Freeing qualitative analysis from spreadsheet interfaces

spreadsheets and quirkos to visualise qualitative data

The old mantra is that a picture tells a thousand words. You’ve probably seen Hans Rosling’s talks on visualising quantitative data, or maybe even read some of Edward Tufte’s books on data visualisation. The thrust of the argument is clear: “Good displays of data help to reveal knowledge relevant to understanding mechanism, process and dynamics, cause and effect.” (Tufte 1997).

This chapter also describes the dangers of obscuring data in large amounts of text. He provides examples of the reports that were used to decide to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger on a morning that dipped below freezing, despite concerns that the rubber O-rings in the rocket booster would not function at this temperature. They failed, leading to the death of the crew.

Tufte produces a graph of temperatures at which the shuttle had been previously launched, visually showing how far below previous experienced temperatures this launch was: a vast improvement over the cold technical language presented to management. This illustrates the challenge in summarising and presenting not just quantitative statistics, but also the qualitative world of meetings, discussion and decision making.

However, why shouldn’t this apply during the analysis of qualitative data? Obviously it does, we can quickly identify visual elements like graphs, and relative size, and so word clouds and graphs are all popular export methods from qualitative software. But that analysis process, not just the end product is a very complicated cognitive process, and where it is important for researchers to see the big picture; to get an overview of how things are emerging. Visual representations here can show the researcher what is emerging from the data, and a birds-eye view of the project. The difficulty is that at the same time, there is a need to drill down, and examine the minutiae of one quote or connection.

So how can we get a graphical approach during the analysis process as well as the reporting and summaries? Generally software packages use a spreadsheet-style interface, where working with qualitative data is restricted to columns and rows, quickly collapsed into quantitative representations and overviews.
A project like ‘nineteen’ aims to go part way to address this: by making quantitative and qualitative data from spreadsheets more visual. It turns data into more graphical and colourful representations, which help users see patterns and connections in the data.

To a certain extent, this approach can be done in Excel, using Pivot tables and conditional formatting. It can really help tabulated data ‘pop’, and even simple things like colour coding for particular respondents or themes can make it much easier to find quotes and similarities in qualitative data. (Some day, I am going to have to write a blog post on using Excel for qualitative research!). However, this is actually one way in which most qualitative software is inferior to Excel, because it is very difficult to apply any sort of dynamic visualisation or colour to the data while you work with it to illuminate it in different ways.

Quirkos makes not just reports and summaries visual and engaging, but also the analysis interface itself. I think this is vital, because users need to get constant feedback during the analysis process. If a researcher is forced to generate a new graph in a new window to get a project overview, they are taken out of the flow of the process. Results must be live and interactive, and Quirkos aims to provide that as much as possible.


The same goes for search and retrieve, a separated list of results is not illuminating to the researcher, the user is presented with compartmentalised data which begins to lack context. Nearly all the other qualitative software packages have this model: a query is a process, and the results another window of data. In Quirkos, we designed a separate query view that is dynamic and interactive. Results are shown again with colour coded bubbles representing number of hits, and the quotes are integrated into the screen to connect back to the full data source. That way, you get the overview, and the context of the data together. I know that people really love the side-by-side comparison view in this screen too, because again it is about getting that context, and again in a visual way.

All the qualitative analysis software out there will let you generate reports based around graphs and visual methods to communicate qualitative data. However, only Quirkos integrates this into the analytical process, making sure you get constant feedback. For myself, and many other qualitative researchers, this is the most important (and lengthy) part of a project, and ways to help people to spot important findings in the data should be fully integrated into the workflow, not delivered as a side-step.


10 reasons to try qualitative analysis with Quirkos

10 quirkos qualitative bubbles

Quirkos is the newest qualitative research software product on the market, but what makes it different, and worth giving the one-month free trial a go? Here’s a guide to the top 10 benefits to switching to Quirkos:


1. Ease of Use
When we ask people what they like most about Quirkos, we hear one word: ‘intuitive’. We find that most people can get going after just watching a 5 minute video, since the interface is so graphical.

2. Everything is Visual
Bubbles grow as data is added. Colours help your group your themes, and clusters move bubbles together as connections emerge. Graphs show you key stats from your sources. This is not like working with a spreadsheet, Quirkos turns exploring text into an immersive process.

3. Speed of coding
Researchers spend most of their time coding sections of text, so we try and make it as quick as possible. Adding text to a theme is a simple drag and drop operation, but there are also keyboard shortcuts that can make adding text to multiple themes a breeze (or a whirlwind!).

4. Visual exploration
Of course Quirkos has great tools to explore your data once it is coded. But they are all based around visual feedback, giving you an instinctive feel for emerging findings. For example, side-by-side comparisons let you see how different groups of participants are responding.

5. Custom reports
Your work is not useful unless you can share the results. Our reports are very customisable, letting you choose which sections and detail to show, and naturally are full of graphical ways to represent your text data.

6. Connect with other applications
Researchers need to be flexible in how they work, which is why Quirkos supports bringing text in from all kinds of software like Word, PDFs and on-line survey platforms. But it also lets you get data out as well, to explore further in Excel, SPSS or even back to Word.

7. Free training and support
All our support options are available on-line with no subscription or fee. This includes detailed manuals, one-minute video guides, and interactive tutorials, as well as example projects to experiment with. Save time and money in training with software you can teach yourself. If you get stuck, e-mail or Skype the developers directly: qualitative researchers who are there to make your research go smoothly.

8. Cross-platform with no bumps
Work on Windows, Mac or Linux with an identical interface and features everywhere. You can save work on one system and keep going on another with no issues.

9. Cheap as chips
We think we are the cheapest qualitative software around, especially for our student licence. Also, our licences don’t expire, so you can keep working on your data for year after year.

10. Try for free
Our free trial is exactly the same as the full version, and gives you a month to try before you buy. If you like working with Quirkos, you can just buy and enter the licence code, and away you go.

We are proud of our software, which is why we always like people to try before they buy, and see the benefits for themselves. Download the free trial from here, and make your qualitative analysis a less stressful process!


Fracturing and choice in qualitative analysis software

broken glass CC by Jef Poskanzer


Fundamental to the belief behind starting Quirkos was a feeling that qualitative research has great value to society, but should be made accessible to more people. One of the problems that we frequently saw with this was the difficulty that qualitative researchers had in choosing and using qualitative analysis software. Choice is great, but social scientists have to choose between many different software packages, and IT departments have to provide installations and technical support for the systems that different users want.

This month the market leader QSR International will release a new version of their Nvivo software for Windows, with a very different model – it will be split into three different versions, ‘Starter’, ‘Pro’ and ‘Plus’. Each version has a different features enabled or disabled, and will be offered at a different price point. This seems potentially laudable, for example introducing a new basic version that is (hopefully) cheaper, should allow more people access to this well-known qualitative software.

However, it also seems to greatly complicate the position for users, systems administrators and educators, who now have to deal with no less than five different versions of Nvivo! In addition to the Starter, Pro and Plus for Windows, there is a separate version for Mac (with different capabilities, interface and file format), as well as the server based Nvivo for Teams. It raises many difficult questions: Where should new users start? What versions should institutions and IT departments purchase and support? How can those offering training provide sessions that will be useful to all these disparate users?

At the same time, I understand that the new Windows versions have had all the icons redesigned, breaking continuity for existing users, and instantly making textbooks and teaching materials obsolete (yet again: I remember the complaints about the new layout when the last-but-one version of Nvivo came out). Of course guides always need to be updated to take account of new features, but changing the icons means that materials covering even basic functions will need to be reworked, or will become confusing.

Obviously I am discussing a competitor’s project here, but one that I find useful, and have personally used many times in different research projects. I can’t help the feeling that the additional fracturing of the Nvivo user-base will further complicate the situation for end users, especially those in large organisations. These may or may not upgrade to the latest version, and I know there is always a few years of grief trying to work with other teams who have a different and incompatible version, as well as finding training for the version you are working with.  But in addition, it may not always be clear for students what version their department has access to (or that they can take home), and so which features will be available to them.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way, MAXQDA for example manages to provide the same software for Windows and Mac, with the same interface and compatible files. Yes, they also have options for a ‘pro’ and ‘free’ read-only version, but I feel the differentials are much clearer, and from a IT and support point of view, rollout is much simpler.

Quirkos continues to have just one version of the software, offering all the same features to everyone. It also has exactly the same capabilities and interface on all platforms, Windows, Mac and Linux, and uses files that are an open standard, and immediately compatible across all operating systems. We also make our updates free, to help everyone to work on the same version of the software, and don’t break compatibility with older versions! We think that this is the best way to develop and release software, and will continue to do so – none of our users will be seen as poor-cousins.


Levels: 3-dimensional node and topic grouping in Quirkos

levels and groups in Quirkos


One of the biggest features enabled in the latest release of Quirkos are 'levels', a new way to group and sort your Quirks thematically. While this was always an option in previous versions, they are now fully integrated into the search and query views, making them much more useful. However, this is a tricky thing to describe conceptually, so this post will give a few use-case scenarios.


In Quirkos, the topics or themes that you code to (called nodes in Nvivo) are represented as bubbles. These can be moved around the canvas to be grouped by location, given similar colours, or arranged alphabetically or by size. However, they can also be grouped into topics with sub categories, by dragging a bubble onto another one. This creates a parent-child relationship where the parent category, say 'Drinks' can have any number of sub-categories, such as Juice, Tea, Water etc. It is also possible to have sub-sub categories (grandchildren), so in this example, you might have types of Juice such as Orange, Apple and Cranberry.


So far so good – this allows you to quickly see the quotes you assigned to all types of Drinks, or just the Juices using the Hierarchy view. However, this parent-child grouping has a limitation, in that a sub category, say Orange Juice, cannot belong to more than one parent. So we can't describe Orange Juice as being a type of Drink, as well as a form of Fruit.


This is where the 'level' function comes in. A Quirk can belong to any number of levels, which can contain any number of Quirks. So if you created a level called Fruit, by right clicking on any Quirk, selecting the Quirk Properties, you will see all the levels defined in the project, and the Quirk can belong to any number of them. So Orange Juice can belong to a level called 'Fruit', along with Apples, and Oranges, while also being defined as a sub-category of Drink. Alternatively, you could have a level for Drink, and describe some Quirks as being a Drink as well as a Fruit.


The other way that the levels can be helpful is when working on a large project that might have multiple outputs. If you are working on a PhD thesis, or a long report, you might have chapters that only cover certain themes. With the levels function, you can define Quirks that will be relevant to a particular chapter or topic, and see results or reports for just that level. This way, if you are writing about nutrition, the Orange Juice theme can belong to the chapter for Drink and for Fruit, and you will see relevant quotes for each chapter.


To work with levels, just right or long click on any Quirk, and select the Quirk properties. In this box you will see a button for 'Levels Editor', this can be used to define, change or remove levels in the project. Click Save once you are done. Once some levels have been created, you can use the slide toggles shown above in the Quirk Properties dialogue to assign that Quirk to any number of levels. You will obviously need to go though and do this for all the Quirks in the project you want to put into a level.


the levels assignment in quirk properties


Once you have done this, you can choose the corresponding level as a filter option in the Query view (LV) or in the search results, to generate reports or see text search results from text coded in one or more levels.


Everyone likes to work with their themes or nodes differently, and now we have many more ways to group and sort them. You can arrange them physically around the canvas, give them meaningful colours, create a grouped stack with sub-category relationships, and also group them by 'level' like an overlapping Venn diagram.


We are going to improve the ways you can work with levels in the future, including visualisations of levels on the canvas, but we want your feedback for the best way you would like to see this! Should Quirks belonging to a level get a certain colour halo, or be shown in a literal 3D level view like levels in a building? Should the canvas rearrange on command to group all Quirks belonging to certain levels together? Is the term 'levels' the right one to use in this situation? The more people are using Quirkos, the more different ways people are working with it, and we want to choose the best and most flexible ideas, so let us know!