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When it comes to choosing the right crosstab software, there are an enormous number of choices. Do you choose Quantum, MRDCL, Merlin, mTAB, Wincross , QPSMR, Snap, SPSS or one of 100 or more other solutions? There's even products like Microsoft Excel that can produce crosstabs. The answer will be probably lie in one or more of the four key questions:
Before answering these four questions, the first thing to look at is the type of software you want. You may have a preference, but it is important to understand the differences in each type of software. The software used for crosstabs splits into two types – software that is driven by scripting and software that uses a graphical user interface (GUI) and/or a menu-driven system. There are also several products that fit into the ‘hybrid’ category where they, typically, have a GUI/menu-driven interface, but have some extended capability to use script.
Scripted tabulation software means that tables are produced by entering some program code usually via an editor which must be specified using a syntax that the program can read or interpret. The program may have some menus to execute runs or to export data, but the tables are derived entirely or principally by a script. Such software requires users to understand the language to a sufficient level to produce the tables they need, but it will usually contain features to provide short cuts. Examples of scripted tabulation software are MRDCL, Quantum and Merlin. There are relatively few software packages of this type.
GUI/menu-drive software requires the user to make menu selections or an interface (usually a mouse) to specify tables. A keyboard would be used to enter text (such as question texts), but there are few or no ‘commands’ that can be entered which carry out functions. Such software usually requires much less training and, if well designed, should be intuitive for most tasks. Such systems may lack features and tend to be less complete in terms of features than scripted tabulation software. Repetitive or complex tasks are more likely to be laborious or impossible to achieve. Examples of GUI/menu-driven tabulation software are QPSMR, SurveySystem, mTab, Snap, Wincross and many many more.
Hybrid tabulation software usually has a GUI/menu-driven way of using the software that most users will probably use, but there will be some extended features so that a scripting language can be used. SPSS is a good example of this. Although it is, in my opinion, not a good tool for producing crosstabs, it does give access to a scripting language. Even Microsoft Excel can produce crosstabs and offers more power if Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) is used. These programs though tend to have limitations, although there may be faster ways of doing things using script, the functionality may be limited – in the case of Microsoft Excel, it is very limited compared to MRDCL or Quantum. QPSMR does have some access to extended facilities but their use is difficult and limited. Fortunately, QPSMR can drive out MRDCL script for users who want more power and functionality.
So, let’s get back to the four key questions cited at the beginning of this article. It’s unlikely that none of these questions are important to you. Which ones are important will depend on your goals. Let’s look at each in turn.
Some people producing crosstabs will want to produce large volumes of tables, which may be simple or complex; others may want to browse their data, producing, perhaps, one or two tables at a time, then drilling down to using filters to explore the data in more depth. Market research questionnaires tend to have many questions, which can mean a large volume of tables are required. Other data sets may have thousands or millions of records, but few questions or fields. In the latter case, having an interactive tool to browse data will be of greater benefit. If you are producing a large volume of tables for many projects, a scripting tool is likely to reduce production costs.
Scripting languages and the script within hybrid systems need trained staff. Not only do such staff need to be trained, they need to be regular users spending a reasonable proportion of their time using the software. GUI/menu-driven systems are better for occasional users, less skilled staff and projects that are relatively straightforward. To become highly skilled and make the most benefit of advanced scripting languages like MRDCL will take some time to achieve. The results though can mean that projects such as tracking studies can be completed in a fraction of the time that a GUI/menu-driven system might achieve in most cases.
This sounds obvious, but it’s an easy mistake to make. The more advanced systems such as MRDCL will allow you to produce, within reason, any crosstab you might want. You could even build your own functions to calculate your own statistical test if you wished. However, the functionality of some of the menu-driven systems will vary from highly featured to poorly featured. It’s best to build a check list of all the things you might want, so that you can check the features are available in the software you are thinking of buying. If you need significance tests and the software can’t produce them, it is not the right tool! Here’s some examples of features you may want:
If you just want your crosstab software to produce crosstabs, then you are fine. However, how does it need to fit into your other processes? Some of the things you might consider are:
These sorts of questions are important and should shape your decision. In my opinion, software providers should be willing to provide clear answers to all these questions. If they don’t, you should be suspicious.
If you are choosing crosstab software, only you can make the right decision. However, I hope that this guide gives you some ideas about the important things that you should consider. Whilst I passionately believe that MRDCL is the best crosstab software in the world, it is not the right solution for everyone. As vendors of three tabulation systems, I feel that the right choice varies from customer to customer. Our pledge is that we will try to sell the right solution for you – because we can.
If you need help choosing the right crosstab for you or your company, please talk to me now. I can help you to choose the product that will suit you best and fits your budget.