Manthan Services, India
Date of review: August 2012
What it does
Online platform for creating advanced dashboards based on survey which delivers to the end user an online environment for data exploration, review and collaboration.
Ease of use
Compatibility with other software
Value for money
SaaS with annual subscription based on volumes. Example cost $8,000 for up to 5 projects (approx. 5,000 cases and 250 variables) with discounts available for higher volumes.
- Very comprehensive offering
- Understands the specifics of market research data
- Focus on collaboration and knowledge sharing
- Takes care of any complex web- and database programming
- Works on IE8 and IE9 but some formatting experienced on other browsers
- Online documentation/help is fairly basic
- Set-up requires some skill
Dashboards tend to be among the most advanced and also the most treacherous of deliverables for research companies to provide. Tucked away at the end of an RFP, an innocuous-sounding request for “dashboard-style reporting for managers and team leaders across the enterprise, with drill-down capabilities for self-service problem solving” will almost certainly mean something vastly more sprawling and costly to provide than anyone imagined.
Dashboard delivery can be a trap for the unwary. Many an online dashboard has become the constantly-leaking plughole in the project budget through which profits keep draining away.
What makes them difficult to control is they are usually tackled as custom developments, built using tools developed for corporate database systems and business intelligence (BI) tools. Any custom development is both costly and unpredictable and research companies often don’t have the skills in-house to manage a software development project effectively. Worse than that, survey data is difficult to handle with these BI tools. They aren’t designed to function smoothly with monthly waves of data, with new questions added or weighting or percentages that need to add to a constant respondent base. It’s not just a matter of generating the number of records returned from a SQL query.
Manthan Services, an India-based developer, noticed the opportunity to build on the dashboard and business information systems it was providing corporate customers and developed a research-friendly package called Qi (as in “chi” or energy). An online platform for creating advanced dashboards based on survey data, Qi delivers an online environment for data exploration, review and collaboration. It is a tool for building dashboards and an environment in which end-users can then access those dashboards, share, collaborate and even, if allowed to, create their own analyses and dashboards.
It is very smart software that aims to find the middle ground between typical BI dashboard tools like SAP Crystal Dashboard Design (the new name for Xcelsius) and Tableau, where the possibilities are infinite, given enough time and money, and the fairly restrictive kinds of online dashboard creation capabilities found in some of the more up-to-date MR analysis tools. If you really want to produce any kind of dashboard, or have a client that is highly prescriptive about presentation, then you may find Qi is just not flexible enough.
On the other hand, you may be able to use the horizons as a useful limiting factor in what you do provide to your client, as it is likely to do 99 percent of what they need – just not necessarily in the first way they thought of it. For the real advantage of using this product is that you really can produce portals packed with data with relatively little effort and no programming expertise required. Furthermore, when you add new waves of data, all of their derivative reports will be updated too.
There are also built-in modules within the Qi environment to set up different kinds of dashboards or portals for certain applications. There is one for employee research, for example, and another for mystery shopping, with reporting at an individual case level. In addition, there are models provided for performance management, scorecarding and benchmarking. There is also a tool for building an organization hierarchy and this can then ensure each user is given the relevant view of the data when they log in. These can be tied to “group filters” which reflect the organization’s hierarchical structure in the actual data that get displayed.
There is an integrated alerts publisher and a user’s portals can be configured with an alerts area or tab. You then define the exceptions or thresholds where alerts should be generated. These are then recalculated for each individual user’s view of the data so they are only alerted on what is relevant to them.
There are some very elegant concepts at the heart of Qi which help to give your work shape. Everything you create is based on one of three “assets” based on data: charts, dashboards and tables. Dashboards come in a variety of shapes with placeholders for you to populate with charts or tables. There is also the concept of a “portlet,” which can house a report, an alert, a chart, favorites or messages. You can then arrange your portlets into pages or publish them on their own.
There is a reasonable though not especially exotic selection of charts – pretty much what you might find in Excel. There are, however, some nice multidimensional bubble charts.
Behind the scenes is a SQL Server database. It can be loaded with survey data using the survey metadata provided by either SPSS or Triple-S. If you want to work with other kinds of data – which is possible – you may need to get help from Manthan Services in setting up an appropriate database schema, however, and also help with the database load process.
A particular snare to be found in many RFPs asking for dashboards is the request for drill-down capabilities. There is often an assumption that deciding what to drill down to is a trivial, automatic choice. It is not – there is often more than one level of detail a user is likely to want to see when a particular KPI turns red or a trend chart shows a worrying dip. In Qi, you have two tools to satisfy this: a drill-down tool that lets the user trace the antecedents or components of any item of data and a drill-across tool which lets you move up and across in your hierarchy of reporting.
End users are provided with a lot of options out of the box to personalize their dashboards – they can create favorites, apply sticky notes, customize the view of the data, create their own portlets (if you allow this) and republish or share these with others. It can make for a highly collaborative environment both within the enterprise, and equally, between enterprise and research agency.
Overall, this is an industrial-strength platform for research companies to use to create portals and dashboard systems with a dizzying array of functionality to pick from. The documentation could be made a lot more comprehensive – it is cryptic in places and tends to gloss over some quite advanced capabilities. I also experienced some issues viewing the portals I was given access to on any browser on IE8 or IE9, though Manthan claims it works with different browsers and tablets.
Same set of tools
Max Zeller is head of the retail insights division for a large global research company in Europe. (His name has been changed at the request of his employer.) His division introduced a white-label version of Qi last year, which it presents to its customers as one of its own branded services. “Many of our clients today require online reporting,” he says. “As a global company we wanted to offer the same set of tools to all clients and also leverage on the one investment across all our companies and for most of our studies. We also wanted something that you could implement quite quickly locally, to create portals and dashboards, which did not require any programming or special skills to run it. Also we wanted a tool that both researchers and users could modify and even create their own views or dashboards for themselves.
“We looked at many different products but eventually chose one from Manthan Services. On all criteria they were on top and they understood market research, which was very important.”
Though the software is very extensive, with quite a lot to learn, he says, in practice his firm’s research and DP teams have found it well within their capabilities to deploy it. “The people in contact with the client – the project managers supported by DP staff – do the technical and setup work. You need someone in the team that champions the product who can translate the requirements of the client in terms of how the software is going to work. Then it can be more junior DP people who do the implementation, because it is all menu-driven – which gives them a new opportunity as well.”
Zeller estimates that setting up a new portal for a client demonstration, comprising 25 different charts and allowing different levels of access, can be achieved in a day or so by his local teams – a pace that was new for the company. “Before this we had to go though IT and the process was not just longer but so much more expensive. It would have taken several days to a week with what we had before. We need to be as lean, as quick and as close to the client as possible – and that’s exactly what we have here. You can give the specs from the client directly to the team – you don’t really have to translate the requirements into a technical specification and that is what saves the time and delay.”
Zeller strongly advises allowing adequate time to learn to use the software, however. “This is not something you can jump into in an hour – it does take two intensive days of training. But overall, I think the trade-off between functionality and ease of use is good. Once you are accustomed to the software it is easy and productive to use.”
He also stresses that everyone, especially those setting client expectations, must be aware that this is a packaged solution. In other words, not all client requests may be achievable. “[When speaking with clients] you need to be aware of what you can and can’t do. Even though it is very flexible, it is working to a standardized framework. There are many things you find you have not thought of first and when you try, you discover there is a way to do it. But it is not fully customizable so there are some areas you cannot change.”
However, in these cost-conscious times, some imposed limits can be an advantage, as Zeller points out: “It is very difficult for research companies to earn money from these portals if what you are doing fully customized.”
Overall, he concludes, “We are quite happy with this software – and I am working with people who have a lot of experience. We think it is a good solution.”
A version of this review first appeared in Quirk’s Market Research Review, January 2013 (p. 28)