Article #25: Converso CATI/CAPI software from Conversoft

Tim Macer's monthly column on software for researchers

CATI Sans Frontières

Pollux Interviews, the French CATI/CAPI system has been re-launched in a new Windows incarnation with the name Converso. The reason is probably more an attempt to reposition this networked PC interviewing system as a telemarketing and MR application than it is to shake off a name that was less than ideal in the UK marketplace. DOS-based Pollux certainly pushed the envelope of what was possible under DOS, but it did not sit well on the Windows desktop alongside other applications such as the unstoppable Microsoft Office. Now, without its dated interface, it is possible to see that, as CATI systems go, this is rather a good one.

Unusually for CATI, screens can hold more than one question, and answers can be selected from check-boxes, drop-down lists, buttons or by typing in. For the interviewer, there are strong searching features to ease the task of finding the right answer when there are too many to display on one screen. Most CATI systems buckle under the strain of handling open-ended questions where the answers are used to supplement lists and drive choices later on in the interview. Even if you manage to do it, the data are often a mess. Using a "semi-open" type of question, coupled with what is called a "transfer question" Converso makes what is to other systems difficult or impossible, simple and straightforward.

Qualitative interviewers will be interested in the navigation buttons that can be added to the top of the screen that allow you to jump to different sections of the questionnaire at will. These allow you to complete the interview in any order you choose or quickly abandon one line of questioning in favour of another. Coupled with seemingly limitless handling of open-ended responses, this should be a serious contender for introducing CAPI to quallies, especially since you can design the interview yourself too.

Script design is easy. Questions and screens are created simultaneously in a virtually syntax-less environment, using options from the toolbar and selecting objects from a floating pallette to drag and drop into shape. A knowlege of some syntax is only required for routing and operations involving logic (include/exclude masking of questions, for instance). For the language die-hards, a mark-up language is provided to get questions entered in bulk.

One potential hazard is that, with so much flexibility in the layout of the screen, compared with the rigidity of other systems, the time taken to design the script could expand in a Parkinsonian manner, since it encourages no end of tinkering to produce the perfect layout. Used wisely, it could mean greater clarity for the interviewer and super-looking self-administered interviews.

Definitions screen
JPEG (120K)

Management screen
JPEG (88K)

Questionnaire setup
JPEG (160K)


Supervisor functions are well supported, and can be configured to meet individual requirements. By using an ODBC-compliant database to hold the interviews, the data are very accessible and customised reports can easily be created.

As Denis Harang, MD of Conversoft in France points out "For anyone able to work with the [Microsoft] Office software, it will be very easy to learn Converso, as it is exactly the same way of working. But on the other hand, the software is very powerful - this is a professional system. And it is also very open."

I applaud the developers on their approach to making Converso an open system. They have gone out of their way to allow sophisticated users to develop their own applications alongside Converso, sharing files and exchanging data with the system, even while interviews are taking place. Neither is there any expectation to analyse your data using their own built-in tab module, as the exporting facilities are excellent.

Converso also offers full multi-media support. Images and video can be shown on screen in CAPI, and sound clips played over the phone in CATI. But it stops short of providing any support for the web, which is a pity. Another slight blemish is that some of the options still appear in French, and some of the naming conventions used would mean a lot more to the Francophone. Fortunately, sales and support are provided locally in the UK, by Merlinco, who assured me these issues were being addressed.

A more serious problem is Converso's knack of deleting data if an interview has to go back to a previous question in an interview. This was an issue raied by several users I spoke to, as in most cases, when you move forwards again, the answers previously collected are lost. It stands out as an unfriendly feature in an otherwise most user friendly package.

The majority of Converso users are in France. But in Liverpool, Dialogue Market Research report success in their use of Converso's forerunner, Pollux. Lynne Gill, MD, marvels at the flexibility of the product "We use it for everything: CATI, face to face and data entry, even depth interviews by telephone. One of our strong points is the richness and the depth of the verbatim data we can get. Our clients often praise us for this." The limitless open-ended fields and good support provided for verbatims allow them to exploit this to the maximum. The ability to play advertising jingles and capture voice in the new version has made Dialogue keen to upgrade to Converso.

"When we were looking for a system, we chose Pollux because of its compatibility with other packages, especially Word, Access, Excel and SPSS", Lynne Gill explained. "I've looked at other packages with claims of compatibility, and found them all very disappointing".

Researcher Claire Emmerson saw a lot of advantages in the windows version "It's going to be easier to use. I think the graphical interface will make it easier to make more complex things."

Dave Darby, Dialogue's ops manager, is an experienced user of Pollux, and was looking forward to using Converso. "The key thing is that you don't need to be a programmer to set up scripts - but some technical ability is definintely a help." He often works from a questionnaire in Word, importing all the text into Pollux. "It takes just a couple of hours. Basically, all you have to do is add the routing."

It would be a pity if, like their finest cheeses and wines, we allowed the French to keep all the best programs to themselves. This gourmet software has ripened beautifully and deserves a wider tasting.



Very easy to write scripts

Open system

Good integration with MS Office

Sophisticated handling of verbatims

Data loss when going back in interviews

Not fully translated from French

No support for web-based interviewing

Merlinco 0171 486 6229 or

Published in Research, the independent voice of market research, January 1999, Issue 392.

© Copyright Tim Macer 1999. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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