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

The biggest problems with scripted cross-tabulations

There are only a handful of software programs that serve the market research and insights business so that users can produce cross-tabulations (or crosstabs as they are often called) using a powerful scripting language – Quantum, MRDCL, and Merlin are three of a small bunch, although MRDCL is the only one actively and continuously developed in recent years. Cross-tabulations are used extensively in market research to analyse one question or variable by another question, variable or set of questions.

   1. Comparing scripting and non-scripting tools

Scripted vs non-scripted

There is a distinct split between cross-tabulation packages driven by a script and those accessed by a user interface (non-scripted). They both have strengths and weaknesses, of course. And, indeed, some are better than others.

The strengths and weaknesses of scripted cross-tabulation software

Scripting languages offer two main positives: complex requirements can be programmed, and repetitive requirements can be handled efficiently without copying, pasting, or replicating steps. The problem with scripting languages is that they tend to need skilled/more expensive staff to use the software, and seemingly basic tasks such as entering question and response texts may need to be handled by overqualified staff. However, as you will discover by reading this article, MRDCL uniquely has ways to overcome many of these traditional weaknesses.

The strengths and weaknesses of non-scripted tabulation software

In most cases, the biggest benefit of non-scripted tabulation software is the ease of use. Users do not typically need a lot of training to get started, although some packages do have a lot of options that can take some time to become familiar with. They are ideal for handling many ‘standard’ market research questionnaires and most online surveys. They often become slow to use if requirements are repetitive or complex. Typically, these programs only offer one solution (or no solution) to something more challenging than straightforward tabulations, meaning that ‘smart’ solutions are generally unavailable. There is always a limit to what can be produced and compromises on output may be necessary.

   2. When MRDCL is and isn’t a good fit

Why you should not use MRDCL

We firmly believe MRDCL is the best scripted tabulation software in the world. But that doesn’t mean you should use it! There are several reasons not to use MRDCL or any scripted tabulation software.

Firstly, the users will need to be regular users, probably spending at least half of their time using this type of software at some time in their careers. They will need to be trained not just to learn the basics but to be of real value, they will need to understand a sufficient amount of the more advanced techniques. This means investment and training. If the work is straightforward, there is little reason to use over-skilled staff. Indeed, companies with only one or two complex projects per year would usually be much better served by using a more straightforward, non-scripted tabulation system and subcontracting the more complex project or ‘getting by’ with the lesser product, if possible. Another reason not to use a scripted software product is cost. MRDCL is more expensive than most non-scripted software products, but scripted software usually offers more and can save you hours or even days on some projects.

So, when is MRDCL a good fit?

MRDCL is a good fit when your company has a high volume of work where some or all of the work is either complex, requires repetitive analysis, uses big questionnaires, has large data sets, has complex data sets or, perhaps surprisingly, where you have a lot of similar projects in which many aspects of the project are almost identical. In such cases, templates can easily be built on top of MRDCL to make these easy to manage and run.

   3. Looking at EPS in more depth

Where is EPS a benefit?

In simple terms, EPS means that skilled staff spend their time doing skilled tasks, and less skilled staff can handle less skilled tasks. In other words, MRDCL addresses the age-old problem of any scripting language or programming task by giving users the ability to create templates for tasks that are complex or time-consuming to prepare. This can reduce costs, improve project management and increase staff flexibility.

Examples of where EPS is a benefit

There are numerous examples where clients have implemented systems that offer huge productivity gains using EPS. One example is storing code lists with codes in a spreadsheet denoting which sub-totals each code belongs to. MRDCL can read this and automate output, such as ranking results within each sub-total. Something that would be laborious to manage in any other scripting language. Another example is using a spreadsheet to choose which types of tables are automatically generated from a series of rating statements – for example, ranked mean score summary, top 2 box analysis, summary of each statement and responses, etc. This can all be driven by keywords, texts, codes or any other notation in an Excel spreadsheet – and, more importantly, reused from project to project. This saves lots of time and can improve productivity by 50% or more.

Why EPS is essential if you want cost-effective scripted tabulations

But, there is another real benefit. Scripts in MRDCL, Quantum or, in fact, any programming language are notoriously complex to take over when someone leaves or is on holiday. When projects are managed through an EPS template, the time it takes to take over someone else’s work is a fraction of the time it takes to take over a fully scripted project. It also means that projects can be shared between skilled and less skilled staff. Basic texts and question specifications can be carried out by junior staff, leaving the higher-paid skilled team members to focus on things that need their level of expertise. This reduces costs substantially and solves the perennial problem that users of scripted tabulation software find it hard to share projects.


   4. Organising data processing more effectively with MRDCL

The right person is doing the work

Using these EPS techniques, the right person is doing the right work. Producing cross-tabulations becomes like any other business process where the more skilled person does the parts that require his or her skill while the more straightforward functions are coordinated and put together by an assistant.

How much can you gain by using a scripting language?

If crosstab work is organised efficiently, tables can be generated far more cost-effectively than non-scripted software solutions. The mix of the right staff, using EPS and sufficient training can make a small or large team of people highly effective, provided there is a reasonable volume of work that is not just comprised of small, simple projects.

Organising your cross-tabulation work efficiently

To get the best from MRDCL, these changed work practices can mean rethinking how your data processing function operates, but the potential gains are considerable. I have always believed that less skilled staff do the more basic work better than over-skilled staff. It’s kind of human nature!

Is changing to MRDCL difficult?

Changing to MRDCL from another scripting language like Quantum is not difficult. Most users convert quickly, although there is a second phase of learning where learning the more advanced techniques is beneficial, as there can be a tendency to ‘translate’ Quantum code to MRDCL code ‘line-for-line’ rather than thinking about the most effective approach in a more flexible product like MRDCL. This can sometimes mean approaching projects differently from a less flexible scripted tabulation software like Quantum or Merlin.

There is undoubtedly a learning curve if your company has never used scripted tabulation software. Benefits will not arise immediately. You will need someone with the right skillset (isn’t that true of every job?), but you will see continual improvements in productivity as MRDCL is highly focused on productivity.

What next?

We genuinely don’t want unsuccessful MRDCL installations – we know it’s not for everyone – we have other products if MRDCL is not the right fit. If we believe MRDCL is the right fit for you, we will be pleased to present you with a clear proposal that will explain how you can be a successful user and how you can enjoy significant productivity gains and improve your data processing workflow. Contact Nikki Sunga ( for an initial consultation.