Studies and surveys seem to show that the amount of qualitative research is growing, and that more and more people are using software to help with their qualitative analysis (Woods et al. 2015). However, these studies also highlight that users report problems with learning qualitative software, and that universities sometimes struggle to provide enough expertise to teach and troubleshoot them (Gibbs 2014).
Quirkos was specifically designed to address many of these issues, and our main aim is to be a champion for the field of qualitative research by making analysis software more accessible. But what does accessibility mean in this context, and what problems still need to be overcome?
Limitations of paper
The old paper and highlighters method is a very easy and accessible approach to qualitative analysis. Indeed, it’s common for some stages in the analysis exploration to be done on paper (such as reviewing), even if most of it is done in software. However, when projects get above a certain size or complexity, it can be difficult to keep track of all the different sources and themes. Should you have dozens of topics you are looking for in the project, you can quickly run out of different colours for your highlighters or Post-it notes (6 colours seems to be the most you can easily find) and I’ve seen very creative but laborious use of alternating coloured stripes and other techniques!
In these situations, qualitative analysis software can actually be more accessible, and make the process a lot easier. The big advantage to computers is that they have huge memories, and think nothing of working with hundreds of sources, and hundreds of coding topics. There are some people that are able to keep hundreds of topics in their head at once, (my former boss Dr Sarah Salway was one of these) but for us mortals, software can really help. However, software needs to try and be as easy to use as paper, and make sure that it doesn’t start making the data more difficult to see, or makes the coding process seem more important than deep reading and comprehension.
Secondly, if the software is going to be accessible, it has to be easy to learn and understand. While the best way to learn is often with face-to-face teaching, not everyone has the luxury of access to this, and it can be expensive. So there needs to be good, and freely available training materials. Ideally the software would be so simple that it didn’t need tuition at all, but inevitably people will get stuck, and good video guides and manuals should be easily available.
The software has to tread a fine line between being clear and non-patronising. I did have a discussion with one trainer in qualitative analysis about introducing an animated guide like Clippy to QDA software, to guide users through the process. Can you imagine what this would be like? A little character that pops up and says things like “Hi! It looks like you are doing grounded theory! Would you like some help with that?”. But most users I talk to want the software to be as invisible as possible. If it gets in the way frequently it is hindering, not helping the analysis process.
Software also needs to be as flexible as possible, it’s no good if it doesn’t fit your approach or the way you need to work. So it has to allow you to work with the type of data you have, without having to spend ages reformatting it.
It should be neutral to your approach as well, making sure that whatever the methodological and theoretical approach the user is taking, the software will allow researchers to work their own way. A lot of flexibility requirements comes when working with others too, getting data both in and out should be painless, and fit the rest of a researcher’s workflow.
Sharing with others
Most qualitative researchers like to work with others, either as part of a research team, or just as a resource to bounce ideas off. Sending project files from qualitative analysis software to another research is easy enough, but often only if they are using the same software on the same operating system. Cross platform working is really important, and it is frustrating at the moment how difficult it is to get coded data from one software package to another. We are having discussions with other developers of qualitative software about making sure that there is interoperability, but it is going to be a long journey.
It’s also important for software to create exports of the data in more common formats, such as PDF, Word files or the like, so people without specialist CAQDAS software can still engage and see the data.
At the moment Quirkos is a very visual piece of software, and not well suited to those with visual or physical limitations. We have tried to choose options that make the software easier for those with vision impairment, such as high contrast text and large font sizes, but there is still a long way to go. At the moment, although shortcut keys can make using Quirkos a lot easier, navigating and selecting text without a mouse is not possible. We want to add the ability to run all the main operations from the keyboard or a specialist controller so that there are fewer barriers for those with reduced mobility.
We’ve even had serious discussions with blind qualitative researchers about how Quirkos could meet their needs! The main problem here seems to be the wide range of specialist computers and equipment – although there are fantastic tools out there for people with total or near-total visual impairment, they are all very different, and getting software that would work with them all is a huge challenge.
However, there is another barrier to access for many: the price of software licences. In many countries, relative low wages mean that qualitative analysis software is prohibitively expensive. This is not just in Latin America, Africa and many parts of Asia: even in Eastern Europe, a single CAQDAS licence can cost as much as many earn in a month. (Haratyk and Kordasiewicz 2014).
So also am proud to announce from today, that we will offer a 25% discount for researchers based in ‘developing’ or ‘emerging’ nations. I don’t like these terms, so for clarity I am taking this to mean any country with a GDP Per-Capita below US$2600 PPP, or a monthly average salary below 1000EUR. This is on top of our existing discounts for students, education, charity and education sectors. As far as I can see, we are the first qualitative analysis software company to offer a discount of this type. To check if your country qualifies, and to place an order with this discount, just send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be happy to help.
Quirkos is already around half the price of the other major CAQDAS software packages, but from now we are able to provide an extra discount to researchers in 150 countries, representing nearly 80% of the world population. We hope this will help qualitative researchers in these countries to use qualitative research to explore and answer difficult questions in health, development, transparency and increasing global happiness.