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Mobile Qualitative – How Does It Fit In The Research Toolkit?

Can technology experts, however user-experience focused, create platforms that truly help the touchy-feeling world of Qualitative Research? If Revelation is an example, then it appears so.

Editor’s Note: Edward Appleton is doing a series of posts focused on the client-side view of mobile research, with an emphasis on use cases and best practices learned so far. This is the fifth post in that series that we’ll be publishing over the rest of the month. Parts 1 – 4 can be found here.

If you’d asked qualitative researchers – in Europe at least – what they thought about online qualitative methods or platform possibilities ten, or even five years ago, you may well have drawn a blank stare, a pause, followed by reasons why face to face is actually superior.

Add “mobile qualitative” to that, and the reactions are likely to have been similar, perhaps even more intense.

Revelation (, a US Oregon-based research software company, has arguably lead the way showing skeptical, skilled but partially tech-averse qualitative research practitioners how technology – notably Smartphones – can be used to help enrich and enhance a multi-modal qualitative research design.

Founded in 2007, Revelation currently employs 25 people, is in growth mode, and is expanding its international reach – their mobile app is currently available in 16 languages.

As an innovator in the mobile qual. space, and an Agency that counts Procter and Gamble as one its clients, it’s the sort of New Market Research Company – driven by technology, scale and a visionary approach – that is currently revolutionizing and improving Market Research.

Start-up mode is definitely behind Revelation, as is the validation/proof of concept phase. Their research platform is increasingly being used by Researchers the world over. Its white label offering allows easy-to-do customized branding; 80% of the Company’s work is providing a platform for Researchers. This makes the question of whether Revelation is effectively the Intel of the mobile qual world, “powering” qualitative research experiences, so to speak – a tantalizing one.

It also raises the question: can technology experts, however user-experience focused, create platforms that truly help the touchy-feeling world of Qualitative Research?

I first met Steve August, Revelation’s CEO, at an ESOMAR Conference in Valencia, then again in Ghent, Belgium. I took the opportunity to chat with him about Revelation’s approach to and experience with online qualitative and more particularly mobile market research.

Why Mobile?


I blame my wife for all this” is Steve’s tongue-in-cheek response to my question as to how Revelation originally got started on its path to mobile qual.

The origins of Revelation are an interesting example of how successful innovation is born – taking two approaches or worlds – digital technology and established qualitative Research practice and protocol, then merging the two to create something synergistic.

Steve’s spouse Kimberly – the founder of Revelation’s legacy company, KDA – was an ex-Fitch Design user experience research professional who had chosen to go freelance as from the mid-1990s. Specializing in immersive in-depth qualitative rather than Groups, she often worked in Diary studies as a facet of in context research, executing traditionally using pencil-and-paper formats. These were copied, posted out, the content sifted through manually at analysis stage. A mixture of the mechanical and the meticulous, time consuming and with elements of non-added value cost.

Steve’s route to mobile research was more indirect and partly fortuitous. He describes himself as a creative technologist – having worked variously as a producer of multi-media CD Roms, documentaries, and as a Business Intelligence Consultant. He occasionally happened upon his wife’s Research diaries at the copying stage, and questioned if existing technology could make the process more efficient.

Online blogging and web-diaries were at the time – 2002 – just becoming part of the web landscape, with increasing numbers of internet users choosing to engage and collaborate online.

Why not take MR diaries online?

The potential to transform pencil-and-paper data collection seemed to make sense – the benefits stood out:

  • Eliminate non-added value logistical activities (copying, postage)
  • Participants could upload photos, videos when equipped with flip-cams
  • Real-time reporting
  • Easy sharing
  • Quicker analysis through text tagging.

The combination of these sounded enticing, game-changing even, but: would respondents share their feelings online? Would the technology work?

An early stage pilot aimed to address these questions.

Piloting Qualitative Mobile: “Understanding Parenthood Better”


Steve and Kimberly had recently become parents, and chose a topic close to their own heart – if or how becoming a parent changes personal identity, and if the sense of freedom is diminished or lost.

The design adopted was projective – participants were equipped with a flipcam, blogging software and asked to find and upload images of themselves both before and after parenthood, then comment on what had changed.

Paired-friend recruitment was chosen as a method – with the aim of accessing both individual and shared responses.

Mobile: a simpler Triangulation Option

The pilot worked well – the technology performed without glitches. Respondents shared a wealth of emotional responses, indicating that they were not inhibited by the medium.

The study also revealed how the online mobile medium allows researchers to pursue different insight avenues more easily through digital sequencing.

Dads were interviewed about their experience with exactly the same questions, then Mums, and then both were “confronted” with the others’ viewpoint – leading to surprises as well as confirmation.

This sort of sequencing is relatively easy to execute in online mobile, offering an efficient route to first-stage triangulation.

Advantages of Mobile Qualitative over Traditional Qualitative Techniques.

mobile anywhere

The Parenthood pilot study indicated that digital technology could indeed play a new, complementary role in qual. research. This lead to further validation studies, each of which highlighted the difference to face-to-face qualitative – Focus Groups, In-depth-Interviews.

Mobile qual. “took us into people’s living rooms” to use Steve’s words, allowing participants to comment in their own time. Software also offered the option of making comments personal or open to a group – allowing peer-to-peer interaction, and the beginnings of a community-style set-up.

Revelation’s core argument for online and mobile qual. is built on the simple insight – that most of the interesting things happen in participants’ lives when the researcher isn’t there.

Mass ethnography, whilst arguably methodologically superior, quickly reaches its limitations – time and cost are invariably prohibitive.

Mobile qual. goes the final 3 – 4 yards, to quote Steve, it “puts us into people’s back pockets”.

Face-to-face qual., by contrast, has systematic limitations:

  • momentary and thereby limited to point-in-time snap-shots
  • reliance on memory
  • empathy gap (an inability to imagine our “hot state” reactions when in a “cold state” of non-arousal)

Revelation summarizes how they see the advantages of online mobile qualitative:

  • ongoing dialogue (as opposed to a point-in-time snapshot)
  • immediacy: participants can record meaningful moments as they happen
  • Capture reactions more vividly, minimizing the process of distortion through rationalization. Mobile can get closer to System 1 type reactions.
  • easily-executed self-recording
  • ability to show not just tell (through use of photos, videos)
  • Directly access areas of the home that a laptop wouldn’t easily get to.
  • cost and reach (geographic restrictions are overcome,  travel is eliminated, saving both out-of-pocket and opportunity costs)
  • non-intrusive

Researchers can observe participants’ behaviors in more detail and more frequently, providing overall a higher level of granularity. Asking the question “why” is practically not limited, can be focused on behaviors that are particularly relevant to a brief, or that are not clear to the Researcher.

Mobile Qual. – Re-Evaluating Methodology

Steve is clear that he sees mobile as a medium, a means to an end – it’s not a goal in itself, nor is it new methodology.

Methodology could and should adapt, however, to what the new vehicle can to, its functionalities, to maximize its value and potential. The data-collection mode needs to adapt.

This means respecting and utilizing the medium’s versatility – especially true for smartphones.  These devices profiting from the convergence of Telecommunications, Digital and Entertainment technologies; one small phone can take photos, record sounds, transfer messages, phone calls….the list is long, if not endless.

Good mobile qual. research design means mimicking mobile usage habits, creating a design to suit that. Revelation refer to this as “participant-centric”.

It means moving on from legacy approaches.

Relying on a Q&A approach, however skilfully executed, is likely inadequate – mobile is a playful medium, capturing people’s imagination and holding their attention is key. New approaches need to be more involving, gamified, and above all – in Revelation’s view – activity-based.

Steve gives the following example to illustrate.

If a Client wishes to know the contents of a respondent’s fridge, it is a less enriching to say “Tell me what’s in your fridge”, far better to say “Give me a video-tour of the fridge”.

Video footage shows better than what a respondent can say in words – how tidy the fridge is, how well-stocked, if labelled, if certain people have sections, not just simply an enumeration of what is there.

Framing is also a key aspect to help maximize success with the mobile medium.

If a client wishes to understand how a certain audience enjoys cake eating, Steve suggests that it’s better to create a contextually focused challenge.

This could be framed as:  “Think about cake moments – which we’ll define as any moment you have cake, or any time when cake makes a moment better”. This would be preferable to simply asking: “what do you like about cake?” The “cake moments” approach results in a “Moments diary”, full of rich detail on the whens, the whats, the who-withs, the what-withs……a richly divergent process full of associative detail that a skilled qualitative practitioner can assemble meaningfully.


This leads to the center of what Revelation refer to as “Online Immersive Qualitative”.

Mobile – Closer to Experiences

Mobile is an immediate and quasi-omnipresent medium, with the ability to capture and transmit pictures, texts, impressions, feelings, behaviors as they occur. 

Mobile qualitative can profit from this by adopting what Revelation describes this as “immersive online qualitative”. It encompasses three core dimensions that help understand behavior:

  • Contexts: where are you? Who are you with?
  • Behavior: what are you doing?
  • Emotion: how do you feel?

Mobile can capture this triad of behavioral understanding when a particular experience occurs, making it much more likely to be an authentic and accurate record of an event.

Optimized mobile = imaginative technology + creativity in research

The learnings gained from the various validation and piloting studies reached critical mass in 2007, the year of launch. Revelation accompanied the launch with the announcement of their own mobile qual. App.

The App has evolved to third or fourth generation, but the principles applied are constant – “merge imagination in technology with creativity in research” – so the experience is smooth and engaging.

Some of the stand-out features are as follows:

  • Mimics mainstream current Social Media user experience – the App feels like Instagram, is visually driven, with room for text comment
  • Works off-line – ensuring thoughts or comments are not lost if connectivity breaks down.
  • Superior video and photo handling. The compression offered allows longer videos to be made, they are also easier and faster to upload. Videos can be uploaded in the background with no interruption of other device activity.
  • Push notification. Participants can be pinged a reminder or request by a Researcher who has seen something posted that is particularly interesting or pertinent, asking for more detail or clarification.
  • Device optimization. The interface is highly responsive and adaptive to whatever the device may be, re-sizing and re-visualizing automatically.

For What types of Research?

Steve named the following research areas as particularly appropriate for mobile qual.

  • In-store: respondents can take a picture, make a video
  • Online communities with diary-style activities: participant recording gives greater detail, richer contextual understanding
  • Outdoor activities – anywhere where mobile is at hand, overcoming recall issues associated with capturing later on a laptop.

Revelation see mobile qual. as particularly useful in what Steve refers to as “foundational studies” – where clients are going back to basics, to the fundamentals of what motivates and moves, often against a backdrop of wealth of existing quantified data. Mobile qual. is used to unlock, unleash, bring alive, develop an engagement strategy – move from a static to a dynamic insights approach.

An example: a customer has existing segmentation data, typologies have been identified, but there are questions on how best to engage key segments? How approach them? In this context of segmentation and typologies, mobile qual. works well in bringing customer types to life.

Case Study: Digital Dads

digital dads

In 2010 Yahoo wished to better understand the changing behavior of American “Dads” in the aftermath of the 2008/9 financial crisis. Some of these Dads had recently experienced being laid off, so had begun to assume a different role at home. Yahoo wished to know if, how and to what extent household tasks – cleaning, shopping, looking after the kids – typically assumed to be the role of the “Mom” – were affected by this dynamic.

Were some modern Dads being overlooked by brands and marketing as at least joint decision makers? 

The research design was mixed-methodological – qual/ quant., using online diaries and mobile qualitative.

The mobile qual. piece was chosen for the immediacy offered in low-interest categories – shopping for household goods, for example, or carrying out chores about the house. Activities that are easily forgotten. The design looked not just at Dads, but also recruited their families and their network of friends.

The findings suggested that men indeed were being overlooked by advertisers, sometimes portrayed as people unable to do simple chores.

Mobile qual. delivered authenticity – in-store reactions in particular – that brought quant. findings to life, adding a level of veracity and persuasiveness.

Case Study: USA Latinos and Hair Care


Another challenge posed to Revelation was in the area of hair care amongst the population of Latinos living and working in the USA. There are currently 52 million of them, they represent a fast growing opportunity as wealth levels rise, with a new and growing Latino middle-class segment emerging.

The client in question – P&G – could see a massive market and wished to gain a cultural hair-care perspective, understand how best to tap into this audience: what were their hair needs, how did they differ if at all, what products and brands did they know and use, which did they aspire to?

Smartphones were known to be the medium of choice for this audience, with many mobile-only households.

Mobile qual. was an obvious research approach suited to the brief – foundational insights – because mobile was a medium the audience would more easily engage with.

The design adopted was both fast – with a 3 day fieldwork period – and immersive. 20 Latinos were recruited and asked to perform exercises designed to understand their personal concepts of health and beauty. Using text and uploaded images, they were asked to use analogies and metaphors incorporating their five senses.

P&G gained an extremely rich, quasi real-time and cultural picture of what healthy and unhealthy hair meant. The insights were of clear value to the company’s R&D efforts.

Comment/ Outlook

  • Mobile qualitative research offers the ability to deliver the pictures, reactions, words of experiences as they happen. Often meaningful moments occur when the Researcher isn’t present – mobile can help overcome that.
  • Mobile qual. is well placed to provide an “aha” moment that a quantitative survey and arguably Group discussions can’t. It illuminates in a unique way.
  • Mobile qual. complements other research forms – it does things, gets to places, that traditional qual. doesn’t or can’t. Its delivers particular value in immersive type insights studies.
  • It takes Researchers into areas – the shopping aisle, the kitchen, the pub or restaurant – where they traditionally haven’t been, and where memory often plays tricks when respondents relate based on memory.
  • The method also allows a social and contextual component to be built in more easily – responses are given with the sense of place, occasion, atmosphere, and to what extent other people were part of an experience.
  • As part of the modern Researchers’ multi-modal armory, mobile qual. seems invaluable – relatively quick, authentic, cost-effective.

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3 responses to “Mobile Qualitative – How Does It Fit In The Research Toolkit?

  1. Mobile phone are always the best mobile gadgets and hence they fit into one’s pockets to bring in all the essence of the world into one. They are now in more versions and designs to incorporate splendid apps that works best for any research. They are definitely the best research toolkits.

  2. This article full of wonderful ways to explain the benefits of mobile qual internally and with clients! With so many mobile qual providers around from dscout, CrowdLab, Revelation and Dub among many – what are the factors to consider when deciding who to use? I tend to make decisions based on user experience, price and a few functionality needs that are key to our analysis process like easy back-end search, client facing customization etc. Would love to hear how others are making these types of decisions.

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