Here’s an unpopular opinion. I don’t like Zoomerang. Why not? After all, it offers free surveys for starters and reasonable pricing for larger survey pools. It has a decent graphic appearance. It’s name sounds slightly more professional than the competition. The interface is easy to use. What’s not to like?
Zoomerang provides a pretty basic level of service in an average user interface. Creating an online survey is the perfect beginner’s programming assignment. The logic is not that difficult to program. Create an input form, save the data, and summarize it in a report. My very first web programming experience was to ask my colleague Matt Sly to create a technology survey at Gateway High School. He wrote it in Perl and saved the data to text files. I learned to modify that script, then learned to write my own. A year later, I got to know the Perl CGI library. Managing web forms and creating data persistence from page to page got a whole lot easier. This year, I started to use nested associative arrays, simplifying the temporary storage of multidimensional data. Even Zoomerang’s more sophisticated features, such as branching and “cross-tab” data filtering do not involve very complicated logic.
Zoomerang violates the new golden rule of independent school publicity: maintain brand consistency. Marketing and publicity are becoming increasingly important as our schools become more expensive, new competitor schools appear, and our quality of service continues to increase.
We want to evoke a consistent emotional response through layout, colors, photos, language, and fonts. Send your users to Zoomerang, and they are now inside Zoomerang’s marketing engine, with Zoomerang’s name, colors, user interface, and slogans. Zoomerang’s objective is to attract more users to its service. They don’t have your marketing interests in mind! We send most of our surveys to external audiences such as parents and alumni. It is critical to maintain consistent messaging and keep users within our web space when we do this.
It is critical to maintain control over the organization’s data. Store dozens of surveys at Zoomerang, and you have lost control over this data. Yes, they allow you to download Excel versions of each survey, but this is no longer in relational database format, and you have to remember to perform this manual process and regularly insert the data in your own backup set.
Then there is cost. While Zoomerang is not terribly expensive ($390/yr advertised for a single-user school license), schools cannot continue to add one annual license fee after the next and keep technology and communications budgets under control. Part of maintaining an economically sustainable technology strategy is taking services in-house when you have the capability to absorb them. Though this requires staff time, we generally come out far ahead for each service that we strategically choose to migrate in-house.
You would think that the open-source world would have come up with a gold standard for survey software, much like it has for course management, blog, and social networking. Perhaps the popularity of Zoomerang and SurveyMonkey have prevented this from happening. Perhaps other web site developers are also writing their own survey tools. Or perhaps survey tools are more often embedded within other content management systems such as Drupal and Mambo. Whatever the reason, my search found a lot of simple survey scripts, most of which only allowed for multiple-choice question formats. The one more capable (and popular) solution is PHP Surveyor. It provides multiple question types, statistical analysis, branching, and other desirable features. However, the graphic design and user interface were not to the same high standard. Since we would like to allow multiple people to administer surveys, this nixes PHP Surveyor for us.
After exhausting the commercial and free alternatives, I decided to write my own. As usual, I will be happy to share it with interested parties, though it is definitely written just for Catlin Gabel and not meant to be instantly generalizable to other contexts. Also know that I prefer to write in Perl, not PHP! I will only release it under a “share-alike” license, so that you may (and I hope will) release improved versions freely to the world but not use the code for proprietary or for-profit purposes. Here are some screen shots of work in progress.
I would love to know how you have decided to meet your survey needs, whether through commercial, open-source, or home-grown means.