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Why this pen may yet prove mightier

Tim Macer on the field trials of two new stylus-based products aiming to push CAPI onwards

CAPI (Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing) arrived a few years ago with the promise of CATI's benefits for face-to-face interviewing. Unlike CATI, it has been rather slow to catch on. There are probably two reasons for this, first of which is expense. Secondly, there is the inconvenience of having to use a keyboard balanced on your knee while trying to maintain eye contact with a respondent. Lap-top based systems are just not very convenient in the field. This is why two software manufacturers have recently launched products based on "pen" PC systems: Bellview Pen, a specially adapted version of Pulse Train's successful Bellview CATI package and In2Quest, part of a fully integrated suite of modules for interviewers on the move, from Danish developers In2itive (now part of SPSS), and represented in the UK by Mobile Computing Systems.

Pen PC's share some of the features of the Apple Newton and other "personal digital assistants", in using a stylus to point, click and write directly on a tablet. Unlike PDA's, the computer is a fully functional Windows PC, and will run most software designed for PC. If you want, you can attach a keyboard, but if no typing is involved, everything can be controlled from the stylus or "pen". It operates just like a mouse: draw it over the tablet to move the cursor and tap to "click". It is natural and easy to. About the size of a thick A4 pad, weighing only 3kg, these machines are very portable, and now offer plenty of "battery time" too.

Neither In2Quest nor Bellview Pen attempt to exploit the handwriting recognition facilities of the Pen PC. "The technology just isn't up to it at the moment" explained Thomas Leistiko from In2itive. His comments were mirrored by David Good at Pulse Train, who said "give it a few years, and it should be possible". Instead both have concentrated on designing a simple screen display which will allow interviewers literally to tap their way through an interview with skips and selections handled automatically, just like CATI. Leistiko said that their mission had been to "keep it very simple".

Both products support a wider range of questions on screen than traditional CATI systems. For instance, you can get a complete grid on screen, or can include sound clips, such as advertising jingles, images for show-cards, and even video clips. Multi-media support does add considerably to the cost of a pen PC, however. Numeric values are tapped into a pop-up calculator "keypad" on screen and openends can be handled in various ways. The interviewer can write openends on the tablet with the "pen". These can be consolidated, examined and coded in the office. The results are no more illegible than pen on paper, and they don't smudge in the rain: attach a waterproof sleeve to the Pen PC and just carry on! Alternatively, In2Quest presents a pop-up alphabet on screen. When I tried it, it felt like punching a message on a Dymo label. Better still, on a multimedia machine, you can capture the respondent's voice directly. To the interviewer, at least, there is little to differentiate the two products in terms of look and feel.

Brian Gosschalk, MD of MORI, spoke of their recent decision to purchase 40 In2Quest licenses after a year's trial. "In2Quest is a quantum leap forward. We found it had facilities which were superior to its competitors. In2itive seem so much more attuned to the needs of users." Ken Brewster, his Senior Technical Consultant said "one of the nicest things from my point of view is that the package has everything. It takes care of the project management, file transfer and, importantly, the amalgamation of the data."

In2Quest comes with a very comprehensive set of Windows-based tools. Questions can be entered directly or via any wordprocessor then simply imported. Routing, skips and masks are defined using an ingenious tree diagram which will be familiar to anyone used to Windows File Manager. You just drag the items in and out to make the structure you want: a simplicity and directness which makes it hard to make mistakes during set-up. Surveys and quotas are then assigned to interviewers, using another point and click module so that, each evening, interviewers can collect their work over a phone line in a way which even the most technophobic would find reassuringly simple. At the same time, complete interviews are sent back to the office for analysis. There is no waiting for deliveries, or for editing and data entry to be done. As Brian Gosschalk observed "I believe this time lag costs everyone a lot of money".

Bellview Pen comes with as a built-in communications module too. It also has the advantage that it is closely integrated with its CATI sibling, making it ideal for anyone looking for a total CATI/CAPI solution as set-up is done using the same "QSL" language as for Bellview.

I spoke to companies who are trialling the system: GDP in Hamburg and SOFRES in Paris, who are now using it in production with some success. Both found the set-up rather onerous, but felt the speedy communication of completed interview back to base to be where the greatest savings were to be made. Andreas Natske at GDP said interviews were too slow and that the characters on screen were sometimes too small. Pulse Train confirmed to me that they were working to fix these problems.

I noticed there were speed problems with In2Quest too. However, both products are being actively developed and a lot of fine tuning is now taking place as a result of these large scale trials. As hardware continues to improve and the software grows to encompass more features, these packages are surely going to be winners for those who use them.

Despite this, the cost implications are still staggering. Compared with 10p for a pencil, some photocopying and a few first class stamps, spending upwards of £2000 to equip each and every interviewer is a courageous move. Equipping your field force with a Mont Blanc pencil in solid silver and copying your interviews on hand-made parchment looks like fiscal restraint in comparison. But time is money, and now, at least money is the only objection.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, September 1995, Issue number 352.

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

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