User Experience (UX) is big business. The advent of the smartphone and its apps, social media, and massive online retailers like Amazon has meant that fortunes are won and lost by virtue of how easy a digital thing is to use. In this short blog, I’ll pick on arguably the most fundamental aspect of smartphone UX – how people actually hold and use them!

When was the last time you held your mobile phone in ‘landscape’ orientation? Perhaps to watch a TV programme, movie or YouTube clip? How do you view messages, websites, or apps? Probably in portrait mode, i.e. holding the phone straight up, rather than turning it on its side. Now ask yourself how you would naturally complete an online survey? Yep, portrait would almost certainly be your default option. If it didn’t work well you might adjust to landscape but then again you might just give it up as a bad job! Our expectation these days is that app designers will make it easy for us. They know that users naturally prefer portrait orientation and that they risk losing people if they force them to switch in order to explore their content or functionality.

Unfortunately this lesson has not yet been fully learned by survey designers. There is still much wishful thinking on this score (or in some cases, a total lack of thought) when questionnaires are put together. They’re designed in Word on big monitors, and a focus on the content often means that the participant experience is relegated to an after-thought.

This is starting to hurt us. As standards of UX in other digital settings improve, surveys must compete, but many are falling behind. Participants are ever more likely either to reject a survey as too taxing or decide that they will give it the attention they feel it deserves and rush it. To return to our example, although turning a phone on to its side is indeed incredibly easy to do, the fact is that very few of us actually do it. By ignoring these basic behavioural truths, we’re persistently damaging both sample and data quality. Inevitably, our insights will suffer as a result.

The encouraging thing is that it actually isn’t that difficult to make surveys easy to complete on a smaller, portrait-oriented, screen. Questions authored in the leading software, such as Confirmit and Decipher, can and should adapt intelligently to whatever device is being used. We know it can be done because a) we’re doing it at First Line and, b) other digital designers are doing it all the time.