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MI Pro Research Studio reviewed

With an array of analytical capabilities could this tool prove too tough for the competition? Tim Macer investigates.

It is rare to find an entirely new software package that, in its launch version, already does more than the established hegemony - yet MI Pro Research Studio, which launched at February’s Technovate conference, overthrows the notion that you must be patient for new software to mature into something usable. This mixed-mode, design and analyse tool looks good on the surface, with beautifully designed and aesthetically pleasing interfaces to all of its many parts. It looks equally good underneath.

At MI Pro’s foundation is a data layer, which MI Pro calls the ‘data model’; in the middle is an open application layer, and on top an interface layer, which is highly adaptable and configurable. This architecture may sound so familiar that you could easily accuse MI Pro of stealing SPSS MR’s big idea.

The reality is that this set-up has its origins in MI Pro’s forerunner: an in-house survey package developed a decade ago by Norwegian research agency MMI, to run under UNIX. The development team, now independent of MMI, has ported and enhanced that original technology to work in a modern Windows client/server and database environment. There are, however, some radical differences with that other ‘data model’ solution that could make this very appealing to small and mid-size agencies, and who knows who else?

For a start, the entire data model is anchored to a relational database, either Microsoft SQL Server or Oracle, and every project exists in one data repository. This means the whole lot hangs together in a very cohesive way through a complete research project management environment which makes available every project, and even the current state of every project, to those with the permission to know. Furthermore, its very open architecture is achieved through extensive use of XML. In fact, everything talks to everything else in MI Pro via XML, all the way down to the data layer.

Currently the system supports five integrated research modes: CATI, CAPI, web and paper with data entry or OCR scanning. CATI is currently the least developed of the five modes, though already the system offers two-way integration with VOXCO’s Pronto predictive dial system and download integration with the SPSS’s SMS/QTS solution, but still lacks a complete set of CATI supervisor screens.

The support for paper makes it extremely easy to produce consistent, high-quality printed questionnaires of staggering complexity. One common GUI authoring tool allows you to set up surveys, regardless of the mode. Scanning is supported through tight integration with Eyes & Hands including creation of the Eyes & Hands definition file so all of the recognition metadata is transferred automatically.

The survey authoring module partitions the design window into five areas, so you will need a fairly large monitor to get the best from it. On the left is a tree-style view of the questionnaire, and below that, a preview pane. The designer is object based, so you add questions and other elements to the tree view, rather than working directly in the preview mode. The final appearance is, in any case, determined by style sheets, and overall this provides a very efficient way of working. As alternatives, there is also a question-writing wizard and a decent Word import.

Also on the authoring screen is the handy resources area, from which you can drag and drop previously used questions and answers from your own library, if you are organised, or if less so, from any previously defined project. Routing and all the usual online tricks are well supported, though this is one of the very few areas where some syntax is required.

Although powerful, the selection logic is a bit esoteric and could be a stumbling block.

Where integrated packages often fizzle out, MI Pro comes into its own with a dazzling array of analytical capabilities, including some powerful stats-based methods packaged to make them easy to apply. It is largely a matter of drag and drop and calculation is very fast, so most tables appear almost instantly. The output looks extremely nice too, even if you stick to the default display style sheets. Creating new variables and combining items is also relatively easy, though a wizard or some more graphical ways of defining the logic would be better than the strange selection syntax, which reappears at this point.

One fascinating analysis tool for researchers to play with is the ‘deep dig’ tool, which lets you do quick and very easy correlations of questions or subgroups across your entire dataset. Equally fascinating is the integration with both Excel and PowerPoint, which are both the best I have seen to date from any provider. You can literally throw a bunch of tables or charts in the direction of PowerPoint, and MI Pro will create an entire deck of presentation-ready slides.

The Excel Live Tables feature is more than a one-way publishing link. Here, you effectively use Excel as your output viewing Window, with each new chart or table being posted to a new tabbed worksheet in your Excel workbook. Through a plug-in, the MI Pro analysis capabilities are accessed directly from Excel via XML links. More XML links ensure that the tables are kept up to date, if the data change. It makes you wonder why no one has done this before.

A combination of open XML and an open attitude by MI Pro to work with other software suppliers is driving several current initiatives to integrate Research Studio with other established packages. Such an approach is welcome news for the industry as a whole, especially if it moves us a step closer to the ultimate goal of not just multi-modal research but integrated multi-vendor data collection.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, October 2003, Issue 449.

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

High-spec data collection, analysis and publishing solution aimed at the research professional, built on a new XML-based open architecture and designed for true mixed-mode and multi-modal survey administration.