By Betsy Leichliter

Protecting participants’ privacy and personally identifiable information (PII) has become more challenging for market researchers, as communications technologies, media habits, and privacy laws and regulations evolve.

Mobile-enabled research makes it easier than ever for participants to quickly gather and share data (in vocal, visual, numerical, or other forms). They can generate active responses, while their devices capture passive data such as location-based or health/fitness data.

When working across the US and with international colleagues, I often wish we could have one simple checklist to help guide the way we design and manage mobile-enabled research. But I understand it will take time before privacy laws, regulations, and research practices become clearer and more consistent worldwide.

In the meantime, I encourage clients, research colleagues, and support providers to stay current with guidance about avoiding or coping with privacy-related risks and responsibilities, such as ESOMAR’s Guideline for Conducting Mobile Market Research (section 3.3 is a great place to start) is available here, and will be updated soon.

Since our projects tend to be qual-only or qual/quant, I will also keep looking for ways to be more proactive about privacy protection, because real-world experience has shown us two things:

  • The more we include open-ended qualitative activities in our research (from simple open-ended probes to multi-media/in-context/in the moment experiences) the more we need to think ahead about how to design the research and manage the various data it produces
  • Thinking proactively can help make research more dynamic for clients, encourage rich responses and high completion rates, and help participants feel the research is trustworthy and a good use of their time

A Few Examples

Here are a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean.

While moderating recent multi-country mobile/online research where families participated mainly from their homes, I was surprised to receive an “urgent” text one night from a mom who had just uploaded photos of her living room from her mobile phone. Then she logged in to check how they looked on her larger computer screen, and realized that one photo had caught her little son running naked through the living room after his nightly bath. Even if he had been wearing pajamas, his face was clearly visible, so the photo did contain personally identifiable information that needed to be masked or deleted before clients or others saw it. But of course the mom’s concern was having a pajama-less photo of her kid anywhere on the internet.

I deleted the photo from the research system immediately, called her to confirm that she could no longer see it posted within the project, and that she had not sent or synched it anywhere else. I assured her that she and I would be the only ones to see her child’s photo, since we had set up that diary-like activity in “individual” mode (not in “group” or “observer” mode where other participants or clients could have see it). Relieved, the family proceeded to engage fully in the rest of the research activities, sharing some of the most natural and inspiring responses in the entire project.

Shortly afterwards, a colleague with strong mobile qual experience described a live video interview he conducted from his home office with a man participating from a bedroom at his own home.  As they talked, the researcher saw the wife’s reflection show up on a large mirror behind the husband’s back. She had just stepped out of the shower, stark naked.  Fortunately this image did not appear on the husband’s screen, and no one was observing remotely at that moment. Nevertheless, the researcher followed up immediately with the video app provider to make sure the wife’s image would never be seen by anyone else.

Other Considerations

Privacy protection can trigger other challenges when researchers ask participants to engage in mobile-enabled activities away from home. Mobile-enabled “customer jouneys”/”remote shopalongs” and other “in context/in the moment” research has become a very popular way to learn how customers experience products or services related to shopping, traveling, banking, dining, and more.   

When planning this type of research, clear objectives are key, taking into consideration:

  • Is it important for participants to “just be themselves” as target consumers when they engage in the research activities? If so, put yourself in their shoes and think through what kinds of privacy-related information or reminders they may need at various points throughout the experience
  • Or is it important to engage participants who are already trained (or can be trained) to do specific types of research? Example: Classic mystery shopping for a client who needs evidence of how well a customer’s actual experience (at the client’s store, or using the client’s text chat support) aligns with the company strategy — and the client’s staff is aware that mystery shopper research will be done periodically?

Betsy Leichliter, Qualitative Advisor at Leichliter Associates

Check out ESOMAR’s Guidelines including the Data Protection Checklist

This is the first of a series of articles on managing privacy in every day research. If there are topics you would like to see covered or if you have advice you would like to share, write to