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As a software vendor, I am often surprised how focused buyers of market research software are on the cost of the software licence. I fully understand the desire to obtain the best price or a discount for longer term licences, but the question I am rarely asked is “how much will I need to invest in staff to leverage the power of the software?” This article then considers the cost of becoming proficient in the use of survey software and briefly looks at MRDC’s products.
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It seems that it is an unasked question, a taboo subject. Perhaps, buyers feel that they will not get an honest answer. Well, here’s my attempt to lay this topic open to debate. I see no reason for secrets, but I can understand why some suppliers might choose to keep this matter quiet!
I can’t believe that managers or business owners investing in software don’t consider the cost of training or assume that it will be negligible and can be largely ignored. There might be a tangible benefit to changing or investing in a new software system, but it is likely to cost more than the software licence unless the software system is totally intuitive. Staff training in software costs money, risks delivery (which may or may not cost money) and will usually mean a downturn in productive prior to an expected upturn in productivity or capability.
In my view, this is a stupid question. Of course, they should. The goal must be to enjoy a long-term relationship whereby the software user becomes more effective either in terms of productivity or in terms of what the company can offer (or offer more easily) – or, even better, both.
So, somewhat belatedly in this blog article, what is the purpose of this article? I think it is to help potential buyers of software consider why they are buying survey software. I would like to put into the open the training and learning issues that, in my opinion, need to be considered before changing software or buying a new system. This article is not aimed at the reasons for buying the software, although it may be a by-product of the article.
Survey software breaks down into two main types – scripted solutions and GUI/menu-driven systems. Scripted solutions mean that users will have to use a programming language to make the survey software do what it is supposed to do. By contrast, a GUI (graphical user interface) or menu-driven system will be driven by selections from menus and properties sheets with minimal keyboard input except to enter text. There are some exceptions where a software system can be used in both ways or some selections can be entered more conveniently by typing commands or some script.
There is a world of difference. In most cases, GUI/menu-driven systems are far more intuitive to use. Consequently, it is harder to make errors and a reasonable level of productivity can be gained more quickly. The biggest problems can often stem from it being difficult to find the option or detail that you want. By contrast, a scripting language will take time to learn. If the language is proprietary, there is less chance that staff will have had previous experience unless it was with another employer. It will take time to avoid making ‘silly’ errors as familiarisation with the peculiarities of using the language are learnt. In the end, though, a scripting language is likely to offer a lot of productivity gains if the software is in the right hands.
Another major consideration is the frequency of use of a software product. Different people will learn at different speeds and different people will retain knowledge at different levels. It is far more likely that an irregular user of a GUI/menu-driven system will retain enough knowledge to use a software product, say, one week in every two months. People using scripting languages usually need to be using the product every day – or, at least, most days – to become proficient. Frequency of use will impact on the cost of learning.
Another important aspect that affects the cost of learning is whether the software has a straight, regular path when it is used. I call this A to B software. For example, if someone is needing to learn a software system to specify questionnaires for online surveys, the cost of learning will be much lower if all the surveys follow a similar pattern and use the same techniques. Conversely, where requirements vary substantially, users will need to learn more tools and will not get into a routine so quickly.
This is really the opposite of the A to B issue in the last paragraph, but is worthy of a paragraph. Some systems require users to learn how to operate different parts or modules of a system. Each module may have its own peculiarities and within each module there may be a dazzling number of options that may or may not be needed. Getting used to where all these options are can take time even with the most well-designed software. Therefore, this needs consideration.
Perhaps, the question could be re-worded. How much does it matter whether someone uses the software to maximum (or close to maximum) productivity? With some systems, short cuts may shave off 5%-10% of a user’s time, which means that users can pick more efficient ways over time without costing too much. However, some users may make huge gains by learning advanced techniques which means that it makes sense to allocate time for such training and learning.
We have increasingly invested in good online training materials. By the end of 2018, we will have well around 200 training videos covering introductory sessions through to specific and complex topics. We introduced training videos four or five years ago, but have realised that there is a need for improved materials. I think that this is an important resource that should be available.
I think software suppliers should help more and advise users on where they will get most value from learning. Buyers of software rarely seem to ask for such guidance. Having training programmes in place can smooth the path. With one of our products, MRDCL, where huge productivity gains may be available to some users, looking at someone’s work after a period of time and critiquing work will usually lead to substantial productivity gains.
Here’s a quick overview of the learning that will be required for each MRDC product.
MRDCL is a scripting language which offers huge benefits by being a regular user and committing some time to learning the most efficient use of the software. It also allows you to build templates that can be used by colleagues to make big productivity gains. Unless MRDCL is being bought for a specific task or type of task, it does require some substantial investment to make the most of it.
QPSMR is a menu-drive system that benefits from mainly being an A to B product. It is generally easy to learn and the main need for more learning is when more complex tables are needed. Most new users need little help after handling one or two projects. The only exception is for those that use QPSMR for CATI. This has an additional set of tools that are not especially complex but take time to become familiar with. Some training is needed to learn how to work with different situations effectively, particularly as any downtime in CATI operation can be expensive.
Snap uses a GUI allowing the user to choose properties for each question and response. It is generally intuitive, although the large number of options means that some time is needed for familiarisation. Again, the more similar each project is the simpler it will be to learn. The more challenging part of the system is the smart reporting tools within Snap which are powerful but need some training to progress.
Communities247 is mainly intuitive. Users who are familiar with something like Facebook will generally become familiar with the interface quite quickly. Finding all the tools that are available to run an online community efficiently can usually be answered by one short online Q&A session.
I’m genuinely interested to find ways to help clients reduce the time they spend learning how to be proficient with our software. We are releasing many videos (about 100) over the course this year to make this easier, but any ideas are welcome. Just send me an email.