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Outputs of distinction

Snap, SPSS, Quantum, QBridge and YAPS, March 1995

Tim Macer encounters new ways of turning the tables - and runs across Vorsprung durch CATI

Unlike other professions who may still struggle to cope with IT in the workplace, Market Researchers have a wealth of experience in relying on the computer to get the job done as well as expand the horizons of what is possible. For some, this spans three or even four decades. It was in the late 1960s when the the first electronic, programmable replacements for counter sorters were unveiled, with their clattering printers that lined up wobbling ranks of capital letters and numbers on huge sheets of paper faster than anyone could type. "We've come a long way since then", we tell ourselves.

But being in at the start of a revolution has its drawbacks. Too much output today still looks as if it came out of one of those vintage line printers. It is primitive, bulky and above all, hard to read.

Some packages are better than others in producing high quality output. By high quality, I mean with different, proportional fonts, with the ability to emphasise items by emboldening, drawing lines, adding boxes and so on. Some, though by no means all of the PC packages do provide this kind of output. Typically the ones adapted for Windows tend to be best. Both SPSS and Snap Surveys' SNAP produce the sort of tables you would be proud to show to a client or hold up in a presentation, and are ideal in the end-user situation.

However the serious churn-'em-out packages do particularly badly in this respect. What is more, to import the files they produce into a word processor to make it look pretty is painstaking and very time consuming. It is just not viable on the large jobs which need this treatment most.

SPSS have gone some way to solving this problem in their widely-used Quantum package, which will produce PostScript compatible output. This does allow you to get away from the boring typewriter style of output and unlocks some of the potential of today's generation of laser printers. Alex Goodge at SPSS tells me "the majority of our tab bureau clients now request that their tables are produced in this way. The client's logo can also be added to the tables." But it is a job for the skilled user. Some of the end users I spoke to reported it was a great improvement, but did not quite do all they wanted.

SPSS are also pushing ahead with a new program they are calling QBridge. It may plug this gap. QBridge will allow researchers and others without the patience or skill of the specwriter, to manipulate and reformat batches of tables on a PC using Windows. It promises to bring true DTP quality to their output when it becomes available.

Cobalt Sky, an independent data processing house, has developed its own software, called YAPS, to reformat plain cross-tab output to a presentable DTP standard. Ralph Westwood of Cobalt Sky told me they use it on the majority of tables they prepare for their clients, and have sold it to a number of agencies. It is a post-processor module which takes standard ASCII tables from Quantum or, ostensibly, any bulk cross-tab package, and "reads" each table to make sense of where headings go, where columns are positioned and so on. You can then selectively change fonts and point sizes, introduce boxes, shading and all the usual DTP tricks. It works on UNIX systems, and is currently being ported to DOS.

NOP Corporate and Financial use YAPS in house on their large syndicated surveys. NOP'sJames McCullagh started by telling me "We don't believe in paper any more, as we try to provide all our data electronically. When we do have to use paper, we use YAPS to format our Quantum tables. It has changed the face of our reports. Clients find them clear, easier to find their way around and easier to assimilate". He said they must have printed 4.5 million tables in the last 6 months using YAPS.

Liz Sposato at Research International told me "The tables do look very good [with YAPS]. Although they are cross-tabs, they are presented as reports and are really perceived as reports by our clients. If anything these tables look better than the reports we used to produce using DTP. The main advantage to us is that it is totally automatic. We don't have to do any lengthy reformatting any more".

The notion that people should seriously have to contemplate reformatting output in such a laborious way is incredible. But when all the world, it seems, (including your clients) knows the difference between Times New Roman and Arial, bold and italic, it comes as a shock that the software we may depend on only knows about Courier - and plain courier at that! At the moment high-volume and high-quality seem to be mutually exclusive. Let us hope this is about to change with some of the new products now in the pipeline.

Interactive Voice Capture

While in Germany recently, I was shown the "latest" in computerised interviewing. You cut out the interviewer and get the computer to phone. It could recognise the numbers one to ten, plus "yes" and "no" (in German). The phone rang, and it was the computer calling up to interview our first guinea pig. The interview proceeded quite unlike any I had heard before. The respondent had to wait for a beep before replying. If she hesitated or spoke too soon, a different voice (which sounded ominous) asked our unfortunate respondent if she had said three or four, yes or no and so on. What she had said was "I don't know", but that was not an acceptable response. Neither could it understand "Pardon" or "What?". It just pressed on, repeating and beeping.

We don't have much to offer our respondents, but our time in return for their time seems a fair bargain for most of us. At least the computer did not call us back when our exasperated test respondent put the phone down, which is probably the best response for the time being.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, March 1995, Issue number 346.

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

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