typewriterWhen I first started in market research, the main client deliverable on the first tracking study I worked on was sets of tables. Presentations in PowerPoint were an additional extra, occurring at key stages in the reporting cycle. Things have changed. Well, that was a while ago. We had desktop computers and internal email, but not external. It was a good few years before we could email attachments. Most international project co-ordination was done with the aid of a fax machine. I can’t now remember how we got the tables to the client. We probably couriered hard copy, or maybe we were with the programme and put them on a CD…

Anyway, as I said that was a while back. Certainly the norm for most of my research career is that the tables produced by the data processing team are for internal use only, designed to facilitate analysis and interpretation of the data, and as a basis for copying and pasting aggregated figures into PowerPoint which illustrates the result and brings out the story.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reviewing online dashboard products. Most of these products do more than provide an online dashboard: they enable respondent level data to be uploaded, manipulated into crosstabs using intuitive functionality, incorporated into customisable charts and downloaded into (sometimes) editable PowerPoint decks which can themselves be customised. The data/crosstabs/charts are all linked, so data can be uploaded again and everything else is updated. They are essentially tabulation and automation tools all in one, and the ones I have reviewed also have online dashboard features which are rapidly developing in terms of flexibility and functionality.

That makes me wonder whether the traditional survey research process which is still the norm in sizeable agencies isn’t starting to look a bit out of date. Can we do away with teams of data processers, deploying that resource instead in areas that will enhance reporting capability such as data exploration, web development and graphic design?

On the one hand, this is quite a compelling argument. Executives like having the data at their fingertips to play with rather than having to ask a different team if they realise they need to see another cut of the data. On the other hand, there will still be work involved doing things such as combining top 2 box scores, grouping multiple response variables, and creating the various derived variables which add so much to the analysis. This will still have to be done, whether by researchers or data processors, so we’d need to be sure that this wasn’t just a transfer of work from one place to another in the organsiation. And then there are the teeth-suckingly complex surveys where almost everything you look at is a derived variable of some sort put together in heinously complicated ways. Having DP experts with hands-on expertise directly manipulating the data is surely a must for projects like those.

I can, however, foresee more of the process being taken on directly by researchers using these intuitive tools, and they are perfect for small agencies or independent researchers who want to do as much as possible themselves. It seems to me that if we really want to get more out of the data, then the part of the survey research process which needs more expertise is in the exploration of the data (data science is a growing area) and in finding better ways of visualising and presenting it both offline and online.