whom she will research. Now, this doesn’t necessarily change with mobile research. The researcher is still going to develop a screener based on specific parameters. However, the part where they send email blasts, do cold calls and scour social media should be streamlined with the advent of mobile research platforms that include robust databases. And, let’s be honest, most mobile research platforms have exactly that – a database with tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of participants all over the world ready to fill out a screener on a moment’s notice. A recruit that could’ve taken weeks can now take hours, freeing the researcher’s time. 

The next part of the equation is putting the right people in the right context. Traditionally, this may be in a focus group, in the participant’s home, or in a store for a shop-a-long. This requires planning. The researcher or their office-mate, Earl the project manager, carefully figures out what times the participants have free and when their availability matches with the researcher’s schedule. Then, there’s the business of the researcher or participants travelling to the agreed-upon site. It goes without saying that this is all very time-consuming and expensive, dollars piling up like San Franciscans in a Bart car. Yet, here’s another area where mobile technology lessens the burden for the researcher and her intrepid office-mate Earl.

Once the database of qualified participants has completed the screener and the chosen few have been marked, the researcher can choose to put them in whatever context her imagination conjures up. (Okay, if your mind went to the ocean floor, then your imagination needs some reigning in). The beauty of mobile research is that you can access the consumer wherever they take their cell phone, which is pretty much everywhere (750 people in a 1,000 person study in 2012 admitted to using their phone on the john)1.  Context, in the case of mobile research, is no longer a scheduling nightmare. Viva la revolucion!

Onward to the final part of the qualitative research equation, the part where the researcher is required most in mobile research: asking the right questions. In the field, this comes in the form of a discussion guide. As discussed earlier, the researcher uses the discussion guide to facilitate a conversation with the research subjects. One-on-one, the researcher equips her empathy cape to suss out areas the research subject feels strongly about. This part of the process is the ballet, the live theater part of the equation. This is where the researcher can feel like Beethoven conducting piano concerto number 5, waving empathy like a baton. Conversely, within the mobile research one-on-none context, the researcher is challenged to be proactively empathetic instead of employing empathy in a one-on-one context. 

Within a mobile research workflow, this proactive (or cognitive) empathy needs to be deployed during the question-writing process. Because the researcher will not be able to address the research subject while they answer the questions, the researcher is tasked with putting herself in the shoes of the participant while she writes the questions. In a one-on-one context, the researcher can adjust on the fly, pursuing a line of thought that may yield better insights than the prepared discussion guide. With mobile, when crafting her questions in the one-on-none context, the researcher needs to take the perspective of the participant. Every word, every clause, every sentence within each question is a chance to guide the participant into a thought process that will elicit the strongest responses and insights (as well as being a chance for them to get off track). Often, we find that it’s best practice to answer the questions you write for a mobile research platform from the perspective of the target demo. Where can the participant get off track? Where will they have an emotional response? What will engage them? These are questions that run through our head as we devise a set of questions for the mobile research platform we’re most inclined to use. If you can utilize cognitive empathy during this part of the process, you will have devised a set of questions that thoughtfully guide the conversation with the research subject even though you’re not in the room. The result? Those golden nuggets of insight that we got into the research game for.

The equation for good qualitative research doesn’t change when we move to a new platform. However, mobile technology enables ease where there were once headaches (recruitment), flexibility where there was once rigidity (context) and requires cognitive empathy where a more improvisational approach was once the status quo (questions). Mobile research platforms should not aim to replace the researcher; they are simply a new tool for the researcher to reach for in their toolbox. With a shift in perspective, reach for this new tool with confidence and swing for the insights you and your client deserve.