Mobile research and small businesses

I attended a session of NewMR’s recent webinar on mobile research. This is not something I’ve yet had chance to use, so was interested to hear the latest thinking and guidance.  What I took out of it was that mobile can contribute to understanding people in two main ways. Firstly, by providing greater accessibility, which could help response rates.  Secondly, and arguably more importantly, by providing ‘in the moment’ information on peoples’ behaviour and feelings.

This latter usage could be used to provide more understanding of what happens during product usage, whilst shopping, when in transient locations such as stations or airports, or when at events such as sports events, festivals or concerts.  It could also be used in a more general ‘self ethnography’ way.

Of course, all these things could be achieved by having interviewers physically present. Mobilearguably cannot match the detail and subtlety that an interviewer / observer could provide.  But it will be less intrusive, and would enable larger samples to be obtained because it should be significantly cheaper on a large scale.

It was interesting to note that some of the webinar presenters focused on different aspects of how mobile could be used: some on simple short surveys, some on richer behavioural feedback, and some on tapping into emotional states.  However there seemed to be consensus that mobile is best used to ask small numbers of questions at a time, focused on a particular aspect of what is going on. In contrast, an ethnographic interviewer can ‘see’ the whole picture.

I think that there are two implications that flow from this.  The first is that mobile research is best used to augment the findings from previous, or concurrent, work.  The second is that a good way to use mobile can be on a ‘report and then reflect’ basis.  This means that mobile is used to capture instant data on what the respondent is doing and / or feeling – the reporting bit.  This is then followed up by the researcher interviewing the respondent (either face to face, by phone, or online) to probe in more detail about why the respondent was doing or feeling what they were.  At this point the role of mobile is to act as a memory prompt.

What also emerged from the webinar is that mobile research can be carrying out using either a web link or an app that has been downloaded.  The contributors seemed to favour the latter, because it is more robust.

So how does all this relate to the situation faced by an archetypal small business?  The main points that I’ve drawn out are:

  • What small businesses need is straightforward information that they can plug straight into the day to day decisions that they are taking.  They tend to have neither the time nor the inclination to reflect on indirect, abstract or ‘deep’ information.  Therefore information on peoples’ emotional state is likely to be less relevant than on their behaviour when ‘in the moment’.  The one exception to this would be sources of frustration.
  • Small businesses have neither the time nor the budget to either do lots of research, or to run research that has multiple components.  So they will not have much that the findings from mobile research can be integrated with. (However, on the other hand, their decision takers tend to be naturally closer to the customer so may have quite good contextual knowledge anyway.)
  • Implementing mobile research requires either setting up a mobile optimised page on a website or developing an appropriate app.  Both of these requirements may involve a degree of time and cost that small businesses find unappealing.
  • Small businesses may also struggle to find enough relevant people to take part in the research.  While they will likely have enough raw contacts, they may not have these in an easily useable database, may lack mobile numbers, and may struggle to commit the time to overcome this.

These have led me to conclude that mobile research doesn’t look ideally suited to the needs of many small businesses, at least at the moment.  For it to be attractive it would need to address a specific situation where something a business wanted to do was being stymied by a lack of understanding what happens.  But, in truth, it might be quicker, simpler and cheaper to just talk to a few customers and ask them.

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