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.


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