14 November 2006
Reviewed by Felix Grant
NCSS is first and foremost an interactive exploratory environment, so the obvious starting points for review of release 2007 are its newly refurbished interactive user interface and the macro system.
The most obvious manifestation is the Quick Launch Window, an optional pallette of buttons giving instant one-click access to anything the system can do - and to documentation sections too. The buttons are grouped into logical panels, carry a well-designed and rapidly-internalised system of icons. Running the mouse cursor over the buttons brings up instant textual explanation in an ample panel on the right of the window.
More pervasive is the ergonomic redesign at individual procedure level, improving the intuitiveness of input navigation. Options are grouped in similar ways to the Quick Launch Window, with intelligent use of cosmetic devices (lines, boxes, tabbing, short titles, and so on), to provide rapid psychoperceptual cues. The textual expansion panel is still there on the right, as the cursor passes over options within the window, and a tool button bar (including a user configurable group) at the top of each procedure panel accesses common actions.
Backing up these specifics is another across the board pallette for selecting component colours within output graphics. A full 32-bit colour range has now arrived, and this selection system for utilising it is probably the best design I’ve encountered anywhere.
Point and click is ideal for immersive exploration, but becomes wearisome in repetition, so the tokenised macro system is a welcome extension for batch operations. A recorder provides the ease of use provided by third party Window macro utilities with none of the delays or debugging, and the result is a concise, editable command script that can be run directly from a command line, shortcut, intranet HTML page, etc, or assigned to buttons. Direct scripting offers greater control, offering, for instance, looping and assignable variables. Although there are fewer than 50 commands, control is rich and responsive.
A group of first year medical students, not familiar with the product and not particularly happy with statistics, completed an assignment through the GUI without anxiety. Illustrating a lecture with examples accessed from clickable links to directly run NCSS macros also worked well.
Moving beneath the surface, there is a range of new analytic capability. Double dendrograms (with simultaneous display for both cases and variables, linked to a colour code join matrix) join the clustering methods, and are well used in genetics companion GESS, while angular and cyclic data plotting (tested with impressive success on directional cratering) is well implemented. Serially correlation correction extends both usefulness and sophistication of multiple regression in many scientific areas using sequential data, and provision for nondetect handling does the same for marginal measurement situations. Flexible database merging adds administrative flexibility. The data simulator is a useful model explorer, with a variety of distributions on call.
This is a well designed and very worthwhile upgrade. Interface changes are always bones of contention, but existing users should find little disruption and immediate benefit. Non-users seeking a powerful but accessible interactive analysis environment have strong new reasons to consider this one.
Illustration shows NCCS open with menu, toolbar and edges of worksheet showing at top and left. The new Quick Launch Window is open in the left half of the image. Overlaid at right are the new colour picker (top) and Data Simulator (bottom).