Let me start with a statement that may shock you – people are no longer just conversing face-to-face. People are connecting with one another using smartphones and their tablets. Soon, they’ll converse using wearables, whether it’s smart watches on their wrists (think Dick Tracy or Spider-Man) or with smart clothing such as shirts with built-in communication devices (think Star Trek: Next Generation). Then, there’s the “Internet of Things” where the appliances we use everyday will connect us with each other and with all these other tools; that is coming in the very near future, too. All of this is very exciting for qualitative researchers like me who want to find more ways to bring the conversation into every research event.

This new world is finally my kind of place. Conversations are everywhere. Researchers just have to find ways to best use this new technology. We are currently redefining the idea of what this dialogue can be. We can be there with a consumer while an activity is happening to really understand things we’ve only pre-staged or possibly even missed before.

Let’s keep this article focused to the right now of mobile tools – smartphones and tablets. However, I will also address the future tools mentioned above because that future is not so distant any more. Just know that “Mobile Schmobile” is taking us to a new and exciting world of conversations that can bring us in-context with our consumer without being onsite in what could often be uncomfortable situations. This is a new era that I am enjoying as I use the tools available with a mobile conversation.

The New Conversation: Mobile Brings New Tools to Face-to-Face

Conversations are happening everywhere these days – online, in blogs, social media, etc. It doesn’t matter if you’re there in-person with your subject any more. The meaning of a face-to-face conversation has extended to an any place, any medium connection with smartphones and tablets because:

Video capabilities on smartphones provide a new meaning to face-to-face that allows a respondent to be in the moment anywhere Wi-Fi is accessible. 

Texting is another personal connection that gives people a sense of intimacy and allows for a one-on-one conversation via instant messaging format with the added opportunity to post applicable photos and videos of what they see during a conversation without the need for strong Wi-Fi.

Voice is another tool with smartphones and tablets that can put you in the middle of a store looking at the shelves where products are sitting or in the bar where your respondent is about to drink your beer, so he or she can describe the moment as you listen in and probe about what’s happening as it happens.

What’s The Difference – Mobile Access? Or Mobile Research? 

In qualitative research, there are a variety of providers who talk about “mobile access” and “mobile research,” but not too many can qualify how the two differ.

Let me try:

Mobile Access is just a different way that respondents can access an online discussion. A mobile device (tablet or smartphone) acts as the access mechanism to an online bulletin board or focus group chat or webcam chat rather than a less-mobile device like a laptop or desktop computer.

Mobile App Research takes qualitative research literally into the moment with tools such as geo-location or geo-fencing, UPC symbol identification, and other exciting tools that can pinpoint exactly where respondents are, verify usage, and even capture photos, all within a mobile app that fully operates without connectivity, when necessary. Data retrieval then depends on later connectivity.

Approach Mobile Qualitative with Different Expectations

There are two different ways to look at mobile qualitative research:

In-Context Learning: Mobile can enable the consumer researcher with exercises that ask the consumer to discuss things while they are happening. Here, the consumers research themselves. For instance, to learn how parents decide whether to bake a cake for their child’s birthday or buy one, a mixture of intervention exercises can be implemented around the planning for the special event with actual photos and video supporting their deliberation about the pluses and minuses of each option. As a result, the researcher gains not only insight into their decision, but also photo or video evidence from the consumer as that decision is being made. 

Quick In-the-Moment Capture: This approach brings the researcher into the moment of purchase as events are happening over a period of repeated actions you ask respondents to chronicle. Respondents don’t spend time explaining their reasons for doing the things they do, but instead post photos, videos and quick diaries of their actions. This approach can be used with either mobile access or mobile research app. For instance, to learn how teens snack across the day (weekdays and weekends), a mobile diary app might work well. This app could capture photos of teens snacking, confessional videos about snacking behavior, and even texted posts about snacking choices and the reasons behind them.

Good News for Researchers 

The great news is that these mobile tools – whether it’s just mobile access to an online tool or using a mobile research app – place us alongside respondents as they go about their daily lives. We can be right there when they do things we might not be able to observe in person from buying sundries to brushing their teeth or hosting their child’s birthday party. Although these private moments can be self-reported later, more direct observation via mobile yields more natural and honest results.

Whether you are using mobile as an access mechanism to an online project or using a mobile app, researchers can now go further into consumers’ minds than ever before. Mobile can show researchers what consumers do and what they see in real time, not just what they remember after the fact well enough to self-report.

The Future Is Going to Start Even More Conversations

Yes, we already know that there are more communication tools coming as the category of wearables and the Internet of Things move us even further into an “always connected” world. These smart watches, smart glasses and even smart appliances will collect data, but the ability to have a conversation with them is where I will keep our conversation.

For qualitative, I believe the future will come in creating conversations with the pictures and videos taken via the following:

Glasses: Available from two manufacturers right now (Sony and the soon-to-return Google Glass), these devices have video chat capabilities dependent on area Wi-Fi to not only conduct a live conversation with a consumer, but to see what they are seeing, even from miles away. Moderators will be able to manage emails or texts from clients watching to probe pertinent questions as the consumer is in the moment of the activity for a real peek into their world. The greatest obstacle that smart glasses face to be used reliably for research involves lack of adequate Wi-Fi in stores and public places.

Smart Watches: These devices are revolutionizing our world as we see smart watches from Apple and Samsung join the wrist-worn, data-centric health trackers that preceded them. Similar to how smartphones became incorporated into consumers’ lives, smart watches will become users’ primary tools for capturing photos, video, and health statistics (with supporting apps). This information will be captured as an extension of the smartphone in that same self-reporting, observational manner that gives researchers another passive peek into consumers’ real lives. The greatest obstacles that smart watches face to be used reliably for research involves initial consumer perception that these devices are too expensive and unnecessary. However, like smartphones prior to 2007 or tablets prior to 2010, smart watches will be users’ primary mobile device by 2020. Mark my words.

Smart Appliances: These new appliances will help consumers shop better for groceries, cook better and do laundry more efficiently by connecting their owners through the Internet to see inside. How such data helps researchers is obvious. But for qualitative researchers who are interested in creating a conversation with these consumers, the impact of smart appliances is still unclear. Perhaps similar to syndicated research that captures grocery store shopping behavior or television viewing habits in aggregate, these smart appliances will offer fodder for decision-making based on appliance usage data. For qualitative research, another possibility is to ask interested smart appliance owners to “opt-in” and allow their usage information to be accessible to market research recruiters for focus groups and other conversations about products associated with their appliance. This information from smart appliances would allow professional recruiters to find verified product users. It would revolutionize recruiting much like mobile research has revolutionized ethnography. Consumers would be real users and data would verify this. The greatest obstacles that smart appliances face to be used reliably for research involves their rarity and lack of adoption, currently. Only early adopters own the very basic versions of what is coming. My guess is that, in 2025, smart appliances will be integrated in enough homes to be useful research tools. 

Our Responsibility As Researchers:

As you can see, there are so many exciting tools available to researchers to connect with respondents in the moment. These tools, however, bring a great deal of responsibility to us as researchers.

I put my research tasks through three simple rules:

Would I Do It? The crucial question every researcher should ask about activities or questions created. If the answer is “no way,” then don’t ask the respondent to answer or complete the task.

Will This Get Me the Answer I Needed? Mobile provides a very small screen to communicate a task or question. There can be a lot of room for misinterpretation. Be sure your respondents understand what you want to know easily inside the 10 seconds they will have to read it in the moment needed.

Will the Technology Work? Live video streaming inside a store or even video uploading varies a great deal with current Wi-Fi capabilities. If a respondent gets frustrated for even one task, you risk losing their participation for the whole project. Another side effect can be your client’s lost trust. Don’t try something that is risky. There is always another way to get the same information.

Exciting things are on the horizon for all of us in the research community to learn more than we ever have before. We must be diligent to respect our participating respondents’ privacy. We must also be kind to them in always respecting their time and effort and remain aware of the technology’s limitation.

Respecting our target audience always provides great information and a wonderful conversation, too. I’m excited for this new age in research. And, in the words of Captain Jean Luc Piccard, I’m excited to continue to explore brave new worlds.