Web-based surveys: Queries made simple
Product review: Survey products make online polling easier, even for those with few technical skills
Here's the scenario. Your department or agency needs to conduct a survey of voters, citizens, contractors or suppliers. Do you:
(a) Leave a stack of questionnaires on the sidewalk in front of your building.
(b) Mail questionnaires randomly to names in the phone book.
(c) E-mail a survey to the group you want to reach.
(d) Post a survey on your Web site.
An increasing number of organizations, including Federal Computer Week, are finding the last two options to be the most effective.
Online survey solutions have enabled organizations to create surveys that are easy to use, deploy and, most importantly, share with large groups of users.
Once limited to creation via HTML editors and administered through a hodgepodge of cookies, counters and e-mail messages, Web survey solutions have blossomed into systems capable of handling the most complex conditions imaginable. What's more, staff with little technical ability can design and manage surveys. And, thanks to healthy competition in the industry, prices continue to fall while ease of use and functionality improve.
For this comparison, FCW selected three of the top online survey solutions: Apian Software Inc.'s SurveyPro 3.0, Perseus Development Corp.'s SurveySolutions XP Enterprise and Catapult Systems Corp.'s Inquisite 5.0.
Each product offered similar Web-based survey capabilities, so I tested them by using each application to create, deploy and analyze the results of the same series of surveys. In addition to paying particular attention to how easy each product was to use, specifically in the creation process, I also evaluated how easy it was to install and configure the products from a client and server standpoint.
The premise behind any survey is to capture actionable data, so I also evaluated each solution's built-in reporting and export capabilities. Note that all of the solutions offer a Web hosting service for users who don't want to manage surveys on their own Web servers.
I deployed the products on a Hewlett-Packard Co. server with an Intel Corp. Pentium 4 processor and 512M of memory running Microsoft Corp. Windows 2000 Professional. By default, I chose Microsoft's Internet Information Services (IIS) 5.0 for the Web server. From a client standpoint (survey creation), I installed each solution on a number of operating systems and tested the output using Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5 and 6, as well as Mozilla 1.2.1 from the Mozilla Organization.
Compatibility testing was performed on an FCW test center network, which employed an HP ProLiant ML350 server and both HP xw5000 workstations and Compaq Evo desktops as clients.
SurveyPro 3.0 Streamlines Surveys
If you're looking for a complete survey solution that can design, deploy and analyze paper, Web and local-area network questionnaires, you should consider Apian's SurveyPro 3.0.
Although it finished third in our comparison, the solution is excellent and lacks only the additional database support that would make it a must-have.
With SurveyPro's intuitive and easy-to-use interface, surveys no longer have to be tedious for creators or end users.
Standard features include one-stop edits (in which changes made in a question that references other questions will be noted throughout the survey), database management, figures and charts for generating custom reports, and powerful filtering capabilities.
Moreover, the solution can handle up to 2,000 characters per question and 2,000 questions per survey, so even the most complex survey can be performed with ease.
I found the system requirements for the solution negligible, with only a Pentium 133 sporting 64M of RAM required for the client, and a Web server capable of running Perl or Active Server Page (ASP).
Installation was fairly straightforward and took less than two minutes to complete.
The client portion, which employs a standard Windows look and feel, with tree-like navigation on the left, a work panel on the right and a series of tabs at the bottom, enables a user to quickly create questionnaires and generate executive summary reports, data table reports or custom reports.
The user interface was fairly intuitive, but I would have liked a wizard to walk me through each step during the first launch of the application — a functionality the Perseus product has.
I was happy to find more than 30 choices for how my end users would be able to respond, including yes/no, importance and text fields. I could also specify whether or not questions were mandatory. Also, because one of my criteria was security, I was pleased to see that I could restrict access to specific users.
It was easy to create forms, but the data collection and publishing process was a bit difficult. In addition to requiring a secondary product — NetCollect 3.0, priced at $595 for a single user or $895 for a workgroup — users with Web servers incapable of running ASP will have to take extra steps to make the solution work, such as manually editing configuration files. You can avoid such problems by opting to use Apian's hosting service.
After collecting a few responses, I was pleased to see that the solution supported data export via comma- and tab-separated files, as well as Microsoft's Access database format for further analysis.
Support for Oracle Corp.'s and IBM Corp.'s database software would be a nice addition to the product. The program also offers a decent set of built-in analytic tools, including various chart types and excellent data-filtering capabilities.
And I was pleased to learn that Apian offers free technical support, which is rare these days.
SurveySolutions XP Simplifies Complex Surveys
Whether you're creating a training assessment or an internal customer satisfaction survey, using Perseus' SurveySolutions XP is a sure-fire way to create one that looks like a professional did it.
Although both SurveySolutions XP and competitor Inquisite performed well in our comparison, my overall impression of the Perseus solution put it in second place.
This latest release showcases new features such as support for DB2, something not found in the Inquisite product, as well as export capabilities to the SPSS Inc. SPSS data mining application. Other new features include portal-based reports and the ability to format all survey characteristics using cascading style sheets.
I was pleased to find that the solution can be used with various databases, including Oracle, DB2, SQL Server and MySQL. Furthermore, thanks to the modest system requirements — 35M of hard disk space and 32M of RAM — just about any computer can be used for creation.
Installation proved to be incredibly easy. However, I was a bit frustrated that I had to reboot my computer during the process — something not required in any of the other solutions' installations. When I launched the application, I was taken to a portal-type interface broken up into three major categories, including Questionnaire Designer, Results Management, and Charting and Analysis.
The Questionnaire Designer provides options to create or edit questionnaires, import from a word processing file and publish a survey, while Results Management enables users to create or update databases. Likewise, the Charting and Analysis section enables users to create or update a personal or enterprise presentation.
I chose to create a questionnaire and was presented with a tabbed menu offering different survey templates.
SurveySolutions XP was not as easy to use as Inquisite for survey creation, but I did like that I could create a single survey and use it in any media — the Web, paper or e-mail.
Similar to the other solutions, SurveySolutions supports single and multiple-choice questions, rank ordering and essay responses, as well as the more advanced skip patterns, branching and randomized choice lists. The ability to prepopulate responses from data in external tables is also valuable.
Publishing the survey was easy, thanks in part to a handy wizard. I needed only to specify the URL of the Web server and whether I would be using a network or dial-up connection to transfer the data. Before uploading, I was able to preview my work in a Web browser, thus saving time and bandwidth should my formatting be incorrect.
As for reporting options, the solution comes with 14 chart types ranging from bars to stacked columns. You can also use frequency reports, summary statistics and reports dealing with variance and regression.
Combine all of those features with an enterprise portal where users have a Web-based interface to access real-time results and analysis, survey administration and user management, and excellent help text, and you have a fine tool.
Inquisite 5 Offers Unlimited Data Options
If your department is like most, chances are that your environment is highly distributed across mainframe, midrange and PC servers. Finding software that runs on a variety of them can be tough, which is why I selected Catapult Systems' Inquisite 5 as our comparison winner.
Designed specifically for the nontechnical user, Inquisite 5 provides all the capabilities necessary to create professional-looking surveys in just minutes. To build a usable survey, you simply define the type of questions, the presentation style and any titles or logos and publish the survey to the server.
New features for this release include survey invitation management (which sends reminder notices to participants); the ability to randomize responses, thus preventing users from always choosing the first available option; and support for Lotus Development Corp. Notes address books.
Inquisite was by far the easiest solution to configure, making it a perfect fit for heterogeneous environments. I was pleased to see that in addition to support for Microsoft's IIS 4.0 and 5.0 for Web servers, Inquisite also offered support for the Apache Software Foundation's Apache 1.3 and higher and Sun Microsystems Inc.'s iPlanet 4.1. Likewise, from a database perspective, users will have their choice among Oracle 8i and 9i, and Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 and 2000. I was disappointed, however, to find support for DB2 missing.
When I launched the application, I was happy to see that one of my first choices was a content wizard. I also could have chosen to begin with one of the numerous included templates or a blank survey. I chose to start with a sample survey and was impressed to find more than 60 types to select from, including customer satisfaction, employee benefits satisfaction and business-to-business demographics research, to name a few.
I also had more than 30 predesigned templates to choose from, including items such as watercolors, checkered flags and oceanscapes, enabling me to easily personalize a survey for my audience.
The editor was a pleasure to work with thanks to its WYSIWYG capabilities, as well as a handy insert menu accessed via a right mouse click. I could change background colors and images and the fonts and colors for either an individual question or a complete survey. Similar to the other solutions, Inquisite was capable of handling single- select, multiselect, paragraph response and advanced features such as branching and skip logic.
From a reporting standpoint, in addition to being able to view responses via a Web browser, Inquisite also provides the ability to export to Microsoft Word, Excel and Adobe Systems Inc. Acrobat formats. And, better yet, because the solution stores the data in one of the above-mentioned databases, advanced reporting capabilities are limited only by your current toolset.
I was a bit disappointed to find that in addition to being a for-fee service, customer support was only available Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST.
Fielden is a systems architect and freelance writer based in Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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