Just as a program is only as good as its people, an application can only do as much as its device allows.
The device you choose – whether it’s a feature phone, smartphone, or tablet – needs to be able to support the features of the mobile data collection app you develop. That can mean its operating system, storage and battery capacity, or even screen size.
There are a number of considerations we assess when selecting a device for a mobile data collection program.
Choosing the right device for your data collection program is vital, especially for first-time mobile users.
Make sure your platform will actually run on the device you have selected. In recent years, most feature phones have become increasingly incompatible with modern technology standards. Many platforms (including CommCare) still support the Java platform, but no longer recommend starting any new project on a feature phone. The final decision can still sometimes depend on you to make the most of what you have available, but when possible, we usually recommend Android devices. They are becoming much more common, affordable, and reliable, so as your program scales, you will not have to spend exorbitant amounts of money on expensive new devices or frequent replacements.
Your Workers’ Digital Literacy
If your workers have never used a mobile device before, you have to consider the best way for the user to interact with the device itself. Feature phones offer limited functionality, but a simple button configuration that can be easy to learn. Though Android devices can be tricky for certain people with their touchscreens, they do offer a more customized and intuitive experience that might make the first use of a mobile device more seamless. After the initial learning curve of a touch interface, we have found them easier to use, offering a better user interface and functionality.
Go for a tablet when displaying charts and multimedia for your users.
Screen size. How much multimedia will your CommCare application use? Android smartphones are obviously better suited than feature phones for displaying and capturing images, video, and audio. But the real question here is: smartphone or tablet? The more multimedia you have, the more we recommend tablets – bigger is better when it comes to the screen you view images and video on.
GPS. If you are looking to record GPS locations, some feature phones can handle that functionality if you upgrade them to a more advanced operating system, while almost all Android devices come with it standard.
Storage capacity. Without internet access, you might need to store data on your device until you receive a connection again. Depending on how much data you plan to collect on each field visit, you will need to consider the storage capacity of your device. Whether that means extra SD cards for your feature phone or purchasing smartphones with sufficient hard drive space, the last thing you want is to miss out on information because your phone can’t hold it all.
Battery life. Similar to storage capacity, depending on how long you will be working between charges, you will need to make sure your device will keep up. Consider devices with strong initial battery life or purchase backup batteries for devices that will let you swap them out. You may also find external batteries to be helpful if your device holds its battery internally.
Depending on how much information ask for at once, you will have to decide how it is best to present your forms. Can you get away with only showing one question at a time? Or do you need to present multiple questions at once? Do you need to present all the questions at once? The biggest dependency here is screen size, so plan accordingly.
Determine whether you would like to display a single or multiple questions at a time.
If your program will require that workers and supervisors stay in regular contact, the benefits of a tablet might be outweighed by the need for the two-way SMS functionality of a smartphone. Keep in mind how your workers expect to send and receive updates to determine what the right option for your program is.
Some feature phones allow you to password protect, though almost all Android devices offer this functionality. Another consideration, depending on your program’s location, is theft. Tablets can be awfully conspicuous, so if there is any risk of your devices being stolen, we recommend sticking with a slightly smaller, more discreet smartphone.
Here is where you might be tempted to look at feature phones – but that’s exactly why we’ve saved this topic for last. We understand as well as anyone how important the budget of your program is, but today, if you can take the time to do a little searching, you will find an affordably-priced smartphone that won’t ask you to sacrifice the way a feature phone would. The only trade-off you might have to make is downsizing from a tablet to a smartphone, but the functionality of your device and tool should not suffer considerably.
BONUS: Look out for counterfeits!
While it rarely happens, we have come across counterfeit phones while working on projects. Each phone is different, but we have found a few indicators for counterfeits:
- Google Play Store or other native apps are not included.
- IMEI number is invalid or from a poor manufacturer. Validate here.
- CommCare app crashes when prompted with a question about the date.
- Battery dies earlier than it should.
- Difficulty connecting to the internet.
Consider all your program needs to determine which device is right for you.
The priority of these considerations will depend on the details of your program. Long field visits will need to lean more heavily on large storage capacity and extended battery life. Instruction-heavy programs with images and video might prioritize a larger screen. Recognizing these needs ahead of designing your app will help reduce the number of bugs you experience, as you will be able to design specifically for that device. Just like every step of the process, consider your objectives and requirements to make sure that your mobile data collection tool truly supports your project.