About six weeks ago, I attended the Mobile Research conference 2011 in London, where a variety of vendors and clients talked about their experiences with mobile as a research methodology. They shared a range of mobile research methodologies, like using text messages in emerging markets, mobile ethnographic studies, geolocation tracking, and mobile behavioral tracking data. You can find most of the presentations here, and if you want to see me in action as roving reporter, you can click here.

During the whole conference, there was a clear line between the benefits and challenges of online research versus mobile research, and how the two can strengthen each other. Then at the end of the second day, someone asked the following question to the audience: “Do you consider tablets a PC or mobile device?” The answer was almost unanimous: a mobile device.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of mobile research in more detail. In fact, I was wondering if something like a mobile research conference would still exist in a couple of years, because the rapid technological developments of smartphones and tablets will blur the line between mobile and online research. Can we, as researchers, continue to define the research methodology in the future, or are the respondents going to do that? This line of thinking led me to ask this question to our community members: Should research be device-agnostic?

The feedback I got was again unanimous: Yes, it should. But this response was immediately followed by a question: Can it be device-agnostic? What does that mean for response bias? How can we control the sample? How will results be comparable? These are all valid questions, but it is something we have to overcome and live with. One thing is clear: We can’t tell our respondents which device they should use to open up our surveys.

I believe the research industry has to strive for a parallel approach. The survey software vendors need to develop a way to recognize the device when people open up a survey invite and offer them a survey that is designed specifically for that device (short and sweet when it’s a smartphone, long and tedious when it’s a PC). This software should be able to handle not only the different devices but also the sampling and quota setting that go with it. On the other hand, researchers need to become much more creative. They need to build a research framework with different surveys for smartphones, tablets, and laptops — using the strengths of each of the devices for gathering insight.

What do you think? Is device-agnostic research the future?