Is qualitative data analysis fracturing?

Having been to several international conferences on qualitative research recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the future of qualitative research, and the changes happening in the discipline and society as a whole. A lot of people have been saying that acceptance for qualitative research is growing in general: not only are there a large number of well-established specialist journals, but mainstream publications are accepting more papers based on qualitative approaches.


At the same time, there are more students in the UK at all levels, but especially starting Masters and PhD studies as I’ve noted before. While some of these students will focus solely on qualitative methods, many more will adopt mixed methods approaches, and want to integrate a smaller amount of qualitative data. Thus there is a strong need, especially at the Masters by research level, for software that’s quicker to learn, and can be well integrated into the rest of a project.


There is also the increasing necessity for academic researchers to demonstrate impact for their research, especially as part of the REF. There are challenges involved with doing this with qualitative research, especially summarising large bodies of data, and making them accessible for the general public or for targeted end users such as policy makers or clinicians. Quirkos has been designed to create graphical outputs for these situations, as well as interactive reports that end-users can explore in their own time.


But another common theme has emerged is the possibility of the qualitative field fracturing as it grows. It seems that there are at least three distinct user groups emerging: firstly there are the traditional users of in-depth qualitative research, the general focus of CAQDAS software. They are experts in the field, are experienced with a particular software package, and run projects collecting data with a variety of methods, such as ethnography, interviews, focus groups and document review.


Recently there has been increased interest in text analytics: the application of ‘big data’ to quantify qualitative sources of data. This is especially popular in social media, looking at millions of Tweets, texts, Facebook posts, or blogs on a particular topic. While commonly used in market research, there are also applications in social and political analysis, for example looking at thousands of newspaper articles for portrayal of social trends. This ‘bid data’ quantitative approach has never been a focus of Quirkos’ approach, although there are many tools out there that work in this way.
Finally, there is increasing interest in qualitative analysis from more mainstream users, people who want to do small qualitative research projects as part of their own organisation or business. Increasingly, people working in public sector organisations, HR or legal have text documents they need to manage and gain a deep understanding of.
Increasingly it seems that a one-size-fits-all solution to training and software for qualitative data analysis is not going to be viable. It may even be the case that different factions of approaches and outcomes will emerge. In some ways this may not be too dissimilar to the different methodologies already used within academic research (ie grounded / emergent / framework analysis), but the numbers of ‘researchers’ and the variety of paradigms and fields of inquiry looks to be increasing rapidly.


These are definitely interesting times to be working in qualitative research and qualitative data analysis. My only hope is that if such ‘splintering’ does occur, we keep learning from each other, and we keep challenging ourselves by exposure to alternative ways of working.

 

 

First Quirkos qualitative on-line workshop - 25th Nov 2014

Places are filling up now for our London launch and workshop on the 9th of December, but you can still come along for a free lunch by booking at this link.

 

However, we will soon be running the first of our monthly on-line workshops on the 25th of November, 4pm (GMT). That's 5pm for most of Western Europe, 11:00am EST on the East Coast of America,  8:00pm PST for those on the West Coast.

 

You can get more information and watch the live stream by following this link to our Google Hangouts page. You don't need to register with Google to take part in the seminar, and you can just watch, or interact with video, audio or chat as you wish. We will be covering a very quick overview, but mostly focusing on some of the more advanced features, such as queries, source and node management, and customising interactive reports.

 

There will be plenty of time for questions and discussion, and you can follow along using the example files provided, or just watch and learn. For this workshop, we won't cover much qualitative theory or methodology, just using Quirkos for qualitative analysis.

 

In future, we will also host some workshops and discussions using Skype, just to try and make sure we are accessible to as many people as possible. We'll also try hosting workshops at different days of the week and times of the day, so that people in different parts of the world can take part.

 

Hope to see some of you there, in the meantime, you can always ask questions by e-mailing info@quirkos.com

 

 

QHR2014 and Victoria, BC

It's been a busy month, starting with our public launch, and including our first international conference, Qualitative Health Research 2014, hosted by the International Institute for Qualitative Methodology at the University of Alberta.

The conference created a great environment to present and discuss qualitative work, in a very supportive and productive atmosphere. I also presented research from the EEiC project with Ghazala Mir as part of a larger symposium on organisational ethnography, and the slides are now up on ResearchGate.

There was lots of interest in Quirkos, especially from educators looking to introduce Qualitative research to beginners, and those wanting to include respondents in the analysis process, for end-to-end participatory research.

This last approach linked in with an engaging and challenging keynote by Dr Margarete Sandelowski, who talked about what she called 'member-checking', something I usually refer to as 'participant validation'. This is essentially the process of getting respondents to the research project to look through and validate outputs, which could be either themes, transcripts, conclusions, or reports. Dr Sandelowski raised many good points about the methodological issues that this can have for a research project. For example, she was concerned that participants could later change their minds about how they perceived events, retract permission for their data to be included, not understand conceptual frameworks being proposed by academics, or be overwhelmed or upset by seeing transcripts of interviews. There was unfortunately very little advice offered for overcoming these hurdles, a point raised in the question and answer session.

Personally, I think that qualitative research is always an ongoing dialogue between researcher and participants, and if participants change their minds about their opinions, or no longer want certain statements to be included, this is a 'no-brainer' situation - those statements are removed. I would never consider this to be a moral conflict - that data cannot be included, no argument. I have had many situations where participants have wanted certain sections of their interviews not to be included in the research, even when annonomised, sometimes because they felt a risk to their privacy or career. Sure, it was sad to have interesting bits of data removed from the project, but that was the right of the participant, and I would never considered including it anyway!

Secondly, as my colleague Dr Ghazala Mir pointed out, it is the responsibility of researchers to explain the theories and models used in the research in a way that participants can understand. Ultimately, impactful research must eventually explain itself to a general public audience, and participant engagement can be a great way to test and trial this.

I believe that the more research is a collaboration with participants the better, both methodologically and ethnically. I also think that consent should be part of a continuous dialogue, not just a one-off event. This will inevitably raise issues during the study, but these are not insurmountable obstacles, but considerations that can be anticipated, and time set aside for dealing with. For myself this is the key to being more inclusive, producing better results, and moving away from the narrow positivist approach so often associated with purely quantitative inquiry.

Quirkos is launched!

Quirkos

It's finally here!

From today, anyone can download the full 1.0 release version of Quirkos for Windows or Mac OS X! Versions for Linux and Android will be appearing later in the month, but since Windows and Mac account for most of our users, we didn't want people to wait any more.

Everyone can use the full version for free for one month, with no restrictions. At the end of the 30 day trial period, you'll need to order a licence to keep using Quirkos, which you can either do by raising a purchase order with us, or by placing a immediate credit/debit card payment on the website, which will get you a licence code e-mailed to you in just a few minutes.

I really want to thank everyone who has provided feedback, suggestions and critique over the last 14 months, Quirkos wouldn't be half as good as it is now without all that input. And it's really exciting to share it with everyone now, and to hear about exciting research projects people are already putting together around Quirkos. Watch this space for some great case studies in the next few months!

 

Announcing Pricing for Quirkos

At the moment, (touch wood!) everything is in place for a launch next week, which is a really exciting place to be after many years of effort. From that day, anyone can download Quirkos, try it free for a month, and then buy a licence if it helps them in their work. We've set up the infrastructure so that people can either place purchase orders through their finance department, or make a direct sale through the website by credit or debit card. We can then provide a licence code immediately, and users can unlock Quirkos and use it without any time limit. We don’t want to tie people into contracts or recurring payments; the licence will not expire, and will entitle you to any future updates for that version.

 

The interest we’ve had from users over the past few months has been overwhelming, and we want to have a flexible price structure that is appropriate for lots of different groups. One of my key aims has been to systematically remove the barriers to doing qualitative research – and price is a big hurdle at the moment. I’ve had conversations with so many people who have taken one look at the licence costs of the major qualitative analysis packages, and walked away. To really open up qualitative research for everyone, that needs to change. Our licence will cost roughly half that of our competitors', and we will offer a range of discounts for teams from different backgrounds.

 

First of all, we think Quirkos will be great for students, not just at a PhD level, but also at Masters or Undergraduate level, when there isn’t always the time to spend learning other qualitative research software. So, we are starting the student licence at £35 (roughly €45, US$60), so that people at all stages of learning can get started with qualitative research.

 

For professional academics and people working in the charity sectors, we will heavily discount the licence cost to £180 (€230 / $290). Already we have had beta-testers in the NHS and local government, and users in government institutions or NGOs, can get a licence for just £320 (€400 / $516).

 

Finally, the full licence for commercial use will be £390 (€490 / $620) and comes with our highest level of customer support. Everyone will be able to access regularly updated discussion forums and on-line learning materials, and professional users will also have access to personal e-mail support with a rapid response rate.

 

We really want to encourage a new generation of qualitative researchers and we think we’ve set a fair price that makes access easy, while allowing us to continue to add new features, and provide a strong level of support. Then you can focus on your data and findings, and not just the tools that help you get results.

 

(These are initial indicative prices, subject to change, and currency rates, local sales tax or VAT may lead to some variation in these numbers)

 

 

Quirkos is just weeks away!

It's been a long time since I've had time to write a blog article, as there are so many things to put in place before Quirkos launches in the next few weeks. But one-by-one everything is coming together. Feedback has helped us tweak the interface, testing across all the platforms is going well, the manuals and support resources are developing and the infrastructure is in place to let us deliver downloads and licences to our first customers!


We will be announcing the pricing structure next week, but there will always be a one-month free trial, so everyone can try Quirkos and see if it’s right for them. We are also really excited that there will be a formal launch workshop in London in December, hosted by the University of Surrey CAQDAS Networking Project. Quirkos will be available to purchase beforehand, but this will be the first proper Quirkos event, and there will be cake to celebrate!


We will also have our first international event in October, when Quirkos will be on show at the Qualitative Health Research conference in Victoria, Canada. It’s run by the fantastic International Institute for Qualitative Methodology at the University of Alberta, and is now in it’s 20th year. In the next few months, we will also announce a series of UK workshops in major cities and Universities on using Quirkos for qualitative research. There will also be some exciting announcements about new people joining the Quirkos team, and more stories from people who have been using Quirkos in their work. In short, it’s going to be a busy few months!

Knowing your customers

barcode

As consumers, it feels like we are bombarded more than ever with opportunities for providing feedback on products and services. While shopping on-line, or even when browsing BBC News we are asked to complete a short questionnaire; after dealing with a telephone bank there’s the option to complete a quick survey; and at airport security you can rate your experience by hitting a button with either a smiley face or a frowny face.

 

But despite being told that ‘your feedback really matters to us’, what happens to it? It’s often difficult to see any change from your feedback, and even when giving direct feedback, too often the changes suggested are not made. But more than this, it’s sometimes difficult to understand how we can expect people to understand our needs and problems with such brief and forced categorisation. If I rate a telephone sales agent from 1-10 on categories of helpfulness, friendliness, and professionalism, you are forced to somehow shoehorn your feedback on any other aspect of the experience into these areas. You don’t know if ‘length of wait’ will be a category, and you could care less how friendly they were, if they couldn’t fix your problem.

 

I wonder this when hearing stories in the news about the continuing sales decline at Tesco, a huge organisation that clearly spends millions on customer understanding. Because for all the hoop-la around loyalty schemes, ‘convenience’ stores, price-matching (only with certain competitors), are management at some level blind to the rise of budget supermarkets? Customers clearly aren’t, and it’s difficult to tell if big supermarkets either have their head in the sand, or they assume their customers are stupid.

 

I can’t pretend to know why the likes of Lidl and Aldi have become so popular, it could just be price, but perhaps a more pleasant streamlined shopping experience, without having to choose between value, regular and luxury versions of everything. A focus group could tell you: if you had a wide range of users, you could ask them questions; or better still, let people raise issues themselves without being pigeonholed. And this seems to be more and more difficult for the grocery shopping market, thanks to a huge demographic shift. Watch Robert Preston’s excellent series on consumer culture, and you can see that in the 60s, to know retail shoppers was to know housewives: if you could get their spending, you got it all. But today everyone shops, and with a lingering recession, job pressures and a mobile work market, we shop whenever we get a chance. A one stop grocery shop usually tries to attract housewives, househusbands, students, bachelors, hipsters and skinflints alike, either spreading themselves too thin, or becoming bewildering to all.

 

So perhaps the one-size-fits all model is not going to be the way of the future. On-line grocery sales have begun to slow at just 5.1% of the market, either there is going to be an innovation here, or the market already has found its niche. But it seems that many smaller grocery stores are on the rise, tailored to a specific target audience. Health food shops which in the 90s used to only sell vitamins and gluten-free flour now sell 'healthy' cornflakes and fresh organic produce – so you can get everything in one shop. Marks and Spencer’s ubiquitous stores now cater for a new ready-meal elite: grabbing dinner for one or two on the way back from the office. And Farmfoods and Iceland have the low end of the market – frozen food so busy families can buy a week’s worth of inexpensive, easily prepared budget meals.

 

So these big chains do well by knowing their audience. And it’s no different for smaller, independent businesses. Quirkos is proposing that even these small firms can afford to do their own direct market research, and with detail that will give a much better feel for their customers than just relying on crude statistics and smiley and frowny faces. That way, rather than relying on very traditional market research, business can take a more local and individual approach. Rather than focus groups behind one-way-mirrors, or questionnaires with low engagement rates, why not invite a group of customers to a wine evening, and record a discussion about new products? If recorded properly by diligent staff, collated and analysed, informal feedback to cashiers can start to build a picture of what products or experiences are missing.

 

Then Quirkos would step in, providing software that is easy to get started with, so a manager can pull together all these sources of feedback, read them, and put them into themes that s/he can use to make the changes customers are looking for. Market research is already a huge industry in the UK, but can’t we go further and democratise it? Small scale for small businesses, quick to learn, and priced for everyone?

Using Quirkos for Systematic Reviews and Evidence Synthesis

Most of the examples the blog has covered so far have been about using Quirkos for research, especially with interview and participant text sources. However, Quirkos can take any text source you can open on your computer, including text PDFs (but not scanned PDFs where each page is effectively a photograph). So why not use Quirkos like a reference manager, to sort and analyse a large cohort of articles and research? The advantage being that you can not only keep track of references, but also cross-reference the content: analysing common themes across all the articles.


There are two ways to manage this: first you can set the standard information for each source/article that is imported, such as author, year, journal, etc. If you format these as you wish them to appear in the reference (by putting the commas and dots in the value), and order them with the Properties and Value editor, you can create reports that churn out the references in whichever notation you need, such as Harvard or APA. But you can also add any extra values you like at an article level, so you could rank articles out of 10, have a comment property, or categorise them by methodology. This way, you can quickly see only text from articles rated as 8/10 or above, or everything with a sample size between 50 and 100: whatever information you categorise.


Secondly you can categorise text in the article using Quirk bubbles. So as you read through the articles, code sections in any way that is of interest to you: highlight sections on the methodology, bits you aren’t convinced about, or other references you want to check out. Highlight findings and conclusion sections (or just interesting parts of them), and with the properties you can quickly look at all the findings from papers using a particular approach, and compare and contrast them. It’s obviously quite a bit of work to code all your articles, but since you would have to read through all the papers anyway, making your notes digital and searchable in this way makes it much quicker and flexible when pulling it all together.


With qualitative synthesis you can combine multiple pieces of research, and see if there are common themes, or contradictions. Say you have found three articles on parenting, but they are all from different minority ethnic communities. Code them in Quirkos, and in a click you can see all the problems people are having with schools across all groups, or if one community describes more serious issues than another.


Evidence synthesis and systematic reviews like this are often, and quite rightly, mandated by funders and departments before commissioning a new piece of research, to make sure that the research questions add meaningfully to the existing canon. However, it’s also worth noting that, especially with qualitative synthesis taken from published articles, there can be a publication bias by relying only on comments left in the final paper: most of the data set is hidden to secondary researchers. Imagine if you are looking at schooling and parenting, but are taking data from an article on the difficulties of parenting: it’s possible that the researchers did not include quotations on the good aspects of school as it was outside the article’s focus. If possible it’s always worth getting the full data set, but this can often throw up data protection and ethical issues. There’s no simple answer to these problems, except to make sure readers are aware of your sources, and anticipate the likely limitations of your approach. Often with qualitative research, it feels like reflexivity and disclaimers go hand in hand!

Getting a foot in the door with qualitative research

A foot in a doorA quick look at the British Library thesis catalogue suggests that around 800 theses are completed every year in the UK using qualitative methods*. This suggests that 7% of the roughly 10,000 annual British PhDs completed use qualitative methods. There are likely to be many more masters theses, and even undergraduate dissertations that use some qualitative methods, so the student demand for qualitative training is considerable.

 

Usually, while PhD Research Training Programmes will include good coverage of different qualitative methods and ethical issues, using software for qualitative analysis is often not covered. In my experience it is either left to summer school sessions, annual one-off internal training sessions, but usually training at an external full or two day session at organisations like the University of Surrey CAQDAS programme. Most PhD students (especially in the UK) are at considerable time and financial pressures, so accessing this training is often difficult. Again, it's sometimes difficult to get a foot in the door with qualitative analysis software.

 

Yet there are some good opportunities for qualitative researchers, even outside academia. Obviously market research is a huge employer, and can provide very varied work, changing with every project. Increasingly it seems that the public sector, at both the local and national level are hiring researchers with qualitative experience, especially in organisations like the NHS, where patient satisfaction is becoming an increasingly important metric.

 

Quirkos has been designed with my own experiences in mind, to provide an easy way to get started with qualitative analysis. In fact, I've jokingly referred to it before as a 'gateway' product, easy to start, and hopefully leading to a good experience and a desire to progress to advanced ways of working! We are also going to offer PhD students a discounted 'PhD Pack', which will include a student licence, on-line training, and two academic licences for their supervisors, so that the whole team can see the progress and comment on ongoing analysis.

 

Researching the numbers of students in the UK, I was stunned to find out that the number of full-time PhD students has nearly doubled, from 9,990 in 1997 to 18,075 in 2010 – the last year for which statistics are available. Now, clearly the number of academic positions has not increased at the same rate, (although it has increased over that time period) so the number of available academic jobs has not kept up with supply. Of course, a PhD can lead to many more opportunities, but it is clear that there is great competition for post-doctorate posts. This has been noted by many other commentators, but also in my own experience. Many of my post-doc friends and colleagues are ridiculously intelligent and capable people, but are still in jobs that chronically undervalue their abilities. Between ourselves, we often joke that for academic jobs, it has become a game of 'dead-man's-boots', waiting for a senior academic to retire, starting a chain of departmental promotions that create a new junior position. These posts are also only available after doing several temporary post-doc positions: it is a long process to get your foot in the door, and you often find yourself competing with good friends.

 

It seems to me that many university departments are now scaling back the number of PhD and Masters students they accept, acknowledging the pressure that large student numbers put on supervisors, despite the large amounts of income they bring to the department (especially Masters programmes). However, if widespread, this change is not yet visible in the latest HEFCE data, which dates back to 2010-11, and shows higher numbers of starters, and an increase in (projected) completion rates. Yet there is a huge and growing pool of very bright critical thinkers on the market, and even if academic opportunities are limited, a good number of other doors to get a foot-hold into.

 

* To get these figures, I have only used search terms qualitative AND either interview or “focus group” across titles and abstracts, to make sure that no other uses of the phrase were included: for example genetic qualitative research. Other methods such as ethnography and diaries added only a dozen or so results each. Frustratingly, the EThOS search doesn't let you specify a date range, but including a year (2012) as a search term mostly returns submissions from that year. It's also interesting to note that the number of PhDs mentioning qualitative methods has doubled since 2007, although it's difficult to tell how much of this is due to any increased popularity of qualitative research, or the increase in total submissions noted above, and the increase in digital submissions to the BL system.

Paper vs. computer assisted qualitative analysis

I recently read a great paper by Rettie et al. (2008) which, although based on a small sample size, found that only 9% of UK market research organisations doing qualitative research were using software to help with qualitative analysis.

 

At first this sounds very low, but it holds true with my own limited experiences with market research firms, and also with academic researchers. The first formal training courses I attended on Qualitative Analysis were conducted by the excellent Health Experiences Research Group at Oxford University, a team I would actually work with later in my career. As an aforementioned computer geek, it was surprising for me to hear Professor Sue Ziebland convincingly argue for a method they defined as the One Sheet of Paper technique, immortalised as OSOP. This is essentially a way to develop a grounded theory or analytical approach by reducing the key themes to a diagram that can be physically summarised on a single piece of paper, a method that is still widely cited to this day.

 

However, the day also contained a series of what felt like ‘confessions’ about how much of people’s Qualitative analysis was paper based: printing out whole transcripts of interviews, highlighting sections, physically cutting and gluing text into flipcharts, and dozens and dozens of multi-coloured Post-it notes! Personally, I think this is a fine method of analysis, as it keeps researchers close to the data and, assuming you have a large enough workspace, it lets you keep dozens of interviews and themes to hand. It’s also very good for team work, as the physicality gets everyone involved in reviewing codes and extracts.

 

In the last project I worked on, looking at evidence use for health decision making we did most of the analysis in Excel, which was actually easier for the whole team to work with than any of the dedicated qualitative analysis software packages. However, we still relied heavily on paper: printing out the interviews and Excel spreadsheets, and using flip-chart paper, post-its and marker pens in group analysis sessions. Believe me, I felt a pang of guilt for all the paper we used in each of these sessions, rainforests be damned! But it kept us inspired, engaged, close to the data and let us work together.

 

So I can quite understand why so many academics and market research organisations choose not to use software packages: at the moment they don’t have the visual connection to the data that paper annotations allow, it’s often difficult to see the different stages of the coding process, and it’s hard to produce reports and outputs that communicate properly.

 

The problem with this approach is the literal paper-trail – how you turn all these iterations of coding schemes and analysis sessions into something you can write up to share with others in order to justify how you made the decisions that led to your conclusions. So I had to file all these flip-charts and annotated sheets, often taking photos of them so they could be shared with colleagues at other universities. It was a slow and time consuming process, but it kept us close to the data.

 

When designing Quirkos, I have tried in some ways to replicate the paper-based analysis process. There’s a touch interface, reports that show all the highlighting in a Word document, and views that keep you close to the data. But I also want to combine this with all the advantages you get from a software package, not least the ability to search, shuffle dozens of documents, have more colours than a whole rainbow of Post-it notes, and the invaluable Undo button!

 

Software can also help keep track of many more topics and sources than most people (especially myself) can remember, and if there are a lot of different themes you want to explore from the data, software is really good at keeping them all in one place and making them easy to find. Working as part of a team, especially if some researchers work remotely or in a different organisation can be much easier with software. E-mailing a file is much easier than sending a huge folder of annotated paper, and combining and comparing analysis can be done at any stage of the project.

 

Qualitative analysis software also lets you take different slices through the data, so you can compare responses grouped by any caracteristics for the sources you have. So it's easy to look at all the comments from people in one location, or between a certain age range. Certainly this is possible to do with qualitative data on paper as well, but the software can remove the need of a lot of paper shuffling, especially when you have a large number of respondents.

 

But most importantly, I think software can allow more experimentation - you can try different themes, easily combine or break them apart, or even start from scratch again, knowing that the old analysis approach you tried is just a few clicks away. I think that the magic undo button also gives researchers more confidence in trying something out, and makes it easier for people to change their mind.

 

Many people I’ve spoken to have asked what the ‘competition’ for Quirkos is like, meaning, what do the other software packages do. But for me the real competitor is the tangible approach and the challenge is to try and have something that is the best of both worlds: a tool that not only apes the paper realm in a virtual space, but acknowledges the need to print out and connect with physical workflows. I often want to review a coded project on paper, printing off and reading in the cafe, and Quirkos makes sure that all your coding can be visually displayed and shared in this way.

 

Everyone has a workflow for qualitative analysis that works for them, their team, and the needs of their project. I think the key is flexibility, and to think about a set of tools that can include paper and software solutions, rather than one approach that is a jack of all trades, and master of none.