The smartphone route to the truth

May 15, 2013, 1:52 PM GMT+0

YouGov Qual trial a research app for smartphones

Qualitative research is often about exploring personal truths that are hard to quantify. This search for personal qualitative truths has led to a range of approaches focused on participants generating their own data. This can be seen through co-creation, ethnographic diaries and immersion tasks.

New smartphone technology offers another way in which participants can record their own data. With 65% of the population now owning a smartphone, it represents an accessible tool people carry around with them every day. The additional functionality of a smartphone through the camera and internet access offers the opportunity for participants to record a wider range of types of data. In addition to this, 96% of smartphone owners download free apps and 29% like to explore new apps. This adds another dimension to using smartphones as apps could represent a familiar, interactive and user-friendly interface for participants to record their behaviour.

These trends all come together to present a valuable opportunity for qualitative researchers to use mobile apps as a way of accessing personal behavioural truths.

Research trial: apps vs. browser

The qualitative team at YouGov recently trialled a research app developed by VisionsLive to assess how the advantages of smartphone technology could be used in research. The project focused on media consumption habits which involved respondents keeping a diary of their news consumption over the course of a week. Most participants completed this online through their web browser and some were given an app to download so that they could complete it on their smartphone. The objective of the diary was to uncover behavioural truths around news consumption and what people actually do at different points in the day. We were interested in whether using an app for this project would bring us closer to the respondents’ behavioural truths.

Interestingly many of those that were given the traditional online diary actually updated it or tried to update it via their web browser on their smartphone. This is evidence that smartphones are now a convenient and ubiquitous device for respondents, and one that many would use out of preference. However, updating via a browser does not have the same easy functionality of an app, as the web page does not fit the screen of a smartphone making entries more cumbersome. Therefore, updating via a smartphone browser didn’t change the way that respondents interacted with the task. Consequently, it did not help us get different insights into behavioural truths.

There were some clear differences in the way that some of those using the app updated their diary compared with those using a browser. Some of the app users updated their diary throughout the day, almost as a micro blog. Entries such as ‘passenger in a car for few hours so reading the Mail’, or ‘listening to Today on Radio 4’ help to build up a more detailed ethnographic portrait of the exact behaviour of each respondent.

As these were recorded in real-time, it gives a more truthful and accurate record of what the respondent actually did and exactly when in the day they did it, since the date and time of the upload is recorded. In a post-research interview, one app user told us that they had ‘updated the diary more often because it was on an app’. The ease and convenience of an app in her pocket led her to update in micro-blogs throughout the day, which gives the researchers a larger number of entries and more accurate recordings of when she accessed the news that day.

Those completing the traditional online diary are often including more detail but it was typically recorded towards the end of the day: ‘In the morning, I read the FT and Times newspaper. At lunchtime, I went on the BBC and Daily Mail websites. During the afternoon, I went on Twitter and Facebook. When I get home I will watch the BBC news at 10’.

Although these entries are valuable they inevitably involve more selection in terms of what the participant can remember and what they felt was worth noting down. This still tells us a lot of qualitative truths, particularly around what the participant considers the main, memorable news touchpoints in their day. However, in terms of accessing the more detailed behavioural truths of moments that may be forgotten at the end of the day, apps have the potential to offer more insight.

Future research potential

Beyond our pilot, the potential of research apps for accessing behavioural truths is considerable. Apps cannot only tell you when a participant uploads their entry but also where. The VisionsLive app is developing the capability to provide GPS information on where a participant is when updating. The moderator could then send a push notification to them to probe around what they are doing or thinking at that exact moment, to get an instant response.

With all user-generated research, the decision of the respondent to capture what they choose to capture is key, and a skilled qualitative researcher is needed to bring understanding to that decision. With all the data that is produced via an app analysis, interpretation becomes central to translating this into behavioural truths. To fully utilise the potential of research apps, qualitative researchers need to understand how apps fit into the everyday lives of participants if they are to make the best use of them as research tools. This could then be combined with thorough briefing and analysis to provide more accurate behavioural truths about the minutiae of personal behaviour.

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