More than a clever idea

There's a mob of web survey software in the marketplace. But as Tim Macer reports, one offers more than meets the eye.

Cleverform is a web interviewing solution with a twist. On the surface, it looks like a better-than-average offering in the crowded web survey software market (there were 65 packages for MR users at our latest count). Underneath, it reveals itself to be a heavyweight in disguise, overcoming problems that many of the standard packages fail to address, such as combining data across surveys, or offering better integration between email invitations and the web survey pages.
Cleverform is offered as a browser-based ASP solution by Code Development (a UK/Serbian company with offices in London), either hosted on its own servers, or installed on your own network. The current version is implemented in UNIX using MySQL, a widely used open-source database, popular in the UNIX world as it is virtually free of charge. It is currently being ported to Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server, however, to satisfy corporate users.
The questionnaire design module is extremely intuitive and very fast to use, because it uses Javascript and other browser tricks to cut down the amount of screen refreshing that is required. Questions, scripts and visual aspects are all controlled independently.
Cleverform takes the concept of templates a stage further than most by letting you specify different templates for different respondents by demographics - or any known data. Complex surveys can be tackled by using the system’s own scripting language, CF Script.
The editor uses a simple concept of pages and questions to allow you to present more than one data-capture field on the same screen. By default, it will place each new question on a new screen, but a page window lets you move questions around the pages very easily, or even place everything on one page. This has another benefit when you look at Cleverform’s integrated email invitation module.
It is surprising how many web packages still offer no support for the generation of emails , though a lot now allow you to set up personalised invitations that contain a click-through link to the survey. Cleverform goes a step further by allowing you to email the whole of the first page of your survey as an HTML mail message. This means respondents can start completing the survey in their email client as they read the message - surely a clever way to ease respondents into completing your survey and boost response. If there are other pages, then the ‘next’ button will fire up the web browser and take the respondent to the website to complete the rest of the survey.
Cleverform by Code Development
Pros
  • Embed web survey in emails or click through to web pages
  • Respondent-centric database aids continuous surveys and panel building
  • Simple surveys require no technical skills
  • 100% web based
Cons
  • Database editing and updating capabilities currently limited
  • Filtering tricky to understand
  • Triple-s support limited to pre-XML version
Another major difference between Cleverform and most other survey packages is that the database is respondent-centric, with all the answers from previous surveys being pooled and available in subsequent surveys or across surveys. In effect, a survey is just one ‘view’ of the database, in which the questions are presented in the order in which they were asked. At present, the solution lacks the tools to exploit the database fully: updating is not quite there yet and filtering or selecting is very clumsy. However, this system has great potential to span panel management, survey management and even continuous research management as it grows.

“It is surprising how many web packages still offer no support for the generation of emails.”

It is a very open system, and provides triple-s output from its data. Cleverform actually stored the question definitions on the database as triple-s definitions, though at present this is the old version, not the XML version. What this means is you can design the questions in any software that writes out triple-s definitions, and import the question definitions into Cleverform.
Sage Research, a Massachusetts-based research agency specialising in the technology sector, has started using Cleverform as a pre-research tool. “Occasionally we have a need to just get a feel for whether or not people are using a particular product,” explains Vincent Stolo, Field Co-ordinator at Sage.

“What attracted us was its ability to embed surveys in an email and utilize that for some quick data collection - to get a snapshot, rather than actionable research. In this respect, we’ve found it works amazingly well.”
In one survey, Sage needed to identify users of mobile computer technology that had a need for printing on the move, so defined a short survey where all the questions appeared as a single page in the email message. A link was included to an equivalent web page to overcome the problem of anyone unable to read HTML email. “That helped our responses rate enormously,” Stolo reports, “as about 25% ended up taking the survey through the web link.”
Sage uses other web interviewing software for complex surveys. “ It has more features,” says Stolo, “but it requires sophisticated programming, Cleverform does not - it is easy to use, very intuitive, and that’s without having any programming experience. It has limitations, but the value and benefits outweigh the limits for these snapshot surveys. From top to bottom, it did exactly what we wanted and a price below what we were expecting.”
Perhaps Cleverform’s biggest problem will be getting stuck in the cheap-and-cheerful DIY camp, for underneath is a real pro’s resource just waiting for recognition.

Cleverform: www.cleverform.com

Tim Macer writes as an independent specialist and advisor in software for market research. His website is at www.meaning.uk.com

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, September 2002, Issue 436.

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

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