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What if you could observe people's behavior without the need to actually be with them?

For researchers, this is the ultimate goal. Even the most skilled ethnographer knows their presence in an observed situation can change the dynamic from what might happen in his or her absence.

Smartphones, with their rich features, provide an opportunity for researchers to gather opinions or thoughts without the need to observe people in person. Instead of watching people as they do things, you could ask for a photo that captures their experience. Alternatively, you could ask people to document their thoughts through a video or a voice recording. With geotagging (and with people's permission), you can get location information without ever asking for that information.

To take full advantage of the rich features of mobile devices when conducting research, consider the following tips:

  1. Provide clear instructions

    For many people, participating in mobile studies is still new. Many people who have never taken a mobile study may get confused about what they should be doing. As the researcher, you can reduce confusion by providing clear instructions.

    For instance, if you'd like to understand people's dog walking habits, you can ask them to take a photo of their favorite part of that experience. In this case, specify what photo quality you are looking for. If your study can accommodate lower quality images (since you only need a rough idea of where people go), you'll save people a lot of frustration by letting them know about the minimum quality you need.

    When asking people to record their responses via audio or video - for instance, if you want people to share their thoughts after using a product - let people know about the length they should be aiming for as well as the type of information you need. Provide some tips on how to ensure their recording is audible: ask them to record at a quiet place or ask them to speak closer to the phone's microphone.

    Whatever type of data you are asking for, think about the process people have to go through and anticipate their challenges. Doing so, you'll have clearer and more complete instructions.

  2. Ask more 'in the moment' questions

    One of the advantages of mobile devices is that they allow people to provide their current thoughts and feeling instead of relying on recall. Take advantage of this by asking questions geared towards people's current experience. When trying to understand people's grocery shopping behavior, you could ask shoppers to take you to the store: Ask them to take a photo of what they see, what point-of-purchase materials catch their eyes, and what type of sales entice them to make impulse purchases as they are walking around the store.

    When appropriate, ask questions in present tense instead of past tense. For instance ask, "what products are you using" instead of "what products have you used in the past?" This encourages people to provide in-the-moment thoughts and feelings.

  3. Be concise

    Avoid wordiness. A mobile device provides very little space for you to communicate with people. To get people to share the particulars of their daily lives, you have to make it easy for them to do so. If people have to scroll too much to read your instructions, you might not get the answers you're looking for.

  4. Ask for shorter responses

    Similar to the last tip, try to structure your study so you're getting shorter responses. When looking for text responses, don't ask people to type or manually enter information too much. Consider asking closed ended questions - they tend to work better than open ended ones in mobile devices because they require less typing. If you're doing a mobile study using an insight community, you can save valuable time by avoiding asking for information that people have already given you in the past.

    Shorter responses also apply to photos, videos, and audio recordings. Thanks to apps such as Instagram and Vine, people are used to recording videos that are less than 15 seconds long. If you're asking people to take snippets of their daily lives longer than a few seconds, they may find it inconvenient or even intrusive.

The mobile revolution is still in its early days, but with thoughtful consideration and planning, researchers can use this tool to get better insights more quickly.

To learn more about the application of mobile devices to research, download the Gen 2 white paper "Blurring of online and offline worlds - The future of mobile in research".

What are your biggest challenges when using mobile in your research? Let us know in the comments.

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