Market Research has to Adjust for the Shift to Mobile

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Tools & Techniques, Online Qualitative Research


Walt Dickie

I love the Pew Research Center, especially their Internet & American Life Project. I can always find something interesting to think about on their website, and I admire their invariably solid methods. We use Pew data to make strategic decisions, but we also go to Pew for inspiration when imagining future scenarios.

A recent Pew post, including data through September 2012, based on a long-running tracking study and a more recent update on smartphone ownership brings together information about consumer ownership of desktop computers, laptops, cell phones, smartphones, and tablets among U.S. adults.

Some of the most important parts of the data set are still a bit sketchy. Not because Pew didn’t do their usual excellent job collecting it, but because the number of data points is still pretty limited. In the spirit of fooling around with numbers and the informality of blogging, I decided to analyze this data to generate some hypotheses about smartphone and tablet adoption. The analysis that follows plays somewhat fast and loose–extrapolating trends beyond the range of the data and basing these trends on an inadequate number of data points. This sort of thing is fun and may be stimulating; it is not conclusive, nor is it meant to be.

Here’s a selection from Pew’s device ownership data plotted together on a single graph:

Desktops + Laptops (“PCs”)

I aggregated Pew’s data on desktop and laptop ownership to create this curve for traditional “personal computers,” which goes above 100% because it’s quite possible for someone to own one or more of each species. If you look at the original Pew data for laptops and desktops separately (not shown here), you’ll see that laptop sales are still rising while desktop sales are dropping precipitously. The curve shown represents a leveling-off of PC ownership at somewhere between 1.1 and 1.2 PC’s per household, which the Pew data suggests will be mostly laptops as desktops die and are not replaced.

Cell Phones:

I feel reasonably okay with fitting this flattening curve to the cellphone data, and although projecting curves forward in time like this always gives me the willies, the result looks at least somewhat plausible. Cell phone ownership is clearly flattening out with something like 15% of the population being reported as doing without. Cell ownership will probably never hit 100%–landline phones never did–but it will certainly get further into the 80s, and maybe even into the 90s, as landlines pretty much fade away and all the people who grew up in the pre-cell phone era disappear. Of all the curves on this graph, I think this one may be the most realistic.

Smart Phones:

Fitting a curve to the four data points on smartphone ownership is clearly beyond the pale, but having decided to work with what we’ve got why not do it anyway? An exponential growth curve may capture what, by all accounts, has been a startling adoption rate, but of course no trend, even a really powerful one, will continue into the future without slowing-probably more noticeably than is predicted here. Smartphone ownership seems to have paused in the middle of this year, but with the phenomenal sales figures being reported for the iPhone 5 maybe predicting penetration to continue its strong growth isn’t so bad, at least in the short term. In any case, I wanted an aggressive scenario to explore the impact of smart phone growth, and that’s what this curve represents.


Not many data points (5) here either but tablet adoption sure sounds like it’s accelerating according to the news reports, and an exponential curve fits the existing data almost perfectly. I’m writing this immediately in the wake of “Cyber Monday,” and the news outlets and blogosphere are reporting tales of tablet frenzy following the debut of the iPad mini and Amazon Fire. Again, whether exponential growth will be sustained is questionable, but it doesn’t seem wildly off to estimate that we’ll experience that kind of growth in the short term.

Interestingly, the curve of e-Reader ownership shows an almost identical rate and pattern of growth, which raises the question of whether these are one species or two. Although tablets and readers started out as separate species, it’s hard to imagine how they continue to evolve without merging into a functional/price continuum competing in a single market, even if some of them continue to be distinguished by very different screen technologies adapting them for use under different lighting levels. If the two combine into a single product line the case for exponential growth may be strengthened.

So, again, with some basis in statistics and observation, but mostly because I want to create a best-case scenario for new device adoption, I’ve gone with a growth curve that can’t be right in the long term – it has to flatten out – but might be okay in the short term.


Using some obviously bogus methods but maintaining at least a nodding relationship to “reality,” I hereby predict that smartphones will essentially eliminate “feature phones” from the cell phone marketplace in about 3 years; at which point, everyone who owns a cell phone–something on the order of 85% of US adults–may own a smartphone. I further predict that in about 1 year ownership of tablets in the US will equal ownership of traditional PCs, with most households owning one or more mini/maxi/reader “tablets.”

All of which means that MR has a very short window for adapting its data collection methods from a PC-centric paradigm to one centered on smartphones and tablets.

This will be one of the biggest challenges in our immediate future for both C+R and in the MR industry as a whole. We simply have to get “mobile” right. As long as our clients demand data-driven insights, we’re going to depend on consumers being willing to share their perceptions and opinions with us, and we depend on technological means to collect that data.

Looking back, the conversion from phone/mall/mail survey data collection to online methods at the end of the 90s seemed like a major revolution that upended almost everything and rang in a new era. But, in hindsight, although the mechanisms of research changed a lot during that period, what now seems to stand out is that the basic paradigm of question-and-answer surveys changed very little. Other than porting surveys from “CRT terminals” in the phone room to PC screens in the nation’s family rooms, dens, bedrooms, and kitchens, the underlying form of the survey hardly changed at all. Surveys grew images, videos, and Flash widgets but the great majority of MR surveys created today for online administration could be ported (back) to the phone room quickly and with ease.

But mobile is going to be different. Cellphone use is dominated by short interactions while few online surveys take less than 20 minutes (and many take more). Today’s surveys, though they can be taken using a mobile device, are a miserable experience because the industry mindset is still fixated on the PC. (My friend and colleague, Bob Relihan, says that the most miserable experience on a cell phone is trying to fill out a web form, and online surveys are composed of one web form after another.) A whole new survey paradigm will have to be invented to model a virtual “long survey” from a series of very short interactions on a mobile device or something resembling a Google Survey. And the sampling industry is going to have to reinvent itself once again.

The “PC revolution” (the 80s) and the “Web revolution” (the 90s) are going to give way to the “Mobile revolution.” The question is “When?” and the answer could easily be, “Very soon!”

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