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Formic 4.3 Reviewed

Tim Macer reviews a new automated data capture package for questionnaires which can reach beyond paper

It has long been a mystery to Interface that so very few research companies or in-house research teams use automated data capture to process the mountain of surveys that are administered on paper every day. Despite the rise of the internet, paper is still king in self-completion and is unlikely to lose its crown for some years to come. The reasons for not using a scanner abound: too expensive, not worth it for low volumes, takes too long to set up to name a few common ones. But the latest version of Formic, version 4.3, introduces a stunningly easy-to-use form designer and integrated support for ‘eforms’ for online surveys, which systematically demolishes those arguments.

Formic has a long pedigree, and was first reviewed in this column in 1997 when it was well ahead of the pack. But version 3 suffered from an eccentric interface, a disastrous retreat from multi-user capabilities (something which had been supported and left several larger users stranded) and an increasingly insular view that all forms should be designed within Formic by not offering any capability to work with forms that already exist.

The ability to work with existing or ‘legacy’ forms came in a couple of years ago, with Formic 4, and the current version, 4.3 puts the program back at the leading edge with a wide range of new features and a great new interface.

For most users, the process starts with designing the questionnaire, which it makes sense to do using the integrated form design tool, if you are starting from scratch. It is only worth using the legacy forms tool to mark up an existing document for scanning if you are working with an external design agency, or take over the job after the form has been designed. Of course, Formic cannot make a form unsuited to scanning.

A toolbar provides a range of question types to choose from, such as simple tick boxes, a range of grids, or “intelligent character recognition” for handwritten letters and numbers which it will capture automatically very accurately

Single and multiple response questions are easily laid out as tickbox questions, which is one of the question types you select from a toolbar. The whole experience is remarkably similar to using any Windows object-based drawing tool such as PowerPoint or using drawing objects in Microsoft Word, to the extent that if you are used to these tools, you will find the software completely intuitive.

Dig deeper, and you will see that Formic 4.3 has true industrial strength. At the input end, it provides support for a wide range of scanners and can essentially support anything that creates TIFF images. At the output end, it exports data directly as fully-formed SPSS files, triple-s, XML and many other formats, or can be linked directly to other databases through ODBC, an open database standard. It is truly multi-user again and it will allow you to link directly to other applications through an API or developer’s interface to perform custom validation or data lookups. This is being extended in the next version to support real time lookups against Royal Mail’s PAF file for validation.

Dig deeper, and you will see that Formic 4.3 has true industrial strength. At the input end, it provides support for a wide range of scanners and can essentially support anything that creates TIFF images. At the output end, it exports data directly as fully-formed SPSS files, triple-s, XML and many other formats, or can be linked directly to other databases through ODBC, an open database standard. It is truly multi-user again and it will allow you to link directly to other applications through an API or developer’s interface to perform custom validation or data lookups. This is being extended in the next version to support real time lookups against Royal Mail’s PAF file for validation.

Different users can carry out scanning and validation, and here the interface is equally clear and unfussy as it steps you easily through the processes. True open-ended questions, which are really beyond the scope of any automated text recognition can be handled on screen and coded up with a codeframe, which the coder can both design and extend during coding. The system also keeps an audit trail of any changes to the data.

Though you can clearly see the snippets of handwritten text on screen and you can print a report of them all, unfortunately, Formic does not let you filter this in any way, and it misses a trick by not letting you paste individual verbatim responses into your own report.

The eform integration is ingenious, as a simple check box during design lets you deploy your form to a web server in parallel. Though this will not appeal to everyone, the format of the paper form and the web form is identical, and you could argue that this method may have merits in reducing modal influence if mixing modes. Importantly, the results all go back into the same database though you can identify the mode of completion for each record.

By replicating paper so exactly, it replicates its downsides a little too well in its present version. There is no support onscreen for routing, and disconcertingly, no way to skip entire pages which do not apply for any reason. Neither does this version provide any means to prevent duplicate responses as there is no support for unique ID or password control.

The software is relatively inexpensive considering its sophistication, with the software for a single user system starting at £5,000, one-off, for unlimited scanning up to the physical capacity of your scanner and an optional 18% annual maintenance fee to include support and upgrades. For such a product with the potential to decimate costs and time cycles on traditional paper-based research, it really is a puzzle why so few research firms are making the most of it.

The user view: Hayley Ibbertson at Humberside Police

The Hull-based police force uses Formic to process police activity analysis data, but Hayley Ibbertson, research officer, found it is equally well suited to the growing number of ad hoc research surveys she carries out, usually among officers and civilian staff.

Forms are either printed in the force’s in-house print department or at an external printers from a laser printed master, or if the volumes are below a couple of hundred, simply printed on a laser printer in the office. “I can’t think of a time when we have had a problem with the printing or the clarity on paper when scanning,” says Hayley. “We tend to shy away from using photocopiers because if the photocopy is not good, for instance if there is a smudge, Formic will be asking for corrections if it sees a mark that it thinks might be a genuine answer” which can lead to inaccuracy.

The first surveys using eforms started two months ago, and the simplicity of the solution took Hayley by surprise. “I thought it would be a long-winded and complex process, but it isn’t. It is just a case of making sure one box is ticked. Then we email everyone the link or put it on the intranet. Really, we design it, publish it, put it out there, people click on the link and then type it in. The actual collection of the data is so much quicker as the human involvement is not needed in scanning, processing and validating.”

Most surveys are either all paper or all web, but one survey so far has combined scanning and online capture, with the data all flowing into the same database. Hayley reports: “There were no problems mixing it in this way. We won’t often need to do this, but it can cut down printing costs and also makes it as easy as possible for people to fill it in. The flexibility is there.”

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, December 2005, Issue 475

© Copyright Meaning Ltd 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

Automated data capture for paper questionnaires with an integrated design module and the option to work with externally designed documents, plus parallel ‘eforms’ for like-for-like data collection on the internet.

Ease of use
Cross-platform compatibility
Value for money

Starts at £5,000 one-off for a single user and £15,000 for multi-user, plus 18% annual maintenance fee, plus hardware.