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

Market Research Software – Scripting vs GUI

There’s an unspoken argument in the world of market research software. Which is better? Software driven by commands, usually called scripting, or software used by simpler, menu-driven systems, often referred to as GUI (pronounced goo-ey) software, which stands for graphical user interface.

Which is better?

I’ve seen experienced and successful users of scripting languages, dare I say it, look down on their less skilled GUI friends. I’ve seen experienced and successful users of GUI software wonder why their scripting friends make everything so complicated. So, who’s right? Well, I’ve said this in blog articles before – it depends. Is that just a feeble attempt by someone who sells software to scripting users and GUI users to sit on the fence? No, it’s a matter of what’s right for you and an important choice. So, let’s look at the key differences and later come back to looking at hybrids, which are, as you might expect, a bit of each.

Things to consider when comparing

Scripting in market research software is used in a variety of applications. This dates back a long way for producing tabulations and specifying CATI/CAPI surveys, but, more recently, online survey specifications and automated reporting use scripting in some software systems. It’s not a surprise that scripting is generally more complicated than using a GUI; it’s also no surprise that it probably needs more skilled staff, but let’s dig a little deeper.

  a) Errors/changes

As scripting is more skilled, it is usually easier to make errors – typos, logic errors, ‘bug-type’ flaws. Many people working as scriptwriters tend to underestimate the time they spend debugging and correcting script errors. Sometimes, mistakes can be challenging or difficult to see, although experienced users usually become proficient in identifying ways to debug their scripts. With a GUI, it’s generally harder to make an error and also easier to spot mistakes before the input is used. However, undoing an error and making changes tend to be a lot slower for GUI users.

  b) Speed

Scripting usually means that there are shortcuts available that a GUI system may not have. Market research questionnaires can be repetitive, using techniques such as rating scales or the same questions for a block of questions about different products. Scripting will usually give users more shortcuts and make project specifications quicker. Similarly, you might want to apply the same rules or controls to several questions or tables; this can usually be achieved more quickly using a scripting language.

  c) Training

It’s obvious – the training needed to use a scripting language is greater than that of a GUI software package. Often, a GUI package can be learnt using common sense or by watching some training videos; training is likely to be more time-consuming with a scripting language. Training takes time, costs money, and can make staff difficult to replace or supplement in busy periods. However, I have seen GUI software that is easy to use and has easy-to-find options and others that have options that are difficult to find, cluttered or poorly organised.

  d) Volume of work

If you have a high and regular amount of work, a scripting language used by a team may be beneficial. However, tasks like questionnaire creation, data processing, data analysis and reporting may be spread across several people or be infrequent. In such cases, a GUI solution might be better. To be productive, you would expect scriptwriters to use the software frequently. Scripting often wins for high volumes of throughput unless the requirements are simple.

  e) Complexity

The complexity of the work that needs to be handled may be a determining factor. Suppose you only handle small, straightforward projects, regardless of the volume. In that case, using a powerful scripting language that needs highly skilled staff may be less beneficial. The more complex projects are, the more benefit that will be gained from a scripting language.

  f) Using scripting and GUI

Some companies sensibly grade their work, such that complex projects are handled by scriptwriters, with more straightforward projects dealt with in a simpler system requiring less skill. This seems a good business decision where there are sufficient projects to justify the cost of buying two software systems. Our QPSMR and MRDCL products are compatible, so you can easily switch from one to the other. Also, some customers split parts of a big project between different staff, some using QPSMR and some using MRDCL. Indeed, MRDCL itself has a technique called EPS [LINK], which allows complex tasks to be simplified in templates that less experienced users can prepare.

  g) Cost (software and staff)

Generally, scripting software is more expensive than GUI software. It’s not always true, but the difference can be significant, particularly in the online research market. Training and staff costs will also be higher with scripting languages. You must also consider whether you will have overqualified staff handling simple projects in a scripting language – a potential profit leak.

Back to those hybrids!

There is a growing third category, which is the hybrids. This means you can use the software via a GUI or typing commands. However, just to complicate things, there are two types of hybrids. Some have commands available, but all or many of the same things can be achieved through menu selections. This appears to give you flexibility, but more often than not, it means there are just two types of users. Secondly, some software systems are part-scripted and part-GUI with all or most of the different functions in one module of the software or the other. You might call these ‘Split Hybrids’.

MRDC Software’s Split Hybrids

Although traditionally, MRDC has separated GUI from scripting (QPSMR is a GUI system for tabulations, and MRDCL is scripting), our own software is evolving in two ways. Firstly, our powerful scripting language for tabulations, MRDCL, has a relatively new module (MRDCL Central), allowing you to set up automation processes through a friendly interface. It’s separate from the core scripting language and, therefore, can be considered a Split Hybrid.

Extendable Hybrids

MRDC has created a third type of hybrid, which is somewhat different from other hybrids. Our distributable secondary analysis tool, Resolve Premium, is unusual. Although the free Resolve version is entirely GUI-driven, the Premium version is what we call an Extendable Hybrid. What does this mean? It means it is a GUI product for users, but skilled scripters can build add-ins with custom menus for GUI users to use. These add-ins offer huge power to deal with laborious or complex tasks. MRDC supplies a bunch of add-ins free of charge to Premium users, but it extends Resolve to be capable of the most complex analysis.

The right business decision

Well, there’s a lot to weigh up. A previous blog article, “How much does market research software cost?” discusses some of these issues. What is right for you will depend on what you are trying to do or need to achieve. I’ve worked advising software users for many years, and I am always ready to help.