Article #18: Sensus Q&A and SycField HPC

Tim Macer finds the latest research software offers quick questionnaires and handy interviews.

Is this really the end for the clipboard?

Sometimes technology can have some surprising consequences. Take, for instance, the interviewer-less interviewes that speak of caterpillars. Then, on the other side of the planet, interviewers picking up thin clients and carrying them into the field with them. All it requires is some lateral thinking and a copy of one of the two new CAPI/CASI products which launched in Europe this summer.

Sensus Q&A is an integrated package that links a windows-based questionnaire designer with a point and click interviewing tool and a suite of other tools. Chicago-based Sawtooth Technologies, producers of the CI3 CATI system, have fully embraced the Windows platform with Sensus Q&A to produce a system they claim is simple and easy to use. With a copy of the software to try, this was inevitably the first aspect I put to the test.

There is no doubt that the questionnaires it produces, for CAPI or self-completion, are an essay in simplicity. Large buttons to select answers and navigate through the interview are simple to locate, even for those unskilled in getting the mouse pointer to go where they want, and are ideal for touch-screens. The screens are bright and colourful. On the other hand, I found the design tool a little bit pernickety, with an eccentric way of entering texts and setting options. I am sure they are things you would quickly get used to, but it gave less of a Windows GUI feel than it deserved. Perhaps I am being fussy. Within half an hour of installing the software, I had produced a simple questionnaire with half a dozen screens that looked remarkably polished. This is no lightweight product: the user manual describes feature after feature, and it is particularly strong when adding graphics, pictures, video clips and sounds. It also benefits from a solid object-oriented approach and strong data-typing. It handles grid questions intelligently and has an elegant approach to rating type questions with its on-screen "sliding scale" type question: the latest of several packages now offering this facility.

Dr Jonathan Brill is director of market research at Caterpiller Inc. in the United States, makers of the famous earthmovers. He has been using a pre-release version of Sensus for the last year. "I'm a freak about ease of use" he told me. "And this is where Sensus Q&A shines; it has practically no learning curve at all. Assuming you are familiar with a Windows-like environment, you can pop it out of the box, load it, and construct your first working interview in less than two hours." At Caterpillar, they have been using it to perform intercept interviewing at trade shows. For them, the priority was ease of use for respondents. "We face a respondent population that includes a substantial proportion who are poorly educated relative to the general population. This is why we have a voice over reading each question as it appears on the screen. However, some people still don't know which on-screen button to push."

ScyWeb and ScyField HPC are the first two of a family of products being launched by Anglo-Australian developers Infocorp to complement its heavy-duty Surveycraft CATI suite of software.

"We wanted to develop a new system which would have the advantages of Windows technology though without the problems of using Windows. We wanted to take things further, so we looked to the power of the Internet", Infocorp's Chrissie Agnew told me. They have adopted what they call a "thin client" approach. This is not a coded reference to stealing bread from their client's mouths. On the contrary, the aim is to make the technology more affordable than the near-monopolistic "Wintel" approach. The "thin client" is the program you see on the computer in front of you which is being driven from afar by another program on a powerful machine capable of servicing many hundreds of users at the same time. It may sound like a return to the "dumb terminal" attached to a mainframe, but this is 1990's technology: web-friendly, multi-platform, multi-media. ScyWeb is used to perform CAPI or CASI interviews on any machine's web browser (Netscape, Internet Explorer etc.) It uses the technology of the Internet, but not necessarily the Internet itself. Like Sensus, questionnaires are clear and simple enough for self-completion, and can incorporate sound, video or graphics in colour. At present, questionnaires are created using the same language as Surveycraft. This will change when the ScyWriter questionnaire development tool becomes available.

ScyField-HPC provides many of ScyWeb's capabilities on a hand-held or "palm top" PCs. These are about the size of a filofax, and probably less heavy than most. Do not dismiss the HPC's typical configuration of 4 megabytes of memory as being inadequate. The HPC version of Windows 95 is much more frugal than its desktop sibling, and still packs a punch: interviews of over 500 questions and answer lists with thousands of categories are possible.

This is the first CAPI system I have seen that an interviewer might actually find more comfortable than a clipboard. There is little need to use the miniature keyboard, since selection and navigation are achieved by tapping on the touch-sensitive screen with the special stylus supplied. I noticed that a blunt pencil and a sharp fingernail worked equally well, just in case the stylus gets mislaid. For open-ends, interviewers can write then into the box with the same stylus or pencil. Infocorp sensibly stayed away from trying to incorporate handwriting recognition at this stage: a very clear and readable snapshot of the writing is stored for coding later. Support for on-screen graphics is limited by the screen's small size and monochrome display, and there is no support for sound. But as a replacement for the clipboard, it's unbeatable.

ScyField-HPC also likely to find favour with whoever holds the purse strings, since the machines cost a few hundred pounds, rather than a couple of thousand, and the software is also priced sensibly - and they run for days on a couple of Duracells, so running costs are low, too.

If you had to choose between the two systems, bear in mind that Sensus Q&A's point-and-click set-up module (lacking at present in Surveycraft) makes the design stage easy for non-technical users. But for situations where true hand-held portability is required, then ScyField-HPC would be the obvious choice.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, October 1997, Issue number 377.

© Copyright Market Research Society/Tim Macer 1997. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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