Data collection is crucial to any research project, and the most critical aspects of data collection are the cost of the data collection method, the accuracy of the data that is collected and the efficiency with which data is collected. Advocates of face-to-face data collection believe strongly that mobile data collection solutions fall short with regard to accuracy, because there are aspects of a personal encounter that can’t be captured with most digital data collection methods. However, recent studies have shown that mobile data collection applications have an advantage over other digital solutions in being economical, accurate and efficient.

Face to face data collection smiley imageFace to face data collection smiley image
Face to face data collection smiley image

Advantages of the In-Person Interview

An in-person interview provides some advantages over the impersonal internet survey. First, the individual being surveyed is unable to provide false information for screening questions such as age, gender or race. Internet surveys that offer premiums, such as market research surveys, may encourage falsification if the individual finds that by answering as a member of a particular demographic he or she is able to complete more surveys and thus earn more points. The answers the individual provides may be honest in all other respects, but for the purposes of analysis, the data may be misleading.  An in-person interview avoids this possibility and provides a more accurate screening process; even Jack Benny couldn’t get by with claiming to be 39 when interacting with a skilled interviewer in an in-person discussion.

Focus group interview with paper based tools
Focus group interview with paper based tools

Second, the face to face interview captures subtle verbal and nonverbal cues from the interviewee that convey a message that may run counter to that being verbalized. For example, if a job applicant fidgets, refuses to make eye contact or begins mumbling when asked about a specific event or position, the body language indicates a level of discomfort with the line of questioning.  If nothing else, the nonverbal communication would raise a yellow flag regarding the veracity of the applicant’s resume or stated reason for leaving the position.  By the same token, if the applicant leans forward and begins to open up when discussing a particular position he or she held, it is a good indication that they had real passion for the job. This also may make the difference between an applicant that is highly skilled but lacks enthusiasm and one who is less skilled or experienced but shows tremendous enthusiasm.  These nonverbal cues could never be obtained using an internet screening application.

A third advantage of the face to face interview is that the interviewer can control the situation and keep the interview focused. Traditional digital data collection techniques are often done while the interviewee is in the midst of other projects – web surfing, streaming a program over the internet or reading and answering e-mail. This makes it easy for the interviewee to dash unthinkingly through questions that may require thought or insight. The interpersonal interview eliminates the distractions that are a component of the digital universe.

face to face paper based interview
face to face paper based interview

Finally, the in-person interview often captures emotions and behaviors as they are happening. The surveyor who conducts spot interviews in the mall is in a better position to garner the specific triggers that motivated an individual to visit a certain store or make a purchase than would an internet survey done two or three weeks after the fact.

Disadvantages of In-Person Interviewing

For all of the advantages of gathering data face to face, this method has its disadvantages. The largest by far is cost. In-person interviews require having a staff to perform the interviews. Non-revenue generating personnel is one of the largest overhead expenditures businesses have, and the impetus is to keep those costs to a minimum.

Mobile data collection application
Mobile data collection application

Second, the quality of the data obtained often depends on the skill of the interviewer. The ability to conduct an interview and to record the information are skills that some people have in abundance. The probability that the entire staff hired to perform in-person data collection will be so skilled is low; the likelihood of a Bell curve with regard to interviewing skills is more to be expected.  Individual interviewers may also have their own biases that impact the way in which information is recorded. This is especially true when dealing with hot-button issues, political opinion polls and the like.

Third, the data obtained during in-person interviews has to be transcribed or compiled manually. This adds materially to the cost of data collection because again, staff has to be in place to enter the data into a spreadsheet or database. The ability to perform analytics is stifled while the data are being entered. The probability of human error in entering the data is also a factor. Even the most diligent data entry clerk can misread the handwriting of an interviewer and enter erroneous information.

Finally, the size of the sample is limited by the size of the interview staff, the area within which the staffers work and the number of qualified respondents available for interview within that area. For example, if a pharmaceutical firm wanted to conduct a clinical trial for a drug specifically designed to eliminate the behaviors associated with trichotillomania (a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that causes a person to pull his or her hair out), the number of qualified trial candidates may be seriously limited even in large urban areas. This would mean that several trials would have to be scheduled in large cities across the nation, or that the project would need to be tabled unless a broader application for the drug can be discovered. Geography and time can work against a project if data collection is done strictly on an in-person basis.

Mobile Data Collection: The Hybrid Data Collection Method

Mobile data collection uses survey applications that are downloaded to a “smart” cell phone. The applications provide many of the benefits of the in-person interview as well as those of other digital data collection methods. Because cell phones and cell phone technology are ubiquitous, the ability to capture data using a cell phone allows this method to be used globally, even in some of the most remote regions of the world.  The United Nations, for example, lists many research projects that utilize mobile data collection as their primary source of data that are being conducted in Sri Lanka, Uganda, Zimbabwe and other nations in which internet access is limited and in-person interviewing would be highly impractical. Others NGOs such as Plan International are using mobile data collection in Zambia to collect sensitive development data in remote area. Interestingly, NGOs based in developed countries such as Pathway in the U.K is carrying out surveys and focus groups on mobile with homeless people and homeless health service users as well as with clinicians, key workers and other service providers.

Mobile Data collection in Africa
Mobile Data collection in Africa

The cell phone survey also provides for obtaining data on a highly localized basis. Cell phones are equipped with GPS tracking ability; if research involves querying respondents in a specific geographical area, the GPS unit in the cell phone triggers the app to open a survey. For instance, if a market research firm wanted to identify customer response to a client’s merchandise display in the Macy’s stores in the Northeast, sophisticated mobile data collection software could be programmed with the coordinates of the Macy’s stores in the region, and when a shopper with the cell phone app loaded entered one of the stores, the software would signal the shopper that a survey is available.

Mobile Data collection training in Africa
Mobile Data collection training in Africa

This feature also allows data to be collected in real-time. Mobile data collection follows the shopper from the time he or she enters a location to the point of purchase. As the shopper completes his or her transaction, he or she can also provide feedback regarding emotions and motivations before, during and after the transaction.  Compare this to an internet survey that asks the consumer about his or her brand awareness and likelihood to purchase after the survey is complete; often, the answer to the question “Are you more likely to purchase Brand X?” is answered affirmatively on the survey, but is actually not acted upon. Digital surveys measure intentions, whereas mobile data collection measures results.

Because mobile data collection applications utilize cell phone technology, the survey methods can include voice, data, text and photo components. This creates many of the same benefits of face-to-face interaction. Voice interaction with an interviewee over the cell phone still allows the interviewer to pick up on inflections and to clarify any questions in order to obtain valid data. Text messaging allows respondents to provide a wider array of responses instead of being confined to “Yes-No” or multiple choice answers. The addition of photos can be helpful in understanding a respondent’s answer or reaction as well. Consider a mystery shopping situation in which the respondent evaluates the condition of a store’s bathroom facilities. Words may not be able to describe adequately a graffiti-riddled wall and leaking plumbing, but a photo uploaded from the cell phone certainly would. Photos along with multiple choice queries can also show how product placement impacts a shopper’s purchasing decisions, whether or not a restaurant’s décor motivates a diner to spend more on food and whether a health care worker’s description of a patient’s rash is one that may mean emergency treatment.

Finally, data collected through mobile means can also be exported and downloaded to a spreadsheet or other program for analysis. This not only expedites the time between data collection and analysis, it reduces the opportunity for input errors that occur in transcribing data. One study has shown that the error rate for data collected via cell phone is 4.5 percent for text messaging and less than 1 percent for voice interactions.

Mobile data collection applications provide research opportunities for a wide array of fields. Health care, market research, insurance, real estate and construction firms all have made use of one or more mobile data collection applications. The real-time aspect of this technology combined with the ability to personalize the experience make it comparable to using in-person survey techniques, while the digital nature of the technology offers the cost effectiveness and global penetration afforded by other internet-based research methods. Mobile data collection may never fully replace in-person interviews in many situations, but it can and does maximize the productivity of those involved in doing research.