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Merlinplus Reviewed

Tim Macer reviews the newest face of an old favourite. It turns out to be a lot more than just a cross-tab and analysis program

If you had thought of Merlinplus as being a cross-tab and analysis package, it is time for some overdue re-categorisation. Merlin, on which Merlinplus is based, is indeed a cross-tab package, and a powerful, syntax based one at that, with a 20-year pedigree. Merlinplus, a relative newcomer, provides not only a user-friendly and syntax-free front end to Merlin, but provides an eclectic mix of data collection modules all of its own, including web surveys, data entry of the ‘eyes down and hammer away’ variety, and somewhat unusually, touchscreen-based CASI for kiosk interviewing situations.

Two decades of development is enough for most packages to lapse into senescent complacency or the software equivalent of middle-aged spread, with more features than you can get your arms around. Merlin and Merlinplus avoid this. Merlin remains trim and fit for purpose as a tool for producing classic tabular reports in volume. Its audience is in the DP departments of medium-size to large research firms. Merlinplus is aimed at end users, smaller research companies or clientside researchers who want to manage their own data collection and analysis.

Both the modular structure and notional workflow is presented in a page of buttons you see when you open the software and select a project: clicking on each one lets you into the relevant module.

Questionnaire definition is practical and functional: sophisticated enough without being over complex. There are, in fact, really only three different screens that you see when designing - the survey level, showing all of the questions, question level and finally the answer or response list level. Routing is handled simply by setting a filter on each question to determine who gets it. It is safe, simple, but could be a bit of a drag on a complex survey where every question has a condition of some sort.

Surveys can then be set up very easily for interviewing on the internet through Merlinco’s low-cost hosting service. What is more fiddly is gathering, distributing and receiving files with handheld or touchscreen interviewing. The process is far from failsafe, and would benefit from better automation and protection in the way that the system provides ample warnings if you try to redesign your survey once you have collected data.

Questions are written in a fairly mode-neutral way, and templates are applied at run time to deliver the questionnaire appropriately for an online survey, a CASI or touchsceen or simple CATI survey. However, there is not a great deal of flexibility for web surveys, which will be a limitation to more creative web survey designers. However, at least the software supports and is based on Flash, so that special effects can be created in Flash and plugged in, if required.

Merlinplus is extremely versatile when it comes to the range of outputs available, as well as the contents of those outputs. You can analyse anything collected in Merlinplus, and easily import surveys collected on your behalf, in a wide range of formats including triple-s. You can build up very sophisticated custom reports to a level where many other tab packages would leave you out in the cold. If you know what you are doing, the program knows no bounds. But if you just want a standard set of tabs, the program offers you several ways to build your reports in a couple of mouse clicks.

There is an excellent built-in topline report which instantly summarises your data and presents it back to you laid out as a questionnaire in Word. You can filter it, weight it and produce multiple versions if required. For some, this could be enough, while for others the document will form a handy checkpoint against which to validate the more exotic tables they will be producing. In this area, you can have Merlinplus pick out all the sensible variables for analysis automatically, and add a standard breakdown, or you can go in and fiddle with the options or build it yourself from scratch. As you build your tables, the program writes a complete Merlin script in the background, and this can be exported and given to an experienced specwriter if you have even more sophisticated requirements.

You are gently guided through the set-up process by the reassuring presence of a ‘next’ button at each stage, though unlike using a Wizard, it is not the only way to reach your destination, so brings together the best of novice and expert system into one. Tables can be written out as Word documents, Excel, or in a new module, directly to PowerPoint. The program does not provide any built-in support for producing charts, however.

What does not do justice to this program, is the outdated interface, with its clumsy oversized texts, clunky big-word buttons and energy-sapping expanses of grey. It is more office noticeboard than Office XP. But it is well documented, and by all accounts, very well supported by the developers. All in all, Merlinplus is a good middle-ground software solution at a very good price, for the mid-sized user who wants to be more self-contained.

The User View: Hilary Mace, Sra, Farrugia Leo

Hilary Mace is Senior Research Analyst at Farrugia Leo Research and Consultancy, a full service agency in Salisbury that uses Merlinplus for the majority of its collection and analysis. The agency often undertakes visitor surveys at live events using Merlinplus’s touchscreen module loaded on ruggedised touchscreen PCs.

“There isn’t really anything to do differently from using the web survey software,” says Hilary. “You write it in Merlinplus and then load it on to the devices, which all work as stand alone PCs. We could network them, but it is easier to put the survey on a USB stick and transfer it that way. We occasionally have problems with the touch screens -they can get quite a lot of hard wear - but no real problems with the Merlinplus software.”

As with a web survey, the data are validated by the Merlinplus script and the completed survey is immediately ready for analysis - sometimes at the event itself. Hilary is able to manage the set-up and the entire process without having a retinue of computer technicians to support her.

“You can make the surveys look interesting for respondents,” Hilary explains. “You can use images, or a graphic in each question. Sometimes we have special custom questions written for us in flash - you can produce something really whizzy.”

At the analysis end, Farrugia Leo use Merlinplus on most of their quant work to create cross-tabs which are output as Excel workbooks.

“It has the facility to put the results into SPSS or Excel and is very versatile,” says Mace. “It does not, for example, attempt to re-write SPSS - but we use the Excel output in the main. It is easy to pick out any segmentation - it means if the client rings up and says can you look at a certain group, it is very easy to do that.“

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, May 2006, Issue 480

© Copyright Meaning Ltd 2006. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

Powerful end-user analysis suite which can be fed either by surveys in industry-standard formats or by data collected in-house using built-in modules for web surveys, handheld CAPI, touchscreen self-completion or simple standalone CATI.

Ease of use
Cross-platform compatibility
Value for money

Cost: from £940 for a single user.