It’s all about sensors … and of course mobile research is the future

This is the english version of my article published in October 2014 in the magazine "Absatzwirtschaft"


After the smartphone entered the scene as the first „wearable gadget“ other wearable user interfaces are  already on their way. The introduction of these new technologies has wide-reaching consequences for market research.

We used to talk of the „Internet of Things“, now it’s „wearable gadgets“ and in the near future or even already now the „Internet of everything“. Common to all is an ever deeper implantation of the Internet in our lives. We use smartphones and never turn them off. We are online 24/7. Technology is encroaching into our inner self, with new and more advanced technologies intended both to help and influence us either available now or in the pipeline. The old model of a single chip in a PC, according to US physician and futurologist Michio Kaku, is being replaced by a new paradigm: „Thousands of chips communicating with each other inside every single item, whether furniture, appliances, pictures, walls, cars or clothing.“

The Internet is ubiquitous and growing at such a rate that change is on the daily agenda. The impact on market research is colossal.

The digital environment is invisible. Chips and sensors are already widely in use, but their deployment will grow and move into every conceivable area of life. Smartphones may well be the first „wearable gadgets“ to become widely used, but are just the first step towards a total digitalisation of people and society. Now we’re already at the point where, instead of „wearable gadgets“, it would seem more appropriate to talk about „wearable user interfaces“ (Wearable UIs) – interfaces and sensors on our person or even inside our bodies interlinked with everything we do. Already at an advanced stage of development, for instance, are contact lenses that can monitor body functions (e.g. blood glucose levels) and serve as a projection screen for information. Even today Google Glass can recognize people, places and objects (though data protection concerns forbid activation of face recognition). The data generated provides immense potential for marketing and market research.

It’s all about sensors: Wearable UI’s are the start of a new form of data collection for market research

Wearable user interfaces enable new ways of communication and information gathering, widening the scope for methods, data collection, data processing and analysis. They open up the possibility to close further in on the actual moment of experience, perception or decision-making and so gather „more authentic“ data.

The classic stationary desktop PC as input device has had its day, at least from a market research perspective, and will only be relevant in future for some special applications and survey types. Mobile research is the future of market research.

Deeper insight into the consumer’s world of experience: Wearable user interfaces enable (subject to consent) collection, transmission and processing of information including feelings and emotions, without the respondent doing anything.

The next step goes much further: Whilst smartphones rely on the research participant’s active engagement, this is not or only partly so with the next generation of wearable UIs. Assuming the research participant consents, not only data and information, but feelings and emotions (even subliminal) can be recorded, transmitted, processed and integrated in the analysis.

Wearable UIs will reverse the trend of overloading mobile devices with functions and features. Voice and image recognition, as well as sensory data generation will become the norm in digital life, resulting in:

  • less disturbance caused by active operation of an end device to collect data
  • easier recording of intuitive and routine patterns of behaviour
  • the role and function of the interviewer may even be influenced

From a market researcher’s perspective, these developments are revolutionary because they give a 360 degree view of the consumer and so allow a comprehensive understanding of consumer behaviour (which is what market research is all about).

The possibility of observing behaviour in a specific environment, along with new sources of information, will strengthen the market researcher’s role and function as a data analyst, whilst the act of data collection will be less of a chore.

According to classic marketing criteria the digital person can no longer be clearly captured. Target groups „dissolve“. The analysis and classification of behaviour and behavioural patterns, however, will become increasingly relevant.

Google Glass is the start to a new form of data collection in market research and currently the best known wearable UI. In spite of all controversial reactions there can be no doubt that the usage of wearable UIs will become part of everyday life in the not so distant future and hence change the nature of market research surveys (see box: „Significant changes in market research“). Through independent mobile usage and the possibility to interact with the user at all times the spectrum of methodical possibilities grows considerably. Most important is that the research participant can act completely independently from a research setting.

In practice a whole range of areas in which wearable UIs now or in the near future is conceivable:

  • Digital ethnography: Ethnographic market research has become very popular in recent years and will remain so in years to come. Wearable UIs allow a far more realistic and natural insight into the consumer’s environment and experience world.
  • Ad copy tests: Audio and video help understand the entire process of perception and reactions to advertising. By recording facial contortions emotional reactions can, in principle, too be interpreted. Moreover, image recognition allows „in the moment“ reactions to advertising.
  • Group discussions or face to face interviews: Google Glass could be used in conjunction with eye tracking.
  • Retail and Shopping: Recording the activities of participants „on the fly“ helps analysis of processes determining the purchase decision, especially when localisation and (real time) biometric data are combined.
  • Product tests: Product tests in the participant’s home or a relevant location can be documented without disturbance and „in the moment“.
  • Digital diaries or journals: A method very often used in market research is to have participants log events over a period in a diary or journal. The possibility of passive data collection and tracking of movement and activities (how, where?) extends the possibilities of this method.

The role of market research as a keeper of data protection

Usage of wearable UIs to collect data raises new questions with regard to data protection and the role of market research that need to be addressed: How secure is data from access by third parties? How and where is data stored? What happens to the data on project completion?

Of further relevance is data ownership: Who has final ownership of collected data when commissioned exclusively by a client? Who guarantees that any knowledge gathered will only be used by the research company or its client? How do I assure that information and data submitted by research participants is really treated confidentially and securely?

New technology has brought about such a rapid digitalisation of society that ordinary people are left dumbfounded. Insecurity about the treatment of personal data is real. Only market research that can be trusted will create trustworthy results. It must have control and independence.

Market researchers as data experts therefore have a special task and responsibility. Credible action and a conscientious handling of personal data are top priority in the future. This means more than promising that data will not be made available or passed to third parties, but calls rather for a kind of label declaration similar to that implemented in the food sector: where, where from, where to, how?

In the whole methodical discussion on data the fine and important differentiation of data acquired and data for analysis is more relevant than ever. Technical devices and wearable UIs are an enrichment of the method spectrum. No more and no less.

In future qualitative market research will grow in importance. As paradox as it may sound, the more data available, the more important it is to analyse this data qualitatively. Big data and artificial intelligence are tools, not a panacea. At the centre of market research, as always is the individual person and in the final instance only the individual is in a position, despite all the wonders of technology, to realistically analyse and understand human behaviour in all its logical, illogical, rational, irrational and contradictory forms.


Mobile Research and Wearable UI’s: Significant changes in market research

  • Active and passive generation of data and information
  • Conducted mobile and independently of location
  • The research participant is at ease in his/her own familiar environment
  • Remote respondent: No need for interviewer/moderator to be present. Questions and messages can be sent to Google Glass
  • Conducted in realtime
  • Events can be followed „live“
  • Collection and transmission of data in realtime
  • „In the moment“: Respondents can participate in the survey at times most convenient
  • Usage of wide diversity of media, possibilities and methods of data collection
  • Images, video, language, behaviour, movement (tracking)
  • Intuitive data entry
  • Conscious and subconscious data
  • Active guidance of interviews via image recognition and augmented reality scenarios
  • When recognizing pictures or places specific questions can be summoned or placed
  • Geotracking (location identification)

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