Phil Hearn: Blogger, Writer & Founder of MRDC Software Ltd.

Choosing the right software in market research: a software buyer’s guide (​Part 1)

As a seller of software for market research, you might think it is difficult for me to be objective in offering advice to potential buyers about what matters most in that purchase decision. You might be right, but two things have driven me to write this blog article and make me feel that I can be objective and offer some guidance.

Why I think I can be objective

Firstly, I don’t think buyers of software always consider the right things – or, at least, all the key factors to make the best decision. Secondly, I don’t have a problem admitting that our software products are not the right products for everyone. I desperately want all suitable customers to buy and use our software, but I don’t want the wrong customers using our software. Indeed, anyone who runs a business who thinks that having the wrong customers leads to a successful and profitable business is, in my view, mistaken.

Purpose of this article

The aim of this article is to help buyers of research software consider what really matters most in that purchase decision. Often, software is bought for one of the reasons I will outline, but decisions based on one consideration are as informed as my decision on which make and model of car to buy when my assessment goes no further than what looks nice, what colour would be best and whether it’s got a few gadgets.

Let’s get our software products out of the way first

Market research has grown from a sector that in the early 1990s needed only software package for data entry and tabulations. Nowadays, there are software products for all forms of data collection, tabulations, analysis, statistics, reporting, dashboards, statistics, online communities, social listening, modelling and more. Added to this, there are tools to automate some of these processes. This means that there is no one software that can meet every need. Of those that cover many of these areas, they are likely to excel in some areas and less so in others as well as being suitable to certain types of software users and not others. MRDC’s software offering is the same. Our products are ideal for some software users, but not others.

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The 14 key decision drivers

I see this blog article as a checklist of things that I think software buyers should consider. Some may not be relevant in certain cases or for certain software types, but most are relevant. I will also comment on the ones that I find are given too little consideration in my experience. So, let’s get started.

Before we start: dealing with recommendation

I’ve left recommendation out of my list of 14 things. There’s a good and a bad reason for that. Recommendation from a business associate or another company may be helpful, but it can also be a hindrance. Just to make this point clearly, an executive from one of our clients recommended our software to another company. They had had a good experience with us and wanted to recommend us as good software partners. The potential new client came to us and was not a good fit even though she was almost ready to buy. The recommendation was given in good faith, but the potential user was a quite different company with different staff and the software was, therefore, not the right product. So, for that reason, I have left recommendation off my list.

Before we start: dealing with the market leaders

Similarly, it can be tempting to buy from the market leader because of that feeling that you can’t go wrong. Market leaders are market leaders for a good reason. They might have the best product, they might be the cheapest, they might spend the most on advertising/promotion, they might be a safe option. It doesn’t mean that they are right for everyone. It just means that they suit many others or are a safe bet. This is not an attempt to knock market leaders, but merely a word of caution.


I’ll start with functionality because it is fundamental to any purchase decision. It’s also a very hard one for buyers. Most software in market research has multi-functionality. By this, I mean that it is not merely carrying out one process in one way. For example, an online data collection tool may be converting respondents’ answers from questions to a data file, which you could argue is one process, but it is achieving that by asking different types of questions with different routing, randomisation of answers etc.

How to assess functionality

As I have said, assessing functionality is difficult – it’s easy to forget something and equally easy to get bogged down in unimportant detail. Some of our clients have produced checklists of ‘must do’ items, checklists of some detailed requirements and requested brief explanations of how specific tasks are carried out. This, I believe, works well as it ensures that key functionality is achievable, whether the software starts to become ‘stretched’ with more detailed needs (or, simply can’t do some things) and brings greater understanding of how well the system works.


Price is easy to assess. If it is outside your price range, it probably doesn’t warrant further investigation. Or, does it? If the additional price brings greater productivity and it outweighs the staff cost of using software that is less productive, it makes sense to use the more expensive product. Yet, I see, for example, companies use free/cheap software for online surveys and neglect the cost of re-formatting the data or struggling with analysis later in the research process. I am frankly amazed at how some research agencies would rather save US$1000 and buy an inferior software product when a more suitable product would save multiples of that amount. Buying something cheaper clearly makes sense if it makes no difference to using a more expensive product. This might sound like a software supplier asking potential buyers to spend more, but I think it is a genuine consideration.

Look and feel

The appearance of a software package can have a big influence on a purchase decision – right down to the colour of the interface. I think ‘ease of use’ is confused with ‘appearance’. Ease of use is important, particularly if use of the software by each user is infrequent or intermittent. Software that is intuitive is much better if someone is not using the product day in day out. However, some products look appealing, but have features that are difficult to find or are organised in an illogical way. Knowing a rarely-used feature is present is all that is needed sometimes, but regularly used features should be convenient to use and find.

Let’s now move on to some of the more practical software issues that are more likely to be overlooked.

Data compatibility

As time goes on, there is an ever-increasing need to share data or use it in different software tools. It is, therefore, imperative that your data can be either imported, exported or transferred as required as easily as possible. If this becomes cumbersome or a process which is prone to human error, it might mean that you do not offer clients as much as you could or should or causes mistakes to occur which might lose clients.

Scripting vs GUI (menu-driven software)

There are two types of software available – software that is driven by scripts using a programming language and software that is driven by making selections with a mix of keyboard and mouse using a GUI (graphical user interface). There are also some hybrids, which offer both, but there are some which look like GUI software but really need scripting to get anything out of them and, conversely, some that have some scripting, but it’s just a few shortcuts.

The costs of scripting vs GUI

Scripting and GUI software each have their advantages and disadvantages. Scripting will usually bring greater productivity in skilled hands, but those skilled hands are likely to cost more in staff salaries. GUI software will generally be easier to use, need less skilled staff and be less error prone. However, when scripting brings big productivity gains, it is the right course when there is the regular throughput of work for the users.

Training for scripting vs GUI

Training can bring a hidden cost and is an important consideration when scripting software is used. I have heard of one supplier that sells its main product as ‘easy to use’ software using GUI. In practice, staff need to learn a complex scripting language which needs a minimum 3-day training programme and a lot of practice to become productive. Typically, GUI software can be used with minimal training and once one or two projects are completed, efficient work can be carried out. However, this doesn’t mean that scripting is right if there is the right volume of work or complex needs.

Your needs – fixed or uncertain

One important consideration that is often overlooked is the question of whether the projects that you are intending to use the software for are similar or different. The more flexibility you need, the more you will have to ‘overbuy’ so that the product you use can do everything you might want. If you work for a research agency that does almost identical surveys of one type, it is more likely that you can use a product that is just good enough. Of course, you don’t always know what you might want in one or two years into the future, so this point goes hand in hand with the next point.

Upgrade path

I like to encourage potential customers to consider their future needs. If they are fixed, you don’t need much of an upgrade path. If they are uncertain, there may be a need to upgrade. This may come in one of three forms:

– Buying into a superior package within the same software product (with more features/greater limits etc)

– Learning how to use more advanced features within the software product by training staff, recruiting more specialist/skilled staff

– Moving to another product that can handle the more complex needs

In the last of those cases, it is important to assess how easy it is to move to another product. Are you likely to be trapped in the current software product? This is hard to assess, but worthy of consideration as such a mistake can cost far more than a licence fee to use the software.