I’m always on the lookout for new apps or tools to help with work and I’m always more trusting of the ones that are recommended by another freelancer or researcher that’s used them.
To pay it forward, I thought it might be useful to tell you about some of the apps I’ve used in running Pearson Insight over the last few years.
These are all things (bar one) that I use now or have used in the past and got on well with.
For each category, I’ve listed a free option and a paid option, or a paid tool with a free version.
Free tools are a big help in the early days of running a business or when budgets are tight and there are few in this list that I still use today.
But I’ve found that, particularly for the nitty-gritty of research, paid software is worth the investment. The extra features and time they save you mean they pay for themselves over time.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of apps every freelance researcher should have. Not every app will be relevant to you. But the ones that are will hopefully make you a bit more productive.
Teams is ideal for chatting,
meeting and collaborating in real-time. It’s
all the good bits about working in an office without the politics and smells
from Trevor’s egg sandwiches.
If there are multiple people I need to be in contact with during a project, having everyone together on Teams makes it much easier to keep on top of work.
I use Loom for recording updates and demos and presenting reports. It’s good because it lets you show and tell the client rather than just telling them in an email.
With Loom, I can mark up my screen to highlight bits of a report or surveys and add links to files. The client can also comment directly on the video. It saves on back-and-forth emailing and unnecessary meetings.
The basic version is free but you’re restricted to five-minute videos. The business version is $8 a month (which works out around £6 a month) and comes with all the bells and whistles.
If I’m not using Teams, I use Slack. It’s essentially the same thing. Both let you set up channels to organise work. Both have loads of integrations. Both let you have audio and video meetings.
As Teams is more commonly used in the public sector, I use that more, but you can choose either and be happy.
It’s worth noting that the free version of Slack limits you to 10,000 messages and 10 integrations, but that’s more than enough for most people.
I use Calendly for scheduling interviews and meetings with clients and anyone I need to chat to on their behalf. Like Loom, it’s helped cut down on emailing. It also stops meeting arrangements getting lost in email threads.
You tell Calendly your availability, pop a link in your emails or embed it on your website and it takes care of the rest. People pick a time that suits them and you both get reminders of when you’re due to chat.
I use the premium version ($8 a month/around £6 a month) so I can schedule catch-ups, group calls and longer meetings. But if all you need to do is get calls in the diary, the free version should offer everything you need.
Most of my online meetings are done through Zoom, where it’s a bit rude for me to have my head down scribbling notes while chatting to someone. So I use Otter to sync cloud recordings and have meetings automatically transcribed after they finish.
It’s not always accurate (I don’t think it’s a fan of northern accents), but it’s close enough and you can easily edit any words or phrases it gets wrong.
If it’s something you’re only likely to use sparingly, I’d recommend giving the free version a go. It lets you transcribe up to 600 minutes of audio a month, with up to 40 minutes of transcription for each recording.
If your days are one Zoom meeting after another, the paid version is worth every penny of the $13 a month (around £9.50 a month).
If you’d rather not pay for dictation, both Word Online and Google Docs have a dictation feature that types as you talk into your mic. I haven’t personally used it, but I hear it works quite well.
What you want from a form
builder is simplicity, security, custom design and good data export. Google
Forms offers all of this. This is the one recommended app in this list that
I’ve never really used, but clients and fellow freelancers that have say it does
You get unlimited questions and responses, skip logic and the option for adding in photos and videos. It syncs automatically with Google Sheets as well.
If you’re happy to work with your data in a spreadsheet, it’s a no brainer when budgets are tight.
Alchemer (formerly SurveyGizmo)
This is what I pay to use at the moment. It’s not cheap. Especially if you want ‘Full Access’ like me.
But you do get a lot for your money. The advanced layout and survey design features are a massive help if you’re running large scale, complex surveys. There’s a clever data cleaning tool which flags dodgy responses and you can build fancy live reports which is a nice touch. From these reports you can filter responses, set up different segments and even benchmark data across multiple surveys.
Before I switched to Alchemer, I used Qualtrics. I’d say Qualtrics takes some beating, but you better get saving. It’s good, and they know it. Survey design and UX is easy on the eye, and it doesn’t come up short at the analysis stage either. Good luck finding a price online.
PSPP is an open-source alternative to a paid tool that I use called SPSS. It’s not the most user-friendly of things and you can tell by its Windows 95-inspired interface that it’s not bothered about looks, but you get used to it.
With a bit of help from user documentation, you’ll be able to cut up data to identify common themes and generally make sense of everything.
If you’ve got Microsoft Office, then Excel is more likely the go-to option. If not, Google Sheets lets you run lookups, create pivot tables and restructure data as you would in Excel without needing to pay a penny.
I use BatchGeo for quick data mapping when I’m looking at geographical data. It lets you import your data, validate it and turn it into pin maps with postcodes, addresses and hot spots. It always seems to make everything a bit clearer and easier to understand.
I make do with the free version of BatchGeo but that comes with a limit on the size of the data you can work with. If you want more, there are paid-for levels.
Swap the S’s for P’s and the P for an S and you get IBM's paid alternative to PSPP. SPSS is what I use to analyse data. There’s a bit more to it and you can bolt-on user friendly modules like Custom Tables which saves me a lot of time.
There’s a free 14-day trial to see how you get on with it. If you decide it’s for you, you can go direct to IBM or do what I did and try a third party partner like Crayon.
If you’re writing up reports and don’t want to use/buy Microsoft Word, Google Docs is the next best thing. It lets you share documents with clients directly and collaborate in real-time. You can export documents in Word format as well, which is useful if your client uses Microsoft Office.
As it happens, I have Word which
works for my clients in the public sector.
If you want to get a bit fancier with simple, visual reports, Canva is an easy-to-use free tool to knock up infographics and create PDFs. Everything is drag-and-drop and elements can easily be positioned and resized on the page. It lacks some of the functionality of the paid tools, but if you’ve got a good eye for design, it has enough features to create professional-looking reports.
I love Infogram for putting together research reports. It blows Canva out the water for me. I’m no designer, but I can easily pull off fancy looking reports by dragging and dropping in graphs and charts, and it’s great when you view it online. The charts are interactive so the reader can cut the data up in different ways and look for patterns and stories in the data you’re presenting. If it all sounds a bit overwhelming, there are dozens of templates that you can put your company branding on as well, which saves a lot of time and effort.
There’s a free version of Infogram which is a good way to try it out. But if you’re going to be creating full client reports, you’ll want to invest in one of the paid levels (I’ve found the Business version is the right level for me).
These are next level investments for visualising your data. You can build ‘proper’ dashboards and present dense information clearly.
If you’re paying for Infogram,
you can give your reports a bit of a dashboard feel. But don’t be fooled, they
won’t be anywhere near the level that can be achieved through something like
Power BI or Tableau. I don’t use either myself, so don’t ask me how much
they’re going to set you back.
The apps and software I use outside of research work that are important to my business.
I send out my monthly newsletter through Mailchimp. I chose it because it was the most popular option at the time but I’ve never felt the need to use anything else. It does the job.
Mailchimp is free for one audience of up to 2,000 contacts, which should be suitable for most people starting out. From there, it’s £9.99 a month which gives you three audiences and up to 50,000 contacts.
I don’t think I’ll need to worry about paying for it anytime soon.
If you ever work from a coffee shop, library or train station and access public WiFi, use a VPN. While the chances are you’ll be fine, there’s always a risk of someone spying on your work. If you’re working with client data, it’s not a risk you can take.
I use NordVPN, which is fast, easy to use and protects all of my devices. The £8.84 a month cost is a small price to pay for peace of mind. But it’s worth keeping an eye out for special offers. There always seems to be deals on yearly plans.
With all of the online software I use, PearsonInsight123 as a blanket password isn’t going to cut it. I use 1Password to generate and save secure passwords. I got it on recommendation from Dave Smyth in his post on the importance of passwords, which I recommend you read. For $2.99 a month, it’s well worth the investment.
Of all the apps I’ve used since starting my business, none have saved me as much time as accounting software.
There are loads to choose from, but I use FreeAgent, which Martin my accountant kindly throws in with his fee (probably in the hope I use it). It syncs up to my bank and HMRC accounts and runs like clockwork, updating transactions, keeping me up to date with tax return deadlines and generating returns. It keeps my invoices and expenses in one place, so I know what’s coming in, what’s going out and what’s long overdue.
FreeAgent starts at £9.50 a month for sole traders and £14.50 a month for limited companies, but you can get it free if you have a Natwest, RBS or Ulster Bank business account.
There’s a nod to a new app, tool or handy bit of software I’ve been using in my monthly newsletter.
There’s also freelancing and research rambles and links to interesting stuff. If you’ve enjoyed this post, you might like it.
And if you want some more apps for running a business, check out this post on Work Notes.