Software reviews from meaning

AccessPoint reviewed

In Brief

What it does

Mobile CAPI solution for complex or simple surveys which works on a range of standard consumer PDAs under Windows with integrated web-based real-time fieldwork management and monitoring tools.

Supplier

Global Bay

Our ratings

Score 5 out of 5 Ease of use

Score 4 out of 5Compatibility with other software

Score 4.5 out of 5Value for money

Cost

Starts at £20 per interviewer per month with volume discounts available; includes technical support. Devices and airtime contracts extra.

Pros

  • Good for both simple linear surveys and complex non-linear data gathering activities
  • Handles multi-level hierarchies and repeating sections well
  • Web application available for survey/interviewer assignment and administration
  • Can integrate with other applications through open database and web services interfaces

Cons

  • No built-in support for design templates
  • Complex set-up for anything but the simplest of surveys
  • Only works with handhelds using one of the mobile Microsoft Windows variants.

In Depth

Perceptively, the people at Global Bay have realised that demand for handheld interviewing tends not to come from people wanting to do simple twenty question surveys in the street, but from altogether more complex data collection activities such as diaries, mystery shopping and retail audits. In re-writing their Access Point handheld data capture system, they had added a new layer of advanced capabilities for surveys of fiendish complexity, while retaining the ability to be able to knock out a simple survey with a few questions, and get it into the field in a few hours, if need be.

The big change in version 4 is a new data model and scripting language that provide support for hierarchical surveys with a variable number of repeating sections, such as diaries or surveys of households and individuals. These also provide support for what could be described as ‘non-linear’ surveys, where it is the observations being made that determine the flow of the data gathering exercise. Surveys such as this defy programming in most data collection systems.

There are essentially five components to AccessPoint: the ‘Form Builder’ to design the survey instrument; the interviewing client, which can sit on a variety of standalone PDAs or wireless devices, provided they use one of the Microsoft Windows variants; the central database and data synchronisation engine – you can either use GlobalBay’s hosted service, or invest in your own web server; plus a web application for fieldwork administration and another web application for managers or even clients to log in and review topline results or even build some dashboard reporting. All in all, AccessPoint is now a very comprehensive offering, though the results reporting capabilities are fairly rudimentary – great to check up on the data, but not really for in depth data analysis or any data manipulation.

Mobile communications always have been a strength of AccessPoint. GlobalBay, though based in the US, works closely with several of the UK mobile networks through its UK office, and can offer some very competitive bundled deals on hardware and airtime contracts to sit alongside their software. These also bring the advantage of only one supplier to confront if the system goes uncommunicative on you.

Aware that configuring these kinds of devices can cause all sorts of headaches to fieldwork managers and interviewers alike, the software can be self-configuring. For example, if a device is lost in transit to an important assignment, an interviewer could buy a replacement from a High Street retailer, and by logging onto the AccessPoint server, all the special drivers and applications will be downloaded, along with the day’s interviewing assignments.

Administrators can set up assignments in advance, according to interviewers’ availability, or allocate work in real-time, controlling what the interviewer will do next, according to availability.

Another change is that surveys can be distributed already populated with key items of data relevant to the interviewee or the location being audited. This can be lifted directly out of an external database, such as a CRM system, because also new is a choice of three open interface methods to share data with other systems. There is a database mapping tool that will either allow data to be downloaded periodically, or for actual synchronisation to take place – such as where name and address information is being updated in the host system, or where a customer care team needs a real-time alert about an urgent performance issue. And there is a web services interface, for any of the burgeoning number of web-enabled tools that offer this kind of low-level over-the-web data linkage.

On the non-techie side, there are several noticeable improvements for interviewers. Rather than needing to use a stylus to record data, finger-activated questions means that some kinds of surveys can be made entirely ‘finger driven’ now. Interview screens can look a lot nicer too, as it is possible to fine-tune their appearance and to put multiple data capture fields on the same screen, such as drop-down boxes. There is a degree of template control within the design but unfortunately this stops short of being able to apply overall design templates, or use cascading style sheets – a missed opportunity in streamlining the set-up process.

Interviewers can also capture other data now, including photos, if their device has an integral camera. There is a special photo question, which will present a prompt “Do you want to take a photo?” and the next picture the interviewer takes will be captured as the answer to the question and get transmitted back to the server the next time the data are synchronised. There is even an option now to deal with barcodes by taking a picture of them – the image is then translated into numeric data.

At the back-end, the big innovation is the Form Builder tool. Previously, anything other than the very simplest of surveys required custom programming by Global Bay’s technical gurus. Now, there is a wizard to set up very basic questionnaires, which is quick and efficient to use, or a complete programming environment for more complex jobs. Unfortunately, this is a tortuous process that involves separate definitions for questions, screen layouts and a java-like scripting language for the logic that glues it all together. Though not for the faint hearted, this is actually a very sophisticated questionnaire development environment that makes just about any survey possible. The only lack I could see was for multi-language surveys, which are not supported.

The result of this is that surveys seem to take either two hours or two weeks to set up: there is no middle ground. Because this is a programming tool, it means you must plan time for testing and debugging, as all sorts of errors of commission are possible. However, if you are programming a multi-hierarchical diary survey driven by complicated changing schedules, overlaid with a myriad of local exceptions, and a three year contract for the job, not only would this be a fortnight well spent, but the downstream benefits could amount to whole year’s of effort saved.

Customer viewpoint: Andreas Stübi, DemoSCOPE, Switzerland

Andreas Stübi is Head of MR Information Technologies at DemoSCOPE, a full service research agency in Switzerland. DemoSCOPE have now completed three different surveys using Access Point. Andreas judges the experience to date to have been positive: “We chose Global Bay because it was really the only company that could offer us a complete solution. They support a nice range of PDAs on the market, and the software they provide can create hierarchical models which was important for the project we were starting with – a media project that involved the use of diaries.

Our clients really like these kinds of surveys using PDAs, because the Interviewers can walk into a store with one of these things and they don’t stand out – which is especially important for mystery shopping. These are now everyday devices which people are familiar with.

One of the nice things with this software is that you do not need to have an online connection the whole time. So long that you do not have to provide a new questionnaire, it does not matter if an individual interviewer is unable to sync their data until one or two days later.

The online reporter tool is very handy – it is quite powerful. The idea is you can easily control and follow the fieldwork while collecting data in the field. We really made use of this on the media survey, as there are a lot of day quotas to manage. It also means you can react very quickly if you see errors from interviewers or in the actual interview. You can contact the interviewer and explain what needs to happen.”

He also singles out the support he has received from Global Bay. “They are always very helpful if you have any questions, or need some tips with the programming.”

A version of this review first appeared in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, December 2007, Issue 499

Tim Macer

Tim is a world-renowned specialist in the application of technology in the field of market and opinion research and is probably the most widely-published writer in the field. His roots are in data analysis, programming, training and technical writing. These days, as principal at meaning he works with researchers, users of research data and technology providers around the globe, as an independent advisor. He is quite passionate about improving the research process and empowering people through better use of technology.

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