Article #44: EasyPalm

Tim Macer assesses the potential use in market research of data capture using handheld personal organisers

Data at your fingertips


Handheld personal organisers like the 3Com Palm offer great potential as cheap and reliable research data collection devices, as one UK software manufacturer has already recognised. Scanner Technologies, a specialist in handling barcode data, has developed a data capture product, EasyPalm, which will allow you to load a questionnaire onto any Palm-compatible device, effectively turning it into a pocket-sized CAPI tool.
EasyPalm scripts are created and tested on a PC prior to loading on to the Palm via the 'Hot-sync' cradle which plugs into the back of your PC. Alternatively, Scanner Technologies' EasyPoll solution (that is, poll in the telecoms sense) allows workers in the field to pick up surveys and relay back their data using a modem. Again, dropping their Palms onto their cradles at home it is a one-button operation to send the day's work up the line and receive the next day's assignment. However, only one survey can be loaded onto a Palm at any one time. If you do not want the cost and responsibility of keeping multiple modem lines open to your office for fieldworkers to dial in, Scanner Technologies will let you use its web-server for secure internet-based data transfer.
This is a new product from a manufacturer with no specialist knowledge in market research. This leads to some strange terminology (each record is called a survey for instance) and some obvious lacks, such as straightforward support for multiple questions. But it also brings a welcome fresh approach to set-up as it divides the task perfectly between researcher and technician.
Most of the set-up is done using Excel, where questions, answers and skip patterns are laid out in a spreadsheet. More complex logic or validation is defined in the graphical, on-screen application generator. There is no language to learn, as such. Compared to standard CATI or CAPI programming
EasyPalm: pros and cons
Pros Low cost, high quality data capture
East for interviewers to use
Rapid development environment
Very flexible
Cons Lacks a decent data export facility
Largely untested in MR situations
No easy way to enter open-ended text

EasyPalm can give you the speed and accuracy benefits of CAPI at a fraction of the cost

environments, the application generator works at a lower level, involving more steps to accomplish each task. But it is not actually any more difficult than, say Quancept programming. This means you are able to do just about anything possible within the constraints of the Palm architecture. As Graham Fenton, Scanner Technologies' MD explains 'You don't need to be a clever programmer to use this, but you do need to be able to think logically'. It means that you are not constrained by the functionality of the software, as you can add new features and options yourself. Adding the missing multiple response feature would be a couple of hours work for an experienced technical user.
Scanner Technologies' pricing shows a fresh approach too. The licence for each handheld unit is £25. Not each month or each year, but forever. A developer's kit costs £179. For the £2500 you would need to spend to equip one CAPI interviewer with a laptop and software, you could get ten interviewers running with this kit. There are limitations, of course. The screen size is small, though in practice this is not such a restriction, as it is easy to scroll down long lists.
There is no sound or graphics capability and entering any text longer than a few characters is fiddly, which rules out questionnaires with a lot of openended responses. But where the bulk of data being collected are tickbox or numeric, EasyPalm would give you the speed and accuracy benefits of CAPI at a fraction of the cost.

Since the product's launch this year, Fenton reports serious interest from the MR companies he has approached for applications such as mystery shopping, interviewing on trains and at public events. With inbuilt support for barcode scanning at very little additional cost, auditing consumer products could be a candidate too.
Neil Carter, IT manager at Field Marketing Solutions, has expressed serious interest in EasyPalm for his firm's instore audits of products and point-of-sale advertising: 'We have a lot of field agents working on projects for several major household names. Most of our systems are paper based. EasyPalm would give us the ability to improve the speed of turnaround on reporting. It allows you to provide the person in the field with a logical flow and so reduces the amount of human error.'
Carter was happy with the set-up process. 'It allows you to program without programming. It takes a little time but once you understand the way it works, it is quite straightforward.'
While users in other vertical markets are finding this software a big help, no-one is using it yet in market research. It would certainly benefit from more MR-friendly data exports such as triple S or SPSS rather than just CSV raw data. But with some MR customers leading the way, that could change rapidly.

Scanner Technologies Limited

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, August 2000, Issue 411.

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

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