While software makes collecting data easier than it's ever been, no one can refute technology's limitations. How would the ideal research application perform? Tim Macer asks industry tech heads.

Hunt for the killer app

We may live in times when nothing less than perfection is expected of consumer goods and services. But with computer technology, perfection often seems to be the objective of the next version rather than the current one.
Is blaming the tools a diversionary tactic for the poor workman, or is the technology, despite years of development, often not up to scratch? Research asked a number of experienced MR practitioners to describe what perfection meant for them in research technology. What would the killer app be?
In a paper at last year’s ESOMAR Congress, ‘New data collection techniques: Hip or Hype?’ Russell King, then of OAG, Marian Sudbury from B&MR and Business IT Enterprise’s Rana Tassabehji took a hard look at the claims of high-tech data collection methods like web, WAP and even CATI for high-value research activities. Not good enough, they said.
“We spoke to a lot of B2B research buyers, and the one thing they all said was face-to-face works best,” says Russell King, now an independent researcher. “When I worked at OAG, a lot of my research budget was spent ferrying researchers around the world. I was after some technology that would still convey stature and a level of importance to the person we were talking to, and allow the data to be collected smoothly and efficiently. My killer app would be a laptop with a webcam.”
King’s idea is to allow interviewers to video-conference with high profile respondents during dead time when travelling: at the airport or in the hotel of an evening. “But the technology is not there yet – too jerky,” he observes. “It would have to be DVD quality to work. Voice-over IP may do the same for CATI.” For the time being, he is sticking to more conventional methods.
John O’Brien, chairman of BMRB International, also put in a plea for human intervention, citing a tendency to use technology without thinking problems through in advance. “The killer app in research has to be the human brain.
The biggest risk in research is failing to make it practical, achievable and sensible because too often the hard thinking does not get done until the end.”
He did have some wishes, though – things that software developers seemed to have passed by. “I’ve often felt the whole process of segmentation and clustering could be a lot better. And trade-off analysis too – the respondent task is grotty. It’s too repetitive and I’m not sure the maths are up to it.”
O’Brien also hankers after decent software to help qualitative researchers. His assessment agreed with mine (Research Qualitative Review, March, page 23): that there is still no decent software to help commercial quallies do what they currently do on paper.
NOP World has brought out a series of technology-based products since it adopted SPSS MR’s new Dimensions technology last year. David Zotter, director of NOP’s Developing Technologies, is using the Dimensions developers’ toolkit to bring out new apps at the cracking pace of one every three months. Zotter considers he’s got his killer app not at the research software level but at the rudimentary platform level. “The killer app is the foundation and the trick is to use it against things other than just marketing research, like CRM or even managing your clients, customers, investors, partners, and other stakeholders.”
For Zotter, this means apps that are multimedia, so no effort is duplicated between projects that are web-based, CATI or face-to-face. He also considers the real strength of the web – sufficient for him to make all his new applications fully web-enabled – is in data delivery, with online reporting available for online and offline studies alike. Standardisation and reducing duplication he claims, is saving NOP “a lot of money.”
Raising the issue with Laurance Gerard and Jon Hulbert at Maritz TRBI, a solution for face-to-face is again a high priority. “I’d like to see centrally administered electronic face-to-face
interviewing using GPRS to control quotas, possibly routing, and downloads of video,” says Hulbert. “And with CATI-style monitoring at a central location and video and audio streams back to head office.” He has even coined a name for it – CAFI.
Gerrard’s plea was more immediate. “A universal easy-to-use, browser-based tool that allows researchers to analyse data on their desktop, from any source, including triple-s exports and SQL. Output will be tabs, stats, graphics; drill down cubes, fully compatible with MS Office products. And it must run in batch mode, export PDFs too and process millions of records in seconds.”
Raz Khan, MD of IT bureau ATP, is desperate for more up-to-date tab software. “We need a thorough overhaul of professional tab systems taking the best features of the leading packages, but providing a more modern and capable scripting language. Some are carrying 30+ years of backwards compatibility and their self-imposed limits look silly today.”
For research consumers, Khan is also looking for desktop tools that will make it effortless to combine data from multiple sources. He also introduced a different take on the need to improve the respondent interface. “Maybe the true killer app will be the one that lets us extract research responses from respondents’ brains without them even thinking about it!”
This could be a research application for the recent discovery that there is more to stage hypnosis than smoke and mirrors. Sadly, smoke and mirrors is what most of our commentators see in software producers’ wilder claims for their products while basic research needs are often unmet. Few of these gaps can justly be blamed on “limited bandwidth” or other restrictions in today’s technology. The more probable cause is, to extend John O’Brien’s observation, years of leaving the hard thinking to the next version.

Tim Macer's website is at www.meaning.uk.com

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, April 2002, Issue 431.

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

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