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Confirmit Reportal reviewed

Could Confimit Reportal make web programmers obsolete? Tim Macer gets to grips with wizards and templates.

There is a widespread tendency for survey packages to stack the functionality high at the data collection end, then fizzle out into a few simplistic tables, due to lack of the will or the means to do more at the other end. It was a fate that seemed to have condemned Confirmit - one of the best web-based interviewing products around - to a decidedly limp finish on the reporting side. Now, that is no more with the release of Reportal, a cute name for a serious program that allows you to design and manage complex client data extranets and information portals with very little effort.

Handling results today is a complex business, as research buyers look to agencies to build these delivery mechanisms. For agencies, this means a huge investment to build bespoke systems, calling on the skills of DP specialists, web programmers, database programmers and web designers.

In Reportal, FIRM have created a tool that allows one person to fulfil all these roles and define, in a few hours, complex reporting extranets that could take weeks to create using standard web tools and databases. For the end user, the site will be easy to navigate, and can be highly customised so as to present relevant key findings at the point of entry, yet allow them to drill down to get more detail and even carry out some additional analysis of their own.

It is the result of a lengthy development over several years in which FIRM has developed an entire open systems architecture for reporting based Microsoft’s new .net technology. It draws inevitable comparisons with rival SPSS MR’s Dimensions Data Model. By building Reportal on an underlying architecture that understands data sources, surveys, questions, analysis components and access rights, it means this ‘version one’ program is a very complete application. Like the rest of Confirmit, it is entirely web-based.

FIRM are not the first to bring out a portal-building solution. GMI introduced one two years ago. The breakthrough here is in the sheer scale of the product.

To use the portal design tool, you do not need to be a web programmer. If you have used a website design tool such as FrontPage, you would quickly learn this, as it works in a very similar way though more sophisticated way.

The whole suite separates everything into levels, so that you only need concern yourself with solving part of the problem at once. Like in PowerPoint, a master page lets you choose the elements that will appear on every page: navigation buttons, links, the main report area and so on. Then you define individual pages in a cascading folder structure. Automatically, this folder structure can become one of the main navigational features for the portal users.

On the pages, you plug in what are called report objects: range of cross-tabs, filters and some rudimentary statistics. You can either pick pre-defined ‘auto-layouts’ or assemble the components yourself. Components include a good range of charts and just pivot tables. Reportal does not offer anything yet if you are seeking intelligent reporting based on exceptions or statistical model. It’s frequencies and percentages, I’m afraid.

To compensate, click on any object and a vast set of properties appears, appropriate to the object, from the number of decimals to show, to the scale of the chart, colour, line thickness and so on. You can even customise the mouse-over tooltips that users will see. You can also save any custom report you have created as a new ‘auto-layout’ for future use on this or other portals. Presentation options are handled through styles, which can also be called up or saved within a template, making it easy to create consistent-looking sites.

For the line of least resistance, you can ignore all this sophistication, and limit yourself to what several capable wizards and the standard templates can offer. More creative types can customise and embellish to their hearts content, saving their achievements in templates.

It is also easy to create links, as you would on any website: links to drill down to more detailed reports, charts, pages of commentary, or to other external sources of information.

Fine access control is a real strength. Different users can, through assigning access rights to report objects and even to the data, obtain quite different views and reports from the same portal. Not only does this handle the ‘manager A only gets to see region A’ situation, but also means that users can be prevented from drilling and filtering down to a level where confidentiality would be breached.

This first version does come with some restrictions, though. Although it will let you combine data sources from within Confirmit, you cannot overlay other data from different sources or introduce other aggregated data, which is a disappointment for benchmarking or for tying research findings into sales or event data. Reports and charts can only be viewed on screen and it is hard to move them to Excel or Powerpoint. There are hooks in the system for publishing to PowerPoint and Acrobat files, but these options will not be available until the next release. Reportal will only benefit FIRM’s ASP customers for the time being, as the in-house or ‘enterprise’ version is not released yet.

Perhaps more disappointingly is that Reportal, despite its open architecture, is not a platform that makes it easy to get data in from other sources, so customers with surveys on paper, in CATI, or who are looking for a portal solution but not a web-interviewing solution are unlikely to find it here. More is the pity, for this is a product with the potential to get research pumping around the corporate decision making arteries.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, September 2003, Issue 448.

© Copyright Tim Macer/Market Research Society 2003. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

Web-based tool for creating information extranets or ‘portals’ for internal and external customers from survey data.