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Pulsar Web reviewed

It won't be an impulse buy but this web enabled analysis tool may be a necessary one. Tim Macer puts the product through its paces.

It is five years since Interface last took a look at Pulsar. We liked it then, and judged it virtually perfect. In its latest incarnation, it has made a successful migration to the internet, yet remains, for the most part, a model for how things should be done in online tabulation.

Pulsar Web is the ASP or browser-based version of the desktop-based Pulsar program. The desktop version still has the edge on speed, and is simpler to set-up if the online analysis is destined for an audience of one. The web version not only lets you broadcast your tables to anyone with a Java-enabled web browser, but because it is an analysis package, lets you set up and run your own tables too.

Lovely to look at

The user interface has benefited from a huge tidy up, as it was starting to feel cluttered and tired. It now looks good, with clean, crisp lines and intelligent use of screen space. A broad vertical panel to the left contains a Windows Explorer-style tree of folders and items. A button at the top lets you flip between the questions or variables view, and the reports view. A larger panel, to the centre and right, is where all the action takes place: defining then viewing tables and charts.

In the Variables view, you can drag and drop questions into the top or side of a table, or into the ‘planes’ to create 3-D tables of any complexity you like. It is important that the DP people use some imagination when creating this folder structure, in order to group like variables together sensibly and make it easier for you to find them. Unfortunately, there are no text search capabilities in Pulsar for variables or reports.

A table can be transformed instantly into a chart, and here another improvement emerges: a new charting engine which produces some great looking charts with very little effort. While may people struggle to get charts right in Excel or PowerPoint, this close-coupled tool overcomes many of the mundane but time-consuming problems of using chart tools that have no knowledge of cross-tabs. It lets you home in on part of the table; skips total columns and rows, and does sensible things with tables that have both frequencies and percentages on them.

Unlike many other online tab tools, Pulsar Web lets you build tables and save them. You can start off with all the tables from a standard everything-by-everything report already set up, or with a blank canvas and create your own, saving the ones that work out. You can also publish them as web pages. In fact, the tool is starting to take on the feel of a Web portal building tool, with its capability to define user permissions over both surveys and capabilities. You can lock down the tools available to novices, and open them up for power hungry users. Alongside the reports and variables, you can bind in other non-Pulsar documents such as a questionnaire as a Word file, examples of concepts or stimulus materials as Acrobat files and so on.

Lost intuition

The program lacks very little in the classic cross-tab arena, but anyone looking for tools to help reveal latent trends, through correlation, regression, factor or cluster analysis will be disappointed: you would be better looking at mTAB, Espri or MI Pro. And although you can define new variables in the program, the interface should be next in line for a makeover — it is not as intuitive as the rest of the suite. Hierarchical data, never a strong point in the Pulse Train stable, is also a bit of a tussle and is not always feasible.

With SPSS customers voicing their impatience over the continuing lack of a Web-enabled replacement for Quancept, Pulse Train has got to grips with the Dimensions Data Model. Pulsar offers two routes to Quantum and other Data Model data – either a realtime link, or an offline import, which optimises performance for files containing more than a few thousand cases.

A leap forward

To make life even easier for Quanvert shops, Pulse Train has also created a Quantum-decoder, called Leap. It overcomes a problem inherent in the Data Model, which has no place for table definitions. Pass a Quantum definition into it, and only the raw variables carry over but the table definitions that make Quanvert databases useful, are lost. Leap fills the gap by reading all the table definitions and importing these too. Only so-called ‘nets’ - subtotals for groups of categories - get lost because the Data Model ignores them. As Leap is XML-based, it is surely only a matter of time and demand before other translators appear.

The Interface’s one gripe last time was the price. With an entry level of £10,000 a year for an enterprise licence, Pulsar Web is still unlikely to be an impulse buy. But the internet levels the pitch considerably for the occasional user, with the option to get online with a hosted survey for a few hundred pounds. A small price to pay, if you can get more out of your data for yourself.

The client view: Michael Phillips at IPSOS-UK

Michael Phillips is DP Director at IPSOS-UK, where Pulsar Web is now starting to replace the firm’s use of Quanvert on several of its large trackers and multi-country trackers. He comments: “I think Quanvert is brilliant, but you need to understand your dataset to get the best out of Quanvert. The shame is, it is not online. If you have a multi-country job, there is no quicker way of getting the data out there.”

An attraction for IPSOS-UK, when choosing Pulsar, was its ability to turn on and off program features and menu options selectively. “It needs to be really simplistic when they are starting off,” says Phillips. “With this, I like the fact you can control that aspect yourself, and once the user gets up to speed, you can add more functions.”

“It is very important that everyone can use it, not just the end client, but researchers too. What we are trying to do is cut down on the amount of extra analysis that DP gets asked to do. It is difficult to get everyone on board, but once they get to grips with this, the only time we hear from them is when they are asking how to do something new.”

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, December 2004, Issue 463.

© Copyright Tim Macer/Market Research Society 2004. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

Web-enabled fully functional analysis tools for end users which incorporates cross-tabs, reports, charts and some online publishing capabilities. Can read data from a variety of sources, including SPSS Data Model, and Quantum/Quanvert, using Leap, a translation module.