Teaching qualitative analysis software with Quirkos

students learning quirkos on a laptop

 

When people first see Quirkos, we often hear them say “My students would love this!” The easy learning curve, the visual feedback and the ability to work on Windows or Mac appeal to students starting out in qualitative analysis. We have an increasing number of universities across the world using Quirkos to teach CAQDAS at both undergraduate and post graduate levels. I just wanted to give a quick overview of why this can be such a good solution for students and educators:

 

1. Fits into tight curriculums
Because Quirkos can be taught from start to finish in an interactive 2 hour lab session, it fits neatly into a full module on Qualitative Methods. In one session students can have the skills to do qualitative analysis using a basic CAQDAS package, where other software would require multiple sessions, or a dedicated workshop as a full day event. Thus other sessions can focus on methods, methodology and coding approaches, with students able to quickly apply software skills to their theoretical knowledge.

 

2. Suitable for both post-grads and undergraduates
Quirkos offers enough features and flexibility to be included in research-based masters or PhD training. RTP modules can easily link to a session delivered by university based instructors, without needing external experts to come in and deliver specialist software training. However, Quirkos is simple enough to teach that undergraduate courses in social science can include it in a module on qualitative approaches, and include lab sessions on the basics of software. This is a great basis for later doing research based projects, as well as a useful transferable skill for many industries, including public sector and market research. Since the basic operation of the software is the same, departments have the option to integrate undergraduate and post-graduate training, and use the same materials and course guides.

 

3. Approach agnostic
Quirkos does not encourage a specific analytical approach, and is just as suitable for emergent analysis as grounded theory. Students can be tasked with example projects to analyse with either approach, and choose a middle ground that works best for their own research project. The software gets out of the way, and lets teachers focus on the theory without worrying about how it fits with available tools.

 

4. A visual approach that underscores learning
Visual-based learning can help both understanding and retention and the way that Quirkos makes the coding process live and interactive helps students see their coding, and how it affects the analysis of a project. A very visual approach not only lets students see their findings emerge, but also understand visually what happens during qualitative analysis. By moving their themes and grouping them by drag-and-drop, students can also group topics in their framework, and use colours to represent different groupings. This provides a way of working that is inherently creative, experimental, and satisfying. Quirkos is the only software package based around a graphical user interface, and offers a unique way for students to understand the functionality behind CAQDAS.

 

5. Self-support and learning options
Students increasingly prefer online course materials they can consume in their own time. Quirkos helps educators by providing all our online support guides for free, giving students great flexibility in how they can learn. They can choose either written materials, or video guides of varying length and specificity, and access them without registration or any intervention from the department. Signposting to the materials is easy, and requires no special software or platform to access. We are always around to directly answer technical issues or queries from students.

 

6. Example projects
We provide several example datasets for students to use either in independent learning or guided workshops, at basic and advanced levels. These materials are free for course leaders to include in their materials, or students can download them as they wish. These can be very useful when undergraduates are practicing different qualitative approaches, or if postgraduate researchers wish to experiment with example data before working on their own projects. Since many RTP programmes are requirements in the first few years of a PhD or research masters (before data collection) this high-quality and challenging real data is a great practice resource to put training in practice.


7. A gateway to more advanced techniques
Quirkos aims to provide all the basic features of CAQDAS software, but without any of the bloat that confuses first time users who should be more focused on the data and methodological considerations. However, should students need to later move on to more advanced packages such as Atlas TI, MAXQDA or Nvivo, learning Quirkos is an easy access point, and encourages familiarity with the basics of coding. We also offer export options that help people get their data from Quirkos into other packages for further statistical exploration. Since the basics between all these packages are the same, Quirkos is the perfect first step in the door, and students with advanced needs can quickly learn other packages.

 

8. Flexible licensing for departments and individuals
While everyone can download and use Quirkos with the free trial, we also make sure that we can provide institutions with affordable and accessible permanent access to Quirkos and updates. We offer a site-wide ‘floating’ licence, ideal for teams or lab work that allows a set number of users at any one time, with the ability to add more users at any time. Smaller evaluations and research groups can also buy individual based licenses immediately with a credit or debit card. We are always here to help with purchase orders, IT and other logistical requirements. With significant group discounts, we are confident that we will always be the cheapest option for qualitative analysis software, and the best place for students to start out into the word of qualitative research.

 

 

Quirkos is in Toronto!

Canadian flag in Toronto

This week’s Quirkos blog comes live from the IIQM Qualitative Health Research 2015 conference, in lovely Toronto. It’s been fun talking to people who are coming to the city for the first time, going up the CN Tower, watching the Blue Jays, and seeing the election results come in!


The conference has had a couple of themes, one of which was realist synthesis and evaluations, kick started by a keynote talk from Geoff Wang. He outlined his interpretation of the realist approach, and examining the world in terms of context, mechanisms, and outcomes. In this way we can plan and evaluate intervention strategies, and break down complex systems and interactions.


Integrating a qualitative approach into this method was alluded to in the talk, but with a focus in his view on realist synthesis using mixed methods. The debate and discussion in the afternoon continued this theme: for me the challenge is keeping a person and actor centred view.


I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting again with colleagues from the UK working on many qualitative different health issues, and also a chance to meet new faces from around the world. QHR is a very accessible and engaging conference, and people from all stages of their research career are both presenting and attending in force. It’s great to hear from research in so many different areas, and there is a really strong focus on experience in clinical settings.


And of course Quirkos is here as a sponsor! We have an exhibition stand in next to all the food (dangerous) and have been giving demonstrations to people from all over the world. And today we also have a demonstration session over lunch, which gives people a chance to see Quirkos in action.


So a big thank you to the whole conference team from the University of Alberta Institute of Qualitative Methods, especially Yvette, Bailey and Alex for running such a smooth ship, and making us all feel so welcome.

 

 

Tips and advice from one year of Quirkos

birthday cake CC by theresathompson

 

This week marks the one-year anniversary of Quirkos being released to the market! On 6th October 2014, a group of qualitative researchers, academics and business mentors met in a bar in Edinburgh, and at 8pm, version 1.0 of Quirkos was launched to the world. We then drank the bar dry of Prosecco (Champagne being much too expensive). Now Quirkos is being used in more than 30 universities across the world, and it's so exciting to see how people have used it for their PhDs, or in major research projects.

 

Obviously, the story didn't begin on that October night. It was the cumulation of nearly 2 years of planning, testing and development, not just of software, but of the skills and networks of many people behind the scenes. This blog post is mostly intended to share some of the things that went wrong, what went right, and to provide encouragement to those starting down the road to their own business for the first time.

 

There are frightening statistics about how many start-ups fail in the first few years. Some say 20% in the first year, others as high as 50% in the first two years. Whomever you believe, the rates are high, and this has to be expected. It's a competitive world out there and the cost of starting a business is high, nearly always higher than people anticipate (Quirkos included in this).

 

Now, 3 years after I quit my job to work full time on Quirkos, it feels like we have beaten the odds (so far). I also know many start-ups that didn't make it, many colleagues in Edinburgh who were embarking on their own adventures, who saw their business fade during that time. But it's interesting that all those people have still done well individually. Whatever gave them that entrepreneurial desire has led them all to new and different things, just maybe not what they originally planned!

 

At the risk of adding to the 3752 (est) other lists of start-up advice on the internet, here are some numbered pointers:


1. Don't develop qualitative research software
This is annoyingly specific advice, but has become a bit of a running joke for me. If you want to get poor quickly, qualitative analysis software is ideal for you, there is not a lot of money in it. It's a niche, and a very un-sexy one at the moment too. People always suggest that Quirkos should branch out into 'big-data' or add more quantitative features, but this is not really what I want to do.

 

Qualitative research is what I am passionate about, and what I know best. I didn't start this project to make a fortune, but because I felt software was holding people back from better understanding the world, and that was a gap in the market (my pain point).

 


2. Advice is free, but guidance is invaluable
Fortunately, it's really easy to get advice and support. Government initiatives (at least in Scotland and the UK) provide lots of basic training workshops and materials for free. We've benefited from advice from Business Gateway and Scottish Enterprise and their partners on strategy, funding, IP, you name it. However, these people won't tell you what to do, and obviously don't have very specific knowledge for your industry.

 

That is where our great mentors have come in, with knowledge from our specific area (software) and in working with our main markets (public sector and academic). This allowed us to plan a lot better, and make much more realistic projections about things like conversion rates, lead times, and even cultural differences selling abroad.

 

 

3. Awareness is everything
Insulting though it may be, people don't go out looking for your product. They are looking for a solution to that problem, and at first they don't know your name is Quirkos. They search for 'qualitative analysis software' in Google, go to qualitative research conferences, and read journals on all manner of related disciplines. It is never enough to 'build it and they will come' – you have to go to where your potential users will be.

 

Awareness is just the first step, then you need people to believe that you can help them. That can only be done by yourself to a certain extent, word of mouth and recommendations are much more important than corporate-sponsored hearsay. That's why I think that quality and customer happiness are so important, because people don't really believe what they read in adverts (I know I don't).

 

 

4. You ultimately invest in yourself
The last few years have been a roller-coaster, but I have learned so much. I learnt about running a business, accounting, tax, sales, marketing, search engine optimisation, PHP, Javascript, SSL certification, social media, software testing, promotional printing, exhibitions, conferences, planning, strategy, and on and on.

 

I've always thought at the back of my mind, what if this fails? Is all that time and money lost? Well, yes, but through the experience I have learnt so much, and developed real skills in real situations. I can't say I was worried about finding employment afterwards, since I was always adding so much to my CV.

 

 

5. Getting funding costs money and time
However you want money: grants, competitions, loans, equity investment, all these things are very expensive in terms of time and paperwork. We spent a long time going to the final (term-sheet) stages of angel investment, before deciding that the timing wasn't right, and the costs of the transaction were going to be too high.

 

So you need to pick your battles carefully, but plan for redundancy. Assume that only 1 out of 3 sources of funding will come through, so always have a back-up ready to pursue. For Quirkos, a friends and family round worked really well for our first funding cycle, and allows us flexibility in the future.

 


6. Critical Path Analysis
I'm a little obsessed by this, but I have to admit, I actually learnt it from a children's book decades ago. It was 'Truckers' by Terry Pratchett, and it describes it thus: “It’s something called critical path analysis. It means there’s always something you should have done first. For example, if you want to build a house you need to know how to make bricks, and before you can make bricks you need to know what kind of clay to use. And so on”.

 

I actually do this in my head all the time now, whether I am doing a marketing strategy, releasing software or even making dinner. It just means working backwards from what you want to achieve, and working out the things that will hold you back if you don't get them done first. For example, if I am having flyers handed out at a conference, they need them 3 days before the conference. To get there, they have to be in the post 5 days before that. They take 3 days to come back from the printer, take me 1 day to design, and my colleague who has agreed to proof read them is on holiday next week. So quickly I can see that the last day I can do the first draft of the flyer is 17 days before the conference!

 

In a small business you end up doing everything, so being able to plan your time like this is essential. With experience, you also learn that the uncertain part in the chain is always when you have to rely on other people (who can be late, sick, forgetful) so you always factor in more time for the post, printers, and proof readers. Not that you won't be late, sick or forgetful yourself sometimes, but generally you know when this is happening. It's no coincidence that most of the 'Truckers' book is actually about managing people (seriously, it's the best management book I've ever read).

 


7. Network, network, network
Actually, I hate netwo rking, or at least that kind of endless socialising in large groups without direct purpose . But very targeted networking is essential to getting the word out, and cultivating positive relationships with key people and organisations is essential. A case-study or positive review is always more valuable than just a quick sale, and there are always influential people in any industry who have a large audience. Engaging with these networks is essential.

 

 

8. Love, love, love
I couldn't have done this on my own. Over the years so many people have given time, support, money and advice, and I can't thank them all here. If I was thinking in terms of social capital (Putnam style) I would have used up a lifetime of favours and goodwill. To be honest, I don't think I could have got this far without them, and the  love and belief from friends, family, colleagues and spouse. So I'm going to finish on a song, and say “Thank You!”

 

  “When you were giving me advice, that I seldom ever took
  But your head never shook - That's love

 

  Both knowing you were right, never shook it left and right
  Just gave me that look - That's love

 

  When I had to learn the hard way, and you would let me fall
  But never did it out of spite - That's love

 

  You told me never burn a bridge
  If you build it, then you need it
  Whether a river or a brook”

 

That's Love – Oddisee (from the album The Good Fight)
Performed live here from the awesome NPR Tiny Desk series!

 


 

Play and Experimentation in Qualitative Analysis

by Artaxerxes @ commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Our_Community_Place_Sandbox.jpg

In the last blog post article, I talked about the benefits of visualising qualitative data, not just in the communication and dissemination stage, but also during data analysis. For newcomers to the world of qualitative research, the analysis process often seems intimidating and mysterious. How is the coding framework created? How are decisions made about categorising quotes? How do I know I have taken the right approach? When do I know when I am finished?


But as qualitative researchers will often tell you, the analysis process is so much more than a step-by-step regulated process. It is often like an exploratory journey, during which connections will be discovered, hypotheses challenged, and new unexpected paths will be taken. Personally I feel that qualitative analysis is a very creative process, something that Patton (2014) describes as drawing from “both critical and creative thinking – both the science and the art of analysis”.


Play is often the best way to work with qualitative data. Somehow it often feels more enlightening to explore themes and codes with Post-it notes, and manipulate them in a physical way – moving them around as part of a discussion and experimentation in grouping. The thematic bubbles in Quirkos can be manipulated in the same way, grouped and ungrouped by pulling them around, endlessly rearranged or grouped by colour.


I use the term play deliberately, as informal experimentation with data can uncover new things, and encourages the user to try different approaches. I really wish to encourage this during qualitative analysis, because it is so often productive. The graphical and interactive interface in Quirkos is key to this, as is the instant undo and redo buttons: it’s important to be always able to go back, because play so often leads nowhere, but occasionally somewhere very valuable.


Even in adults, this play and experimentation is important part of learning and enacting (Malamed 1987*), whether it is in formal education classes, museums, or in coaching and mentoring.


Because of this, I have long believed that visualisation should be an integrated part of the analysis process, because it is inherently iterative and interactive. I know I am not alone on this: Bradley, Curry, Devers (2007) state that “there is general agreement that analysis is an ongoing, iterative process”. This applies to developing a coding structure, as well as the act of categorising text. For that reason, any approach that not only keeps researchers close to their data, but allows them to play with it, I find inherently beneficial.


The limitation with most software approaches is that they treat these exploratory steps as distinct events and phases, not as part of the process. So if you want to see connections in a data – run a report. If you want to see the text under a code - generate a summary. To visualise a topic, generate a graph of a particular node: all through a series of button clicks and separate windows. To me, this interrupts the discovery process in the same way that a scratched CD track stops the flow of music.


We designed Quirkos to help people play with their data. To make visualisations live and interactive, and to make it touch-friendly, colourful and forgiving. We try not to limit how researchers can sort and group their themes, but make flexible tools that people can adapt to their own preferred ways of working. And of course, to let people share their work with others and extend that creative process to teamwork, because the discussion and challenge that comes from engaging with other researchers is often as valuable as hours (or days!) of solitary coding.


Most of all though, we wanted software that freed the imagination to take more creative approaches, rather than tying researchers down to literally thinking inside a box or spreadsheet. Rather than a node-tree, the primary interface in Quirkos is called the canvas, and for a deliberate reason. It’s a sandbox for creative play, and space for that ingenious combination of art and science.


*Melamed, L. (1987). ‘The role of play in adult learning’, in Boud, D. & Griffin, V.(eds.), Appreciating adults learning: from the learner’s perspective, London: Kogan Page, pp13–24