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

What types of software are used for CATI surveys?

The CATI (or Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing) market has clearly shrunk in recent years with the advent of cheaper and faster online surveys. Telephone surveys of the past are often now conducted online. There are few new products in the CATI software market, but the way CATI is being used is changing. However, CATI is still a compelling method of market research in many circumstances and has not disappeared as some predicted.

What this article will cover

In this article, I will be exploring the effect of fewer research projects being conducted by telephone on the CATI software market. I will also be covering some of the key issues to consider when looking to buy CATI software and how that is changing as CATI, in most companies, becomes a less significant percentage of research turnover. At the end, I will be disclosing MRDC’s position, including its strengths and weaknesses in the CATI market.

Real CATI software vs fake CATI software

Let’s start by dealing with fake CATI software. I have heard of perfectly good suppliers of online survey software (CAWI) claiming that their software works fine for telephone surveys. Well, ‘yes’, in theory, but ‘no’ in practice. A telephone interviewer can sit with a headset asking questions that are part of an online survey, but that leaves a lot of holes which genuine CATI survey does not have. Here are a few reasons:

  1. Managing callbacks – This soon becomes impossible if callbacks to unanswered numbers or requests to call at another time are stored in a spreadsheet or, worse still, on a notepad. This needs to be software controlled.
  2. Interrupted interviews – It is not uncommon for respondents to request that a survey is completed later. The software needs to know when to call someone back and at what question to resume.
  3. CATI operations of any size, by which I mean three or more, need to be managed by a supervisor who can monitor workflow and deal with any problems.
  4. Autodialling – Numbers can be automatically dialled saving time and reducing errors.
  5. Sample Management – The whole sample management process should be managed by the CATI system. Adding sample or changing sample should be simple and removing unobtainable contacts should be automatic.

Of course, I should add that any software system claiming to be a CATI software product should be able to handle all the above basic functions. To be fair, most do!

Scripting vs GUI

Like the tabulations, CAPI and online survey markets, there are two ways to prepare CATI questionnaires. Software packages in the CATI market tend to break down into scripting and graphical user interface (GUI) systems, sometimes called menu-driven software. By scripting, I mean software that is driven by a scripting or programming language. There are a few hybrids, but most products focus on one market or the other. There is a change in this area. Whilst scripting can offer more speed in questionnaire development, the software users need to be significantly more skilled. As CATI surveys diminish to small amounts in some companies, this means having skilled staff available for scripting becomes more problematic and, more importantly, an increasing overhead. This is forcing a change.

Mixed mode

I was tempted to title this section as ‘Real mixed mode vs. fake mixed mode’ as this can be a hidden or disguised problem for CATI users. Full mixed mode, to me at least, means that you can conduct the survey by any combination of online (CAWI), by telephone (CATI), by interviewers on paper (PAPI) or on tablets/similar devices (CAPI). But – and this is the big but – real mixed mode means that the data will be synchronised and be available in the same form without any recoding.

Is Mixed mode needed?

Whether mixed mode is a necessity, desirable or of no importance will vary company to company, but it is an important consideration. Where there are hard to reach respondents, it may necessary to top up online survey interviews with some CAPI interviews, for example. To be fair, it is less common to need CAWI and CATI data to be collected for the same project, but it is nonetheless important.

Networked vs Online

There are two ways of collecting and storing CATI surveys and their associated data. These are online or on a networked server that each interviewer is connected to. The difference might seem unimportant, but most CATI software connects to the central data collection point for each question that is asked. If the connection is slow, a telephone interviewer will experience problems as pauses in online interviewers do not sound good to the respondent and may risk the respondent refusing to participate. Online connections need to be reliable and fast if they are used.

Network hardware costs

An important cost of any network CATI solution is the actual hardware costs. A server that is powerful needs to be in place that can serve the number of interviewers and the consequent traffic efficiently. It’s the same point in practice as the ‘Networked vs Online’ question. As CATI operations shrink in some cases, software that is ‘network heavy’ becomes less attractive as expensive hardware is needed when compared to the volume of data being collected. This can increase the unit cost of each interview significantly if the software used is not ‘network light’.

The staff using CATI software

Staffing costs are an important consideration. Easy to use software can be used by staff paid significantly less than scripted or using overly technical solutions. Training courses to learn how to use the software can range from half a day to two weeks or more. A wrong purchase decision for a technical or scripted product could be an expensive mistake.

Where does MRDC’s software stand?

So, let’s measure the software MRDC offers. For CATI, we offer QPSMR CATI. Here’s my opinion of where we stand. Yes, I might be biased, but I’ve tried to be totally honest.

Real CATI software vs fake CATI software – It’s real! 100%. It has proper tools to manage sample, quotas, interviewers, call management and dialling.

Scripting vs GUI – Almost entirely GUI – the exception is the specification of complex definitions for such things as routing instructions where you can use the GUI or you can use a scripting language that is fairly easy to learn. However, many users only use the menu driven system to prepare their surveys. We think this reduces errors and makes survey preparation and management easier.

Mixed mode – We don’t score 100% here. QPSMR CATI can handle paper, CAPI and telephone surveys (CATI), but does not have a CAWI add on. Whilst CATI and CAWI is rarely needed side by side, this is a missing piece. Surveys in QPSMR can be easily moved to Snap, the online software package that we offer. Snap has good tools for paper, CAPI and CAWI and can also manage different data sources well, but MRDC’s software is not 100% mixed mode. Having said that, few products are.

Networked vs online – QPSMR CATI uses networked computers for project and data management. However, there is one huge advantage of QPSMR CATI. Its unique design means that interviewers only connect to the central server at the beginning and at the end of an interviewer. This reduces traffic hugely and means that far lower hardware specifications are satisfactory, thus reducing costs. This is a significant cost saving in most cases.

Network hardware costs – Arguably, unmatched!

Staff using the software – QPSMR CATI is easy to use. Little training is needed, particularly for users who are familiar with questionnaires. MRDC supplies around 50 videos to help users to learn how to use the basics of the system as well as dealing with more complex and specific questionnaire constructs.

What’s the future for CATI in market research?

CATI is likely to remain an important tool, although it will never reach the levels of usage in the 1990s and into this millennium. The reduced, though significant, volume of work means that many companies are seeking simpler, more cost-effective solutions to avoid the overheads of having expensive hardware and over-qualified staff. There are few new players in the CATI software market; most developments have come in the CAWI online market and that is unlikely to change. However, we feel that MRDC’s QPSMR CATI offering is a solid choice in most cases.

For more information about QPSMR CATI, contact Nikki Sunga on