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Mobile Screens – Size Does Matter?

The origins of my blog are often brilliant market researchers who refuse to acknowledge that Mobiles have a future in mainstream MR. This post is based on notes I had written around 6 months ago after an animated discussion I …

The origins of my blog are often brilliant market researchers who refuse to acknowledge that Mobiles have a future in mainstream MR. This post is based on notes I had written around 6 months ago after an animated discussion I had with a old friend and colleague who insisted that the screen size of mobiles was too small to do any meaningful research. Since I wrote my notes then, little has changed but it seems there is a change of heart and many more people are willing to listen and are more hesitant to bet against mobile MR. Please be assured there are enough skeptics left out there too but its definitely getting easier as phones and penetrations improve.

Myth or Fact – Average User’s mobile screen size is too small to conduct market research on.

Mobile screen size insufficiency is one of the oldest and most often mentioned myths. It’s a convenient scapegoat for failed growth of mobiles as a mainstream research tool and methodology. The fact is it may have been true > 3-5 years ago when :

  • the screens were B&W and colour screens were available only on the high end phones
  • A small screen size was sufficient to ensure you read a contacts’ name and a their number
  • cameras and memory on the phone was considered a luxury

Today you’ll need to shop at the museum to buy a B&W phone or phone without a camera. Today within a very short span of 18-24 months we have seen average screen sizes double and the trend is not expected to stop any time soon. The smallest screen sizes have largely been stopped being manufactured by the industry and larger screens are becoming the standard across markets.

A few months ago I spoke to a former colleague of mine who is part of a mobile adoption pilot at a leading agency and was told that they have shelved mobile data acquisition as the powers that be felt that mobile screens were too small for effective use in MR! So they are recommending that laptop / netbooks be bought for interviewers for a better electronic capture method. Of course this discussion was just before Apple’s iPad! So I guess they’ll prefer the iPad now, considering its bigger screen and portability. My first reaction was to suggest that they dock the group of rocket scientists’ salaries to pay for the hardware acquisition. Maybe that will give them some perspective!!!

On a more serious note, the reason PDAs and laptop based collection methods remains in the periphery and have not gone mainstream in MR is because of the prohibitive costs it adds and more important the hardware getting obsolete before it can be relevant! If you look at online research, it has done well despite agencies not having to buy a computer for each interviewer or each respondent to make it part of mainstream MR! Similar to the online methodology’s success, I see mobile MR growing to be a mainstay, driven by innovative applications which are engaging, evolving as handsets and handset environments change. Customized applications loaded onto consumer phones to gather information and received by researchers.

The potential of Mobile in marketing has been identified by a leading MR agency Nielsen as far back as July 2008. In its paper aptly titled “Critical Mass” one of the highlighted Key Takeouts states

“We believe mobile internet has reached a critical mass in the US. As of May 2008, there were 40 million active users of the mobile internet in the US, with individual sites which attracts millions of unique users. This provides scalable marketing potential and demographic depth.”

WOW! And I thought I had a bright idea. Then why exactly aren’t enough guys driving this yet? I’m afraid we need to save that for another blog as I am still out there asking people why, why, why ….

Coming back to mobile screen sizes. The smallest screen size 128 x 128 pixels are slowly being dropped from production across the major handset players of the world. So if you have an old phone with a small screen lying around, please keep it for your kids to make a buck on ebay. Also skeptics of small screens (including the earlier mentioned former colleague of mine – who used an iPhone then), I would bet that they all have high end handsets. Further they must blame their phones for not buying newspapers anymore, having read all they wanted on their phones.

Currently the screen size which dominates the landscape is 240 x 320 pixels (roughly half of the iPhone screen resolution which is 320 x 480 pixels); a general population phone screen. I use this screen size mainly cause it helps me test the broadest set of applications we develop. I check my mail, the weather and thanks to my phone, I surf less on my laptop at work as I get a lot of my information when I am traveling to work, home or a client.

Mobile Screen Evolution

It is important to get a good view the evolution of the mobile screen sizes in the last few years to understand that things have pretty much peaked for a mobile handset screen. Now its mainly about the spread of large screens. Allow me to explain through this chart below :

Pre-touch Screens

The largest Java enabled screen was 240 x 320, which was also the mainstay of the industry.

3 years ago
Touchscreens and the iPhone

The introduction of touch screens lead by the iPhone, Samsung and LG, eliminated the need for key pads within the phone structure. This doubled the screen resolution overnight. The largest Java enabled phone screen resolution at that point was Nokia’s 360 x 640, which was slightly higher than the iPhone’s 320 x 480.

> 12 months – 36 months ago
Maximum – The new breed

In the last 12 months we have had a spate of launches which have maximized the space available on a phone. Here the battle was started by the launch of Android phones which started with a screen resolution of 480 x 800.

This was bettered further recently by the iPhone 4 with a resolution of 960 x 640. Now most handset screens are going to fall in and around the range of the iPhone 4, with its Retina display – you can’t really top that considering the retina (human eye) can’t detect anything beyond or better than this.

<12 months and going forward
Quoting Trend 8 (Slide 09) from “10 Mobile Tech Trends to Watch Into 2011 – Gartner”

“Touch screens are becoming the dominant user interface on large-screen handsets and are expected to be included on 60 percent of mobile devices shipped to mature markets in 2011.”

At this point in the handheld mobile phone’s evolution we have pretty much peaked and reached a threshold point where either its screen or the physical attributes of the phone itself needs to be sacrificed. So in the next phase I see the slow takeover by larger resolution screens in the general population handsets as they are made more accessible (read as affordable) by manufacturers.

From a MR standpoint and remaining within the mobile space without having to get into pads and tablets; the current screen sizes in the market are good enough for users to read comfortably and use effectively as an interactive medium to conduct market research on. The average screen size growth in general population handsets also helps as it’s a tangible difference hard to avoid. And with each passing day, I see this is getting clearer to researchers and clients giving credence to people like me who have bet on this dynamic and exciting space.

Until my next post, tata. If you didn’t enjoy the post there’s always ITMA .

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One Response to “Mobile Screens – Size Does Matter?”

  1. Is Mobile The “5th Methodology”? The Market Speaks… « GreenBook Market Research Blog says:

    August 20th, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    […] must be Mobile Friday! On the heels of the post by Navin Williams earlier today, here is more on the topic of mobile […]

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