Memos, notes and line-by-line coding in Quirkos 2

memos and notes qualitative

 

One of the major updates in Quirkos 2 is the new memo system. Now you can just drag and drop a section of text to the memo column, and attach a little note to it. You can add as many notes as you like, and by clicking on them, select the section of text to add to a code/Quirk.

 

We went through a lot of different annotation and memo implementations when designing the memo feature, and this is the one that seems to work best. Our inspiration was the type of line-by-line coding that is common in IPA (Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis), in-vivo coding or grounded theory. Here, there is often a two-pronged approach to coding – the first read through of the data is reflecting and commenting on important parts of the text. On the next read, commonalities in the reflexive notes are used to refine these interpretations down to a smaller number of codes. Often this is done in Excel or Word in a table:

 

Time, Family

 
Time pressures from
family breakdowns

 
I'm a single mum with an 8
month old and a toddler
and breakfast is mayhem.

 

And in Quirkos this would be shown thus:

 


You’ll see Kathy Charmaz and others using grounded theory showing a similar layout, and we have tried to emulate this in Quirkos. So the far right of the screen has your text, and the expandable memo layout column will display your first interpretation, and you can then go further and code this to a bubble or Quirk on the canvas layout.

 

Previously in Quirkos people were trying to do these kind of approaches just with codes, ending up with hundreds of unmanageable bubbles filling the screen (especially if they were doing line-by-line coding and creating a code for each line!). Now there is a much better process flow, and management of the layout on the screen.

 

Anywhere you can see the text in Quirkos you can see the memos, and you can also view them in the reports and CSV files, which will create a spreadsheet very similar to the type shown above.

 

The memo function does not need to be limited to these particular analytical methods that prescribe them. Any project can use memos for multiple purposes, and we’ve tried to make the system as flexible as possible. For example, you can use memos to just note ‘not sure what this person means’ and areas you want to interpret again after reading more sources. When working with multiple people, it can also be used as a comment system for multiple authors to question and raise suggestions.

 

And if you want to, there is no reason to actually use the coding system and Quirks at all. Just use the memos to reflect on your analysis, without forming any categorisation. If the reductive coding model does not suit your approach, don’t use it! The memo feature means you can have all the benefits of a dedicated qualitative software tool (undo, text search, saving iterations) but there is no need to ‘code’. You can then export and print certain parts of your work at any stage, especially for writing up when dedicated tools become more useful than trying to map or attach paper-coded transcripts to the end of a thesis.

 


Using memos or notes to annotate a section of text, often with the intent of providing and recording an interpretation is only one type of ‘analytic writing’ that can complement and augment qualitative analysis. Another common approach is to include a reflexive ‘analysis journal’ or diary, recording the thoughts and wider interpretations of the researcher as they read through the sources. This can be useful to reflect on itself during writing up, or as a basis for deeper analysis.

 

I’ve long advocated for people to do this in CAQDAS software itself, using a blank source in the project for reflections or a researcher journal. Quirkos (and other software) allows you to edit and add to this source as you go along, recoding your thoughts, but also allowing you to code them. That way you can organise and structure your reflexive writing in the same way you are thinking about your data. By defining your source as a ‘diary’ or similar, you can choose whether or not to see your own musings with the research data or not. In Quirkos this is done by creating a ‘diary’ source property, and using the query to include or exclude sources that match a ‘diary’ property or a ‘data’ property.

 

We’ve talked about some of these approaches to qualitative analysis in previous blog posts, and these can provide a primer on some of the ways analytic writing can help qualitative research:

 

Using memos in qualitative analysis:
https://www.quirkos.com/blog/post/memos-qualitative-data-analysis-research


IPA
https://www.quirkos.com/blog/post/intro-interpretative-phenomenological-analysis-summary


In vivo coding
https://www.quirkos.com/blog/post/in-vivo-coding-and-revealing-life-from-the-text


Grounded theory
https://www.quirkos.com/blog/post/qualitative-grounded-theory-overview

 


Finally, we’d love to hear what you think of the new memo system, how you would tweak it, and how you are using it in your own research. You can add suggestions to the forum, or Tweet about them, or send us an e-mail (support@quirkos.com). And if you want to see it in action, download the free trial, and get 4 weeks to see if it will help with your qualitative research.

 

 

Analytical memos and notes in qualitative data analysis and coding

Image adapted from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Male_forehead-01_ies.jpg - Frank Vincentz

There is a lot more to qualitative coding than just deciding which sections of text belong in which theme. It is a continuing, iterative and often subjective process, which can take weeks or even months. During this time, it’s almost essential to be recording your thoughts, reflecting on the process, and keeping yourself writing and thinking about the bigger picture. Writing doesn’t start after the analysis process, in qualitative research it often should precede, follow and run in parallel to a iterative interpretation.


The standard way to do this is either through a research journal (which is also vital during the data collection process) or through analytic memos. Memos create an important extra level of narrative: an interface between the participant’s data, the researcher’s interpretation and wider theory.


You can also use memos as part of a summary process, to articulate your interpretations of the data in a more concise format, or even throw the data wider and larger by drawing from larger theory.


It’s also a good cognitive exercise: regularly make yourself write what you are thinking, and keep yourself articulating yourself. It will make writing up at the end a lot easier in the end! Memos can be a very flexible tool, and qualitative software can help keep these notes organised. Here are 9 different ways you might use memos as part of your work-flow for qualitative data analysis:

 

Surprises and intrigue
This is probably the most obvious way to use memos: note during your reading and coding things that are especially interesting, challenging or significant in the data. It’s important to do more than just ‘tag’ these sections, reflect to yourself (and others) why these sections or statements stand out.

 

Points where you are not sure
Another common use of memos is to record sections of the data that are ambiguous, could be interpreted in different ways, or just plain don’t fit neatly in to existing codes or interpretations. But again, this should be more than just ‘flagging’ bits that need to be looked at again later, it’s important to record why the section is different: sometimes the act of having to describe the section can help comprehension and illuminate the underlying causation.

 

Discussion with other researchers
Large qualitative research projects will often have multiple people coding and analysing the data. This can help to spread the workload, but also allows for a plurality of interpretations, and peer-checking of assumptions and interpretations. Thus memos are very important in a team project, as they can be used to explain why one researcher interpreted or coded sources in a certain way, and flag up ambiguous or interesting sections for discussion.

 

Paper-trail
Even if you are not working as part of a team, it can be useful to keep memos to explain your coding and analytical choices. This may be important to your supervisors (or viva panel) as part of a research thesis, and can be seen as good practice for sharing findings in which you are transparent about your interpretations. There are also some people with a positivist/quantitative outlook who find qualitative research difficult to trust because of the large amount of seemingly subjective interpretation. Memos which detail your decision making process can help ‘show your working out’ and justify your choices to others.

 

Challenging or confirming theory
This is another common use of memos, to discuss how the data either supports or challenges theory. It is unusual for respondents to neatly say something like “I don’t think my life fits with the classical structure of an Aeschylean tragedy” should this happen to be your theoretical approach! This means you need to make these observations and higher interpretation, and note how particular statements will influence your interpretations and conclusions. If someone says something that turns your theoretical framework on its head, note it, but also use the memos as a space to record context that might be used later to explain this outlier. Memos like this might also help you identify patterns in the data that weren’t immediately obvious.

 

Questioning and critiquing the data/sources
Respondents will not always say what they mean, and sometimes there is an unspoken agenda below the surface. Depending on the analytical approach, an important role of the researcher is often to draw deeper inferences which may be implied or hinted at by the discourse. Sometimes, participants will outright contradict themselves, or suggest answers which seem to be at odds with the rest of what they have shared. It’s also a great place to note the unsaid. You can’t code data that isn’t there, but sometimes it’s really obvious that a respondent is avoiding discussing a particular issue (or person). Memos can note this observation, and discuss why topics might be uncomfrotable or left out in the narrative.


Part of an iterative process
Most qualitative research does not follow a linear structure, it is iterative and researchers go back and re-examine the data at different stages in the process. Memos should be no different, they can be analysed themselves, and should be revisited and reviewed as you go along to show changes in thought, or wider patterns that are emerging.


Record your prejudices and assumptions
There is a lot of discussion in the literature about the importance of reflexivity in qualitative research, and recognising the influence of the non-neutral researcher voice. Too often, this does not go further than a short reflexivity/positionality statement, but should really be a constantly reconsidered part of the analytical process. Memos can be used as a prompt and record of your reflexive process, how the data is challenges your prejudices, or how you might be introducing bias in the interpretation of the data.


Personal thoughts and future directions
As you go through the data, you may be noticing interesting observations which are tangential, but might form the basis of a follow-on research project or reinterpretation of the data. Keeping memos as you go along will allow you to draw from this again and remember what excited you about the data in the first place.

 

 

Qualitative analysis software can help with the memo process, keeping them all in the same place, and allowing you to see all your memos together, or connected to the relevant section of data. However, most of the major software packages (Quirkos included) don’t exactly forefront the memo tools, so it is important to remember they are there and use them consistently through the analytical process.

 

Memos in Quirkos are best done using a separate source which you edit and write your memos in. Keeping your notes like this allows you to code your memos in the same way you would with your other data, and use the source properties to include or exclude your memos in reports and outputs as needed. However, it can be a little awkward to flip between the memo and active source, and there is currently no way to attach memos to a particular coding event. However, this is something we are working on for the next major release, and this should help researchers to keep better notes of their process as they go along. More detail on qualitative memos in Quirkos can be found in this blog post article.

 

 

There is a one-month free trial of Quirkos, and it is so simple to use that you should be able to get going just by watching one of our short intro videos, or the built-in guide. We are also here to help at any stage of your process, with advice about the best way to record your analytical memos, coding frameworks or anything else. Don’t be shy, and get in touch!

 


References and further reading:


Chapman, Y., Francis, K., 2008. Memoing in qualitative research, Journal of Research in Nursing, 13(1). http://jrn.sagepub.com/content/13/1/68.short?rss=1&ssource=mfc

 

Gibbs, G., 2002, Writing as Analysis, http://onlineqda.hud.ac.uk/Intro_QDA/writing_analysis.php

Saldana, J., 2015, The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers, Writing Analytic Memos about Narritative and Visual Data, Sage, London. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ZhxiCgAAQBAJ

 

 

How to organise notes and memos in Quirkos

EraserGirl post-it-notes

 

Many people have asked how they can integrate notes or memos into their project in Quirkos. At the moment, there isn’t a dedicated memo feature in the current version of Quirkos (v1.0), but this is planned for a free upgrade later in the year.


However, there are actually two ways in which users can integrate notes and memos into their project already using methods that give a great deal of flexibility.


The first, and most obvious ‘workaround’ is to create a separate source for notes and memos. First, create a blank source by pressing the (+) button on the bottom right of the screen, and select ‘New Source’. In the source properties view (Top right) you can change the name of this to ‘Memos’ or ‘Thoughts’ or something appropriate. You can then edit this source by long-clicking or right clicking in the source and selecting ‘Edit Source Text’. Now you have a dialogue box into which you can keep track of all your thoughts or memos during the coding process, and keep coming back to add more.


The advantage to having your memo as a source is that you can code with it in exactly the same way you would with any of your other sources. So you can write a note ‘I’m not sure about grouping Fear and Anxiety as separate codes’ and actually drag and drop that text onto the Anxiety and Fear bubbles – assigning that section of your note as being about those categories. When running queries or reports, you can easily see your comments together with the coding for that source, or just look at all your notes together.


This approach is most useful if you want to record your thoughts on the coding process or on developing your analysis framework. You can also have a series of note sources – for example if you had several people coding on a project. Don’t forget that you can export a source as a Word file with all the annotations, should you want to print or share just your notes on a project. One further tip is to create a Yes/No source property called ‘Memo’ or ‘Note’ so you can record which source(s) contain memos. Then when running queries or reports you can quickly choose whether to include coded memos or not.


However, if you want to record specific notes about each source, the second method is to actually create a source property for comments and notes. So for example, you might want to record some details of the interview that might have contextual importance. You can create a source property for ‘Interview conditions’ and note things like ‘Noisy room’ and ‘Respondent scared by Dictaphone’. By changing this property to be multiple choice, you can record several notes here, which of course can be used again across all the sources. This would let you quickly mark which interviewees were nervous about being recorded, and even see if responses from these people differed in a query comparison view.


However, you can also have a source category for more general notes, and add as many values to this property as you like. At the moment you can have very long values for source properties, but more than the first few words will not be shown. We are going to change this in an update in the next few weeks that will allow you to view much longer notes stored as property values.


These two different approaches should allow you plenty of ways to record notes, memos and musings as you go through and analyse your project. They also give you a lot of ways to sort and explore those notes – useful once you get to the stage of having lots of them! In future releases we will add a specific memo feature which will allow you to also have the option to add a note to a specific coding event, and will be implemented in unique but intuitive way. Watch this space!