Article #40: Verbastat from SPSS

Tim Macer sings the praises of the updated and now more refined automatic coding system, Verbastat

Making coding easier


Five years ago, when we last took a look a Verbastat, it stood alone as being a solution for anyone wishing to automate the coding process. Then it was a DOS-based system built on a Fox Pro database. Now, it is a true Windows program based on Microsoft Access and along the way it has picked up many new features, a new owner and surprisingly little in the way of competition. In January, SPSS MR paid a cool $1 million to acquire the rights to the program. The move took a lot of industry observers by surprise: just what did SPSS see in this niche-within-a-niche product?
Most CATI or CAPI systems come with built-in coding modules that allow you to handle openended responses pretty much as you would on paper, question by question, respondent by respondent. Codeframes are created as a separate activity, and then applied to the questionnaires as they roll in. This separation of tasks can miss many of the nuances to be found in verbatim responses which Verbastat goes a long way to correct. It amalgamates the two processes of creating a codeframe and assigning respondents to particular categories. It keeps track of every assignment and combination made so that, at any point, you can backtrack, and change the assignments, or start again.
Probably the most amazing thing about this tool in that it actually makes the process fun. You essentially start with a column of unassigned verbatim responses on the left hand side of the screen and a blank column on the right. As you go through the coding process, finding similar answers and grouping them together, one list shrinks and the other one grows. By the end of the process, the column on the left is empty, the completed codeframe appears on the right, and magically, in the background, all the coding has been done.
Verbastat is not tied to any package in particular, but integrates most closely with Quancept, Quantum, SPSS and SAS. Export links to several other packages are still planned.
Verbastat pros and cons
Pros A neat and elegant use of technology
Actually makes coding enjoyable
Handles huge volumes very fast
Cons Needs more export options
Verbatims must be keyed in if used on paper-based surveys
Quite expensive

'If you find yourself having to handle half a million open-ended questions a week, this fairly expensive kit could come in handy'

The latest version is packed with refinements. You can create net groups in your coding scheme, with up to five levels supported. You can also save your actions on one dataset as a "classification pattern" to apply to another, which is invaluable for continuous studies. Classification patterns can be used on other questions in the same study, on extra records you add later, or on an entirely different project.
A new report will show how the coder has assigned individual answers to the various groups. Delivered as a Word file or a plain text report, this is an ideal way for researchers or clients to examine the coding decisions taken, making the process both transparent and traceable. Web support is also provided, where it is bound to be especially useful.
Carol Birman, Director of Data Production at NFO in the USA, has 18 months experience of Verbastat, where it is now deployed on 80-90% of NFO’s CATI and interactive surveys. She rates the product as excellent. "We have achieved significant savings of both time and money through use of this software. Our process involves a 'Code Designer' who is responsible for evaluating responses and recommending codeframes. These recommendations are typically reviewed by our clients before being applied." She could think of no downsides of using Verbastat, apart from a somewhat steeper learning curve with new coders who were not always familiar with using a PC.

Julie Isbit spoke of similar experiences at Harris Interactive in New York. "We introduced it company wide about six months ago, and it is now the only coding software we use. In spite of encountering the occasional glitch using it, the coders are without exception very favourably disposed to this product - to the extent that the coding team leader says ‘I'm in love with this product!’
"Verbastat is excellent at quickly and easily classifying simple one or two word textual responses. Internet surveys are full of these since all unaided awareness must be collected in this format. Verbastat also lends itself to the huge sample sizes are obtained in Internet surveys. Project managers and their clients expect to see results from Internet surveys very quickly. If we had to use more conventional coding methods we would not be able to achieve the speed of classification demanded."
Perhaps it was the lure of the Internet that got SPSS hooked — and the shadow of the dotcom that jacked up the price. If you find yourself having to handle half a million open-ended questions a week, this fairly expensive bit of kit could come in very handy.


Tim Macer writes as an independent specialist in software for market research. His website is at

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, April 2000, Issue 407.

© Copyright Tim Macer/Market Research Society 2000. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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