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Using Mobile Diaries To Understand Undecided Voters

Anna Esslinger

Design Research Associate

Tuesday night’s debate left me (and probably a lot of other viewers) confused. With an unprecedented amount of interruptions and misinformation, I was able to understand my own emotional reaction to what I was seeing on the debate stage, but when thinking about what this debate meant to the election in a broader sense, I was at a loss.

Turning to professional pundits is helpful to an extent, though they often bring in their own biases and agendas. However, my favorite part of post-debate commentary has always been hearing from undecided voters. Listening to undecided voters helps me better understand other people’s reactions to the debate and puts individual perspectives into a broader context.

The format is usually the same: 10 to 20 undecided voters, typically from the state where the debate is being held, sit together and are interviewed by a journalist. Individuals are asked about their initial impressions of the debates, high-points and low-points, and then a raise of hands is done to determine who “won” the debate. This year’s panel was no different, although precautions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic were taken. Undecided voters were seated far apart, and the interviews were clearly done outside. However, the safest approach would be to allow undecided voters to express their opinions from their own homes. And this could be done through mobile diaries.


Mobile diaries would allow undecided voters to record themselves in their own environment, using a smart phone. Last night instead of gathering a handful of undecided voters in Westerville, Ohio, news organizations could have interviewed many more people across the country using mobile diaries.

The benefit to this approach would be that we could see undecided voters outside of the buttoned-up environment of a CNN interview, we could see them in their living room or on their break from work. And by recording themselves individually, they would not be swayed by the responses of other undecided voters in the room or by the interviewer themselves. At Vidlet, we’ve reviewed a lot of mobile diaries, and it’s clear that people are more comfortable, more authentic, and more honest when they can answer questions in their own space, on their own time.

Additionally, when respondents are herded into a space together, knowing they are going to be on television, they naturally alter their demeanor, behavior, and responses. This can be seen in Tuesday night’s group, some of the undecided voters were obviously dressed up in suits and seemed timid in their responses. When people record themselves, this formality goes away, and undecided voters can speak from a more comfortable and authentic place.

And the breadth of the responses could be vastly expanded using mobile diaries. Interviewing undecided voters in the city the debate takes place is a symbolic gesture to the host-city of the debate, but it’s largely unnecessary. These debates are being broadcast nationwide and voters across the country have input to give. Recording undecided voters from swing states across the country, from Arizona to Pennsylvania, would allow for a better understanding of the candidates’ perception nationwide.


Mobile diaries are inherently asynchronous. Respondents get sent a set of questions and then answer that set of questions without straying far from the script. While there are always opportunities for follow ups, the time frame in which those follow ups need to be done in order to make it to air 30 minutes after the debate finishes is tight. Therefore, with mobile diaries you miss the role of the interviewer asking the follow up questions. This is why mobile diaries cannot replace the current model completely. Some in-person interviews are necessary and some pollsters, such as Frank Luntz, have conducted their post-debate focus groups over Zoom. These tools together can create a comprehensive understanding of undecided voters post-debate perceptions and leaning.

Additionally, managing the responses that come in is no small task. At Vidlet, we’ve learned that video data management is much more complex than people think. You can’t just have respondents email responses and put everything in a Dropbox. Video management requires a strong backend that sends questions, receives responses, and organizes those responses to the corresponding question almost instantaneously. Thankfully, the developers and product designers at Vidlet have created a platform for seamless video management…so we don’t have to worry about that.

Understanding undecided voters is the key to predicting elections and knowing what issues matter to people across the country. New digital tools, specifically mobile diaries, could be vital in reaching more people, seeing people in new environments, and hearing impartial responses.


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Image Credit: CNN

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