Distant relations

Sophisticated functionality now within easier reach of the novice user, reports Andrew Walford

There has been little innovation of late in the world of batch cross-tab packages, so it's encouraging to see one package with a long pedigree bring its sophisticated functionality within easier reach of the novice user, thanks to a comprehensive overhaul of its interface.
Uncle, widely used in the United States, has few European customers. Although it firmly remains a tool for data processing specialists rather than end users, a new Windows environment marks a credible attempt at making the software easier to learn and use.
This latest, 32-bit version is the culmination of 20 years of development, so it's no surprise to find powerful and refined features - beginning with a comprehensive data import facility. Users can read in files with nearly any structure, including different record lengths and hierarchical data sets. You can also combine projects, such as different waves of a survey, as well as a utility for sorting the data prior to import - prone to error and time-consuming in other tab packages.
With a cross-tab package, users need the ability to define a wide variety of tables as quickly as possible. Uncle provides a wealth of tools to achieve this. Tables are defined by setting up separate row and banner tables that are used to produce a cross-tab. Because each is defined independently, row and banner tables can be re-used in different combinations, saving duplication of effort. External libraries can be set up to allow statistical measures and other calculations to be applied to multiple tables from a single definition.
Uncle Professional Tabulation Package
Pros
  • Fast, robust and powerful
  • Reusable table definitions
  • Comprehensive online help
Cons
  • Limited Word or Excel export
  • No local support in Europe
  • No support for triple-S
Data cleaning facilities are powerful, with the option to filter respondents who do not meet the specified criteria on a case-by-case basis, or automatically by setting up and applying a special cleaning table. On the analysis side, Uncle provides a respectable range of statistical measures and other calculations, from means and medians to t-tests and chi square.
For result distribution, Uncle's alternatives to print are limited to exports to Excel and Word until an end-user table viewer is released.
A welcome addition is Uncle editor - a text editor on steroids, providing a friendlier setting for table definition, meaning you no longer need to type line-by-line within Uncle. And with the new online reference guide only a couple of mouse clicks away, this new means of defining tables is certain to boost productivity.
Despite its facelift, Uncle isn't an end-user package, and retains all the pros and cons of being a language-based system. On the plus side, users have the ability to specify just about any kind of table. On the minus side, it's not always obvious how to achieve your goal, and the software takes time to master.
"Uncle can do almost anything," says Veronica Arata, data processing manager at TVG Inc, which interviews medical staff and patients for clients in the US pharmaceutical industry. She uses Uncle for all of her cross-tabs.
"Cosmetically, the tables look really nice. There are a lot of things I like about the new version. Significance testing is so much simpler," she says. "We like the online help manual - it's so nice to have it on screen. My personal favourite is the new editor. Before, you had to write out the file when you wanted to make changes and put in a text editor."
Veronica sees a downside in the steep learning curve for the program: she considers it takes around three months to learn. Some of the syntax can be very complex, and the manuals do not always shed much light on what to do. "The biggest challenge is doing cleans," she says. "It can be like algebra, with matching parentheses on either side. It can become a little convoluted and a little long."
But on the occasions when her team have struggled to find the right command syntax, Uncle's technical support have come to the rescue: "If you can't figure it out for yourself, Uncle support has been great. They get back to us very quickly - they have always been terrific."

UNCLE: www.unclegroup.com

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, March 2002, Issue 430.

© Copyright Tim Macer/Market Research Society 2002. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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