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How made-to-measure can come off-the-shelf

September 1994

Features on Information Technology have a tendency to focus on developments in specialised packages which are of limited appeal all but a handful of IT "experts". This series of articles aims to take an objective and non-technical look at how innovation in IT can help those involved in all aspects of market research. To get things started, this review focuses on how, by choosing carefully from standard off-the-shelf PC packages you could find yourself with some surprisingly specialised made-for-market-research tools.

Some systems now come with software included - often one of the integrated "Works" packages. These contain all the key components needed by most researchers: wordprocessor, spreadsheet (for tabs and graphs), graphics (for preparing presentations) and database (maintaining contacts, sample, panels). To buy the components separately you could pay £1000 or more. So, are packages like Microsoft Works or ClarisWorks too much of a "give-away" to be taken seriously?

While "works" packages are not rich in specialist features, they do have the advantage of being easy to learn and do not require large amounts of memory or disk space. They are also very well "integrated" which means that you can start work on a document in the word processor, switch to the spreadsheet to knock up a graph or a table, then clip it straight into your report, without any retyping. The only significant lack for some would be a dedicated "presentation tool" for 35mm slides or acetates - though you can produce small volumes of very presentable looking OHPs, with bullet points, colour and graphics using the drawing module in some. Although the manufacturers originally aimed these packages at the home market, corporate uptake has been high. However, serious users do tend to outgrow them once they learn their limitations.

The "proper" WP packages, such as WordPerfect or Word, come with a lot more labour-saving features, such as the handy "styles" feature (often overlooked by users). You can define styles so that your reports have a consistent appearance with regard to headings, paragraphs, bullet points etc. Styles can also ensure that headings do not appear at the bottom of the page, "widowed" from paragraphs "orphaned" on the next page. Once you use heading styles, Microsoft's Word offers something which can be a real boon to the report writer - an "outliner". With one click, you can tuck away all the text and just view the structure of headings and subheadings. By dragging these from one position to another, you can quickly restructure your document, including the concelaed text.

Although the terms word-processing and desktop publishing or "DTP" are often used interchangeably, there is a fundamental difference between them. With DTP you create each page separately, placing text, boxes and lines exactly where you want. Word processors format the pages automatically, making it harder to get boxes and lines in the right place. Designing questionnaires can be a lot easier if you select the right tool for each stage of the process: draft your questions with a word processor then use DTP or "draw" to lay out the finished pages. The Works packages again do well in this respect with their close integration of both word-processing and drawing.

If your questionnaire is to be printed professionally by outside printers, remember you can save on origination costs by supplying your work on diskette. Check what the printers can take by mentioning the package you use, the type of computer and diskette - they can usually take Word or WordPerfect files as they are, but "Works" files can be problematic, unless you save them as "plain text".

Figures are the domain of the spreadsheet - an area now dominated by Microsoft's Excel. This product is a gift for any quantitative researcher, as it contains an impressive array of statistical functions, from medians and percentiles to probability tests and statistical distributions. But the ability to chart data is what appeals to most researchers. Excel contains superb support for this, in colour and in "3-D" perspectives, if you wish. Its useful "Chart Wizard" takes you through the process step by step. This really is "ease of use" in practise.

Perhaps most surprising of all is the inclusion of a "Cross Tab wizard" in the latest version of Excel. For this, you need access to the raw data - most analysis bureaux will be happy to provide you with data on diskette in the right format. It is, admittedly, rather cumbersome for more than a handful of tables. But then, the results look superb and they are ready to be stiched seamlessly into your report. When producers like Microsoft put specialist market research features into a £200 product that has sold millions of copies across the globe, it makes you wonder whether the days of the specialist package might be numbered.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, September 1994, Issue number 340.

© Copyright Market Research Society/Tim Macer 1997. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.


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