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E-Tabs Autograph 2.0 reviewed

Does the world need another PowerPoint and chart automation tool for MR cross-tabs? Tim Macer decides

You can’t accuse the guys at E-Tabs of resting on their laurels. Having brought out a pioneering PowerPoint and chart automation tool in the form of E-Tabs Enterprise in 2004, and then scooping the ASC/MRS Technology Effectiveness Award in the same year, this software developer has now launched AutoGraph. It’s a new PowerPoint and chart automation tool for MR cross-tabs. Er, yes… another one.

Interface can’t help wondering if E-Tabs took our remark in the ‘Cons’ list in our October 2004 review of Enterprise to heart - “very expensive for occasional or low-volume users”. At £800 a seat, the cost of AutoGraph is loose change compared to the £25k annual cost for Enterprise. But AutoGraph is not one of those ‘lite’ products with the oomph taken out: it is a completely different program. It works in a different way and is aimed at those occasional and low-volume users.

Both work on sets of cross-tabs generated by industry standard packages such as Quantum, Merlin, Snap, SPSS or Wincross and loaded into the E-Tabs reader software. The difference is that Enterprise is aimed at the charting specialist that needs to produce dozens or even hundreds of reports from a large dataset, with each report adjusted to provide specific content relevant to each of a myriad of different recipients. It uses a tagging system, where you mark up essentially a blank or sample PowerPoint to receive your data. The method is extremely powerful but takes effort to learn and use. It may take a couple of days of set-up to produce the first report, then an hour of processing for the next hundred.

AutoGraph, by comparison, is for the quick trips round town. It is designed on the principle it should take someone no more than half an hour to learn. There is no prototype file to create and no tagging. Instead, you open up your batch of tables and start creating charts or PowerPoint slides one by one. For each, you pick three ingredients: the table to use, the style of the chart or slide from a gallery of examples, and a filter, which lets you omit columns, rows or values you are not interested in presenting.

The interface has a very XP feel to it (though it doesn’t require XP to run. The screen is divided into four, with one panel each for the list of tables, filters, the style gallery and a fourth where you assemble these into charts. You work always one step removed from either the table you are using or the charts you are creating, though you get glimpses of them as you go. Everything is easily reached from this overview window, and most of the work is all done using drag and drop between its four panels.

Filters may be a misnomer to some, for you cannot select subsamples with them and recalculate a table on a new base: AutoGraph, like E-Tabs, only works from aggregated data on tables, and that means it can only work on tables in the form they are provided. However, it does virtually eliminate the potential for errors, provided the tables have been checked. A lot of the power of the tool is in the way you create filters to pick out just the figures you want from a much larger table. You work on a colour coded example of your table, with the actual figures displayed. You can pick columns or rows by their position, e.g. the first and last two, or by their labels, which could be specific brands, demographics or years. You also can pick specific values, such as the percentage but not the frequency, just the mean averages and so on. The filter remembers your selections on one table, and allows you to apply them sensibly to other tables too. So if your deck of slides is focussed on performance over three particular months, or by just once demographic, you might be able to do the whole lot on just one filter.

Filters will also let you strain out the significance test letters that many tab packages append to figures, which causes havoc with an Excel or PowerPoint chart. Sadly, there is no way in the program to set any conditions using significance values, though, and options to display them are limited.

There is also some clever trickery that lets you put more than one item on a page, or bring data in from two different sources.However, there are some overall constraints here, some of which are imposed by the way E-Tabs views tables. A table is always a page of output, so you could find a long table split on two pages cannot be charted easily, or at all, on one chart! You do have to know the rules in order to understand what you can and can’t do, and what when you would need to ask someone else to re-run a table for you.

However, when you consider that Microsoft themselves never considered that PowerPoint was a candidate for automation - what AutoGraph lets you do, without even a hint of a macro or cryptic tag. The real treat comes when you hit the Create button, and your entire PowerPoint deck is created in rapid motion before you.

The User View: Andrew Moon, IT Director Asia Pacific, Research International

At present, our experience with AutoGraph is limited to trial work in our Auckland and Sydney offices, and not live projects. However it's quite clear at this early stage that AutoGraph is best suited to a specific process model where the Researcher is responsible for creating their own PowerPoint / Excel charts. I'm sure a dedicated chartist would also find AutoGraph useful but may require the added flexibility of the E-Tabs Enterprise system. AutoGraph [is] more user-friendly but less powerful ... where it best fits in the organization is at the reseacher’s desktop.

In terms of what AutoGraph is used for I can see benefits for both custom and repeat work. AutoGraph sits in the space where currently Excel, or E-Tabs tabular output is used in conjunction with PowerPoint to create charts. It's actually quite easy to use and fairly intuitive but I would recommend formal training at the outset.

The key benefits are, of course, speed and accuracy - no more pasting from Excel or better still hand-punching data into data sheets! AutoGraph also creates PowerPoint tables and there are options for creating multiple chart slides and combination table and chart slides.

There are limitations that distinctly divide AutoGraph from Enterprise. Firstly, AutoGraph only sources data from native E-Tabs (*.zte) files, whereas Enterprise sources data from a variety of common formats. This may have implications on current DP processes, and therefore resources. The upside is that AutoGraph comes with the E-Tabs Professional Reader and your researcher will never look back once you've transitioned them from hardcopy or Excel / Word / PDF tables to E-Tabs.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, August 2006, Issue 483

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

Desktop creation of individual or repetitive charts and tables from most industry-standard tables for output to Excel or PowerPoint. Supports input from Quantum, Merlin through TabsML, Pulse Trains’ XtabsML, Wincross, Uncle, Quanvert, Snap, Dimensions, Mentor and SPSS tables, or direct input from Pulsar.

Ease of use
Cross-platform compatibility
Value for money

Cost: £800 per annum single user, volume discounts. Cost includes support, training and software updates.