Global Mobile: It’s Here, But Are Your Surveys Ready?

Touchscreen smartphone and Earth globe

The ubiquity of mobile devices has opened up new opportunities for market researchers on a global scale. Think: biometrics, geo-location, presence sensing, etc. The emerging possibilities enabled by mobile market research are exciting and worth exploring, but we can’t ignore the impact that small screens are already having on market research. For example, unintended mobile respondents make up about 10% of online interviews today.  They also impact research in other ways—through dropped surveys, disenfranchised panel members, and other unknown influences.  Online access panels have become multi-mode sources of data collection and we need to manage projects with that in mind.

Ignore or Embrace

Researchers have at least three options:

  1. We can ignore the issue.
  2. We can limit online surveys to PC only.
  3. We can embrace and adapt online surveys to a multi-mode methodology.

We don’t need to make special accommodations for small screen surveys if mobile participants are a very small percentage of panel participants, but the number of mobile participants is growing.  Frank Kelly, SVP of global marketing and strategy for Lightspeed Research/GMI—one of the world’s largest online panels—puts it this way, we don’t have the time to debate the mobile transition, like we did in moving from CATI to online interviewing, since things are advancing so quickly.”

If you look at the percentage of surveys completed on small screens in recent GMI panel interviews, they exceed 10% in several countries and even 15% among millennials.

percent of interviews completed on a small screen by age

Desktop Surveys Fare Poorly on Mobile

There are no true device-agnostic platforms, since the advanced features in many surveys simply cannot be supported on small screens and on less sophisticated devices.  It is possible to create device-agnostic surveys, but it means giving up on many survey features that we’ve long considered standard. This creates a challenge.

Some question types aren’t effectively supported by small screens, such as discrete choice exercises or multi-dimensional grids, and a touchscreen interface is different from what you get with a mouse. Testing on mobile devices may also reveal questions that render differently depending on the platform, which can influence how a respondent answers a question. In instances like these, it may be prudent to require respondents to complete online interviews on a PC-like device. The reverse is also true.  Some research requires mobile-only respondents, particularly when the specific features of smartphones or tablets are used. In some emerging countries, researchers may skip the PC as a data collection tool altogether in favor of small screen mobile devices.  In certain instances, PC-only or mobile-only interviewing makes sense, but the majority of today’s online research involves a mix of platform types. It is clear we need to adopt best practices reflect this reality.

Online questionnaires must work on all or at least the vast majority of devices.  This becomes particularly challenging for multi-country studies which have a greater variety of devices, different broadband penetrations, and different coverage/quality concerns for network access and availability.  A research design that covers as many devices as possible—both PC and mobile—maximizes the breadth of respondents likely to participate.

Strategies Across Platforms

There are several ways to mitigate concerns and maximize the benefits of online research involving different platform types.

  1. Design different versions of the same study optimized for larger vs. smaller screens.  One version might even be app-based instead of online-based, which would mitigate concerns over network accessibility.
  2. Break questionnaires into smaller chunks to avoid respondent fatigue on longer surveys, which is a greater concern for mobile respondents.
  3. Design more efficient surveys and shorter questionnaires. This is essential for accommodating multi-device user experiences. Technology needs to be part of the solution, specifically with better auto detect features that optimize how questionnaires are presented on different screen sizes.  For multi-country studies, technology needs to adapt how questionnaires are presented for different languages.

Mobile-First Design

Researchers can also use mobile-first questionnaire design practices.  For our clients, we always consider the following:

  • Shortening survey lengths since drop-off rates are greater for mobile participants, and it is difficult to hold their focus for more than 15 minutes.
  • Structuring questionnaires to enable smaller screen sizes to avoid horizontal scrolling and to minimize vertical scrolling.
  • Minimizing the use of images and open-ended questions that require longer responses. SMS-based interviewing is still useful in specific circumstances, but the number of key strokes required for online research should be minimized.
  •  Keeping the wording of the questions as concise as possible.
  • Carefully choosing which questions to ask which subsets of respondents. We spend a tremendous amount of equity in the design phase to make surveys more appealing to small-screen participants. This approach pays dividends in every other phase of research and in the quality of what is learned.

Consumers and businesses are rapidly embracing the global mobile ecosystem. As market researchers and insights professionals, we need to keep pace without compromising the integrity of the value we provide. Here at CMB, we believe that smart planning, a thoughtful approach, and an innovative mindset will lead to better standards and practices for online market research and our clients.

Brian is a project manager and mobile expert on CMB’s Tech and Telecom team. He recently presented the results of CMB’s Consumer Pulse: The Future of the Mobile Wallet at The Total Customer Experience Leaders conference.



  1. Thanks for the great advice, Brian. Interesting to me that most of your Mobile-First Design tips (asking only the most relevant questions, bite-size and concise questions, less complexity) are the same good practices that should be used by those who administer surveys by paper, telephone or PC as well. Perhaps the unstoppable increase in mobile use will force improvements in all modes of surveys.

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