Implications of the Distracted Mobile Respondent

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Focus Groups, Qualitative Research


Bob Relihan

The Pew Research Center reports that over half of adult cell phone owners use their phones while watching television. There has been a breathlessness to such reports of late, as we are told repeatedly that the public, or at least substantial demographic swaths, are multitasking and “mobile.”

My first reaction to Pew’s report was a shrug. So, what’s new? Haven’t I always read magazines as I watched television? Haven’t I grabbed a newspaper to check out a fact I saw on TV? And, isn’t this simply the evolution of electronic media we have observed before. Families once gathered around large console radios to listen attentively to the stars of the day. Over the years, radio evolved (devolved?) into a sonic background companion of everyone’s daily lives. Television is experiencing the same arc. The idea that people are “doing other things” while watching television may get the relationship wrong. Perhaps, they have the television on while they are doing other things. I suspect that a good deal of destination viewing is devoted to watching the latest episode of Breaking Bad on a laptop or tablet.

But, I am being disingenuous. If the future of what we now call research is to be mobile, the Pew study shows us what that mobile environment will look like.

  • The mobile respondent is likely to be a distracted, respondent. And, that may be an old fashioned notion. Increasingly, consumers see multitasking as normal. We may recognize that mobile engagement with consumers demands shorter “instruments,” but they will also have to be exceptionally engaging. They must be activities that are worthwhile in and of themselves. Still, making them fun will not eliminate the tendency to respond to us while watching television or engaging in other activities.
  • The mobile consumer is likely to have a different conception of awareness. We have understood and measured awareness as properties of memory and knowledge. Are you “aware” of the new flavor of Ben & Jerry’s? Have you seen the ad for Cheerios? Recently, I have noticed a phenomenon while conducting focus groups. I ask a question about a product, and a respondent will pull out her smartphone to look up what I said. Awareness of a new product is irrelevant to the mobile consumer; she simply needs to Google whatever interests her at the moment.
  • The mobile consumer does not feel compelled to remember the details and characteristics of products. Again, increasing I am seeing consumers in focus groups respond to me by pulling out their smartphones and saying, “Here, let me show you.” Not only is awareness less important to them, memory and the ability to articulate that memory is unnecessary.

Our idealization of the “respondent” is of an attentive individual who can describe what she knows, remembers, and has experienced. That may not be the “mobile respondent.”

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