Article #20: Merlin Plus, Visual QSL and In2Quest

Tim Macer reviews new menu-based software opening new opportunities for market researchers

Language difficulties? Just reach for the menu

What do people really mean when they say that software is easy to use? One system may be really quick to learn, but require so much clicking, typing and faffing about between different boxes as to hinder the production of real work. Another system may require days to learn and months to master, but be so productive that its users become ardent, loyal fans with a professional pride in what they can accomplish.

This is how arguments tended to run between menu-based systems (lightweight, quick to learn and slow to use) and language based (heavy duty, slow to learn and quick to use). A lot of market research software is dependent on a polyglot of competing languages. Newer systems like In2Quest from In2itive or Pollux Interviews are resolutely menu driven, rich in features and functionality and can also have ardent, loyal fans with a professional pride in what they can accomplish. Developers with language based systems are now in a rush to produce friendly menu front ends to their legacy systems.

SPSS were able to reinforce their dominant position in the stats field a few years ago when they offered users a menu-driven interface on top of their traditional language, with the option to get behind the menus and work on the code. This has set a pattern: you can do most things using the menus but a few obscure tasks still rely on writing code. We are now seeing the trickle-down of hybrid language and menu based systems: systems that can offer the benefits of both approaches. The question is, do they suffer the disadvantages of both approaches too? Is it true that menu-based systems are less productive?

"That's not true any more" was Laurance Gerrard's reaction. MORI, where he is Operations Director, are currently the biggest users of In2Quest in Britain. "Just because you are working in a menu does not mean you have less available to you. You are moving into a different way of doing things." He was referring to the benefits of object orientation and the use of a relational, object-oriented database or 'OODB'. Objects in this context can be questions or sets of answers, texts, graphics, voice clips, video and so on - all can be handled with ease. This is where the OODB menu-based systems start to deliver real productivity benefits over the legacy systems.

Laurance Gerrard confirms: "Yes, it is quick to learn and it's productive. But you are not constrained purely by the visual interface. Text can be prepared in a wordprocessor and then imported , and at the back end, data and descriptions can be written out in just about any known format. The downside is you have to upgrade all your systems and bite the bullet of 32 bit computing. This is an expensive migration."

Merlin Plus for Windows was released by Merlinco last year. Merlin proper relies on a vast and complex language to clean and process data or produce tables. Merlin Plus allows you to do the same thing from a menu-driven interface, generating the Merlin code as it goes. Architecturally, it is a legacy system with a nice front end. It started as a DOS program in 1991.

Mike Lorrimer at Define Research & Marketing International explained "The DOS version was clunky, but it faithfully reproduced Merlin. We've been using it extensively for producing tables. Unless you are doing it day in, day out, there is just too much to remember using Merlin as a language. You've got all the power of Merlin pretty well reproduced in Merlin Plus - all the nuts and bolts things that clients ask for every day, you can do."

Mike Lorrimer had tried the Windows version and liked what he saw. "It's very nice to have a non-DOS interface. Anything that improves the ergonomics of it is worthwhile. The output is good, but it still has a long way to go. Now it is in Windows that starts driving up the demand for tables with proportial fonts and graphics."

There is no question that this is a seriously productive tab package made accessible to the casual user. Both 32- and 16 bit versions are available, though in 16-bit probably for the last time.

Pulse Train have just released Visual QSL. This will write QSL scripts required for Bellview CATI or CAPI in a windows point and click tool without any language involved at all. It is a very thorough implementation of QSL. The menu system really does contain every command, every option and every keyword of the QSL language. You can export a full QSL script, or, like I did, feed in a long and complicated script already written in QSL and see it reproduced in its entirety on screen.

You can run a test interview directly from the V-QSL editor and, because there is no language, it makes it hard to make a mistake and impossible to make a syntax error. This is another legacy system getting a windows treatment, so the whole system is not fully OODB yet - but I got the feeling that enough had been built into V-QSL to show that this is the future direction of this particular package.

I asked Neil Price, General Question, whether he had found it easy to use, coming to it with no knowledge of QSL. "It's a marvellous program as far as I'm concerned. It took me just a few days to pick i t up - I actually wrote my first script on the first day. Although I am quite computer literate, I had never used anything similar to this. CATI was new to everyone here. The way that Visual QSL structured everything, the fact that it is visual and not hidden away in code has made the whole process of taking on CATI much more approachable. This has made us set up the system faster and get to the point where we are profitable in very little time."

Clearly, the view that menu-driven means 'not for the serious' must be updated. Link systems with a menu-driven interface to the power of object oriented database technology and you move the goalposts in terms of productivity. Languages are not about to disappear overnight, but we may soon find that only intertia is keeing them alive.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, February 1998, Issue number 381.

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

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