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SPSS DimensionNet reviewed

SPSS DimensionNet has kept its public waiting. Tim Macer reviews a highly complex and powerful addition to the researcher's armoury.

The long-awaited user-friendly front end to SPSS Dimensions looks as if it has arrived at last, with the release of Dimensions 3 this month. The sheer scale of the Dimensions initiative demands awe, if not respect - it is clearly the most costly and probably the most complex piece of MR software ever developed. But while other software companies were producing complete menu-based systems where syntax and scripts were banished into a rarely visited back room, Dimensions seemed to be heading straight into that back room, with a very technically-demanding offering in which this complexity was all too obvious.

The desktop tools that had arrived, in the form a web survey module, a paper-based tool and a tables program were certainly nice, well-designed products, but they remained isolated from each other, needing IT specialists with skills. DimensionNet banishes all the complexity to the back room by providing the missing links to deliver a very powerful set of software tools into the hands of the researcher.

DimensionNet is not actually a product in its own right. It comes as an adjunct to the existing mr Interview, mr paper and mr Tables modules - a pedantic distinction for most users since it really provides an integrated survey tool built from all the hitherto confusing array of Dimensions tools.

The most obvious innovation in DimensionNet is its new questionnaire authoring tool. The interface design is pleasing and uncluttered. You work on a kind of mode-neutral questionnaire, because in Dimensions 3 you could be interviewing on the Web and on paper simultaneously. In future, other interviewing modes will come too. The developers seem to have applied the 80/20 rule to the kinds of questionnaire constructs you are allowed to create directly from the questionnaire editor. Most everyday things are possible, but there are still a lot of irritating restrictions which hopefully future releases will resolve. For example, you cannot perform any calculations on your questions, and once you have added sample, you cannot retrospectively apply any filters to it.

Overall the questionnaire builder tool is beguilingly simple, to the extent that you can see all there is to it in a couple of hours and find yourself thinking is that all it does?

No tool can hope to do everything, and those that try to end up being difficult to learn and no longer well aimed at their target audience. In between tasks, even in between questions, you can introduce snippets of Dimensions script, which is SPSS’ special Visual Basic-like language for market research activities, or even real VB.

Once a script has been created it can be stored in a library for anyone to call up. It is just a pity that scripts always rely on a small element of syntax to kick them off, and could not be invoked by non-teccy users through a button or drop-down menu.

There is immediate activation of questionnaires on multiple load-balanced web servers, if you have them. And Dimensions incorporates complete version control so that you can both change questionnaires at any point, and also roll back to a previous version if you need to. I was impressed by this feature. Multiple waves of the same study are automatically consolidated, but there are also simple, error-free tools to help you create composite views from separate but related studies too, for reporting.

The system is totally web-enabled as it works within the Microsoft .net framework. It is a true multi-user system and impressively manages all the contention that could arise if two or more people try to work on the same survey at simultaneously - they can, but only one user can make changes, even though others can be viewing at the same time. There is a complete administration tool to let you defined users and permissions.

You can use this to provide logins for clients to view results, or to specialists to perform particular tasks such as entering language translations. It is just a pity that you cannot customise the appearance of the client access pages: they remain branded as a free ad for SPSS.

On the flipside

Also on the downside, testing routing and previewing a questionnaire is clumsy, which slows down error detection and the final polishing stage considerably. It is also a great pity that the documentation for this an all SPSS software now appears principally in the form of online help. I miss the good read when you have a chance to deepen your knowledge and expertise. And despite everything, this tool still only supports two of the four common interviewing modes: paper and web.

Another break from the past is the cost. With SPSS’ new one-off licence costs, the cost of ownership over three to five years now sits halfway between the other high-end products and the entry level tools that anyone interested in DimensionNet is likely to migrate from.

The user view: Hans Donkers at EIM Stratus

EIM Stratus, based in Holland, is a specialist provider of management information for quality and performance improvement. Hans Donkers, a director, told Research: “We use DimensionNet a lot for all kinds of projects. One of its strengths it that is very flexible, so we have not encountered anything we cannot do with the software; and it is very stable and low maintenance. We are very satisfied with it.”

At EIM Stratus, researchers now set up and run their own surveys with technical assistance provided only for more complex requirements, which Donkers considers to an advantage. He says: “It gives you a lot of insight in the way research works, the way respondents react, and that has an added value to the project, in our view.” He estimates that, with support, a new researcher can be competent in the tool within a week, and that once experienced, a 40-question web survey is probably no more than an afternoon’s work. More time is needed to get the client’s look and feel applied to the survey, but once this is done, the template can be applied to any further projects. Reformatting sample, too, can be time consuming.

Donkers saw both advantages and disadvantages in the system’s reliance on other scripts written in Visual Basic or its own scripting language. “You do have to have a lot of knowledge [within the organization], so it is not software that is truly plug and play. If you want a flexible tool, some kind of programming language is essential.” Neither was the documentation always helpful in resolving more difficult problems. Fortunately, as Donkers points out “SPSS have an excellent helpdesk in England, so if you need some help within a couple of hours you will have the solution in your mailbox.”

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, April 2005, Issue 467.

© Copyright Tim Macer/Market Research Society 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

Versatile web interviewing solution designed for researchers to do most of the work, but with easy access to custom programming capabilities for difficult-to-do activities.