FEATURE1 September 2011

Working at the speed of silicon


Good research requires man and machine to work in harmony. Tim Macer offers advice for getting the most out of technology.

Long gone are the days when an aversion to technology was almost a prerequisite to being a researcher. An important shift has taken place over the last decade – a level of competence with technology has become a life-skill expected in most young researchers. This goes beyond the usual Office trio of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. A lot of the former back office systems for collecting and processing data, operated by script-writers and data processing specialists, have found their way on to the desktops of researchers too.

This is a trend that will continue, as web survey tools and tab packages start to morph into ‘expert systems’, where the software itself contains expertise about the business of research and will assist the researcher in making the right choices in their survey design or analysis. There is already a small number of products on the market that show expert features, such as data analysis software Q, which will suggest appropriate analyses and statistical tests to apply when analysing data. Then there are survey design tools such as Vision Critical and Vovici, which let researchers and research assistants create and run surveys, panels and communities for themselves – even multimedia and mobile surveys.

If the researcher can be closer to the data and the survey participant by virtue of technology, it should make for better research at many levels. But it is still something research firms struggle to achieve. Part of the problem is that systems are still not as expert as they need to be – they rely heavily on the skill and experience of the user to avoid problems. And some of the technology around takes far too long to learn.

The young researcher who understands the survey process, step by step – especially what is happening at the raw data level – will be at an advantage when working on research projects, or moving to new software

But the other half of the problem arises because many researchers are still not as data-literate as they need to be. When asked, graduate researchers will often confess that statistics and dealing with data are their least favourite areas, and the ones they feel least comfortable about. The best way to learn is through experience, and that means not just doing interviews but also having some placements to observe and understand what the technicians and data processing specialists do.

The young researcher who understands the survey process, step by step, and especially what is happening at the raw data level, will always be at an advantage when working on research projects or when moving on to new software packages or innovative research methods. Perhaps one of the biggest changes now is the demand for visualisation and animation of presented data. It’s a fast-moving and very creative area – one that needs people with a research mindset who are not afraid of data or technology.

It’s unrealistic to expect to be an expert in all of the hundreds of products dedicated to market research. In any case, the software you use is virtually always determined by the firm you work for and sometimes the client you work with. Yet most users only scratch the surface of what these packages offer. Setting aside some time to explore new tricks can pay huge dividends in terms of the time you can save by working smarter. Increasingly, with software being delivered over the web, it is feasible to choose a particular technology for a specific project, if the project demands capabilities not easily provided by what is available in-house.

Technology is moving fast in other areas too: in mobile surveys, text analytics, social media research, communities and digital ethnography. It’s hard to keep abreast of the changes, though there are some good sources worth tapping. One is the Insight Show, an annual exhibition in London. Another is the Association for Survey Computing (ASC) annual conference, which will be held this year in Bristol on 22-23 September.

In the mean time, here are five tips for staying ahead of the game:

  • Get to grips with the data – know how surveys work at the data level
  • Strive to learn as much as you can about the software you use
  • Never stop looking for ways in which software can save you time
  • Get to exhibitions/conferences to learn more about how technology can help your work and your career
  • Keep an eye on what is happening in the areas of visualisation and presentation of data

Technology consultant Tim Macer is managing director of Meaning, and serves on the committee of the ASC