Planning for software use

Planning for the use of software in a qualitative research project

This page should be useful if you:

  1. Are thinking about whether to use a CAQDAS package and would like some advice about aspects to consider in your decision making process (please also look at choosing an appropriate CAQDAS package)
  2. Are about to use a CAQDAS package for the first time and would like some pointers in planning for and setting up a project
  3. Have used a CAQDAS package in a limited way previously and would like some reminders of important early considerations
  4. You have used a CAQDAS package in an individual project and are now thinking about working with software in a team situation (please also see our team working pages)

Factors to consider when planning for the use of CAQDAS packages

Planning for the use of software to facilitate the process of analysing data using a CAQDAS package is not necessarily straightforward. There are four main aspects to consider (as illustrated in the diagram below):

  1. Project type
  2. Research design
  3. Methodology
  4. Analytic approach

This page provides a brief outline of these factors as a starting point for planning and setting up a qualitative software project. Further information and discussion on these issues can be found by following the links to the research section of this website, to relevant pages of our sister project Online QDA, or by consulting the following two publications:

Project type

Whether you are working as an individual or in a team will have a clear effect on how to plan a project and how to proceed with the analysis. Team projects are inevitably more complex and require more careful planning. See the team working pages for more specific advice on working with CAQDAS packages in team situations. Systematic memo systems and coding schemas are particularly important in team projects, but are also important to consider as soon as possible when working as an individual. Many researchers using a CAQDAS package for the first time are faced with learning the package at the same time as conducting a research project. The earlier in the process that you become familiar with your chosen software package the better: i.e. try not to leave it until you have collected all the data. If you need general information about conducting qualitative research projects see the Introduction to qualitative data analysis (QDA) pages on the online QDA website. If you need help in choosing between CAQDAS packages see the choosing an appropriate CAQDAS package pages.

Research design

The design of the research project in terms of the data being used and the project time frame are of particular importance when planning a qualitative research project using a CAQDAS package. Projects incorporating large and/or varied amounts of data require more planning than small-scale projects or those which work with one type of data. Various types of data (e.g. transcripts, documents, audio-visual files etc.) can usually be easily organised within qualitative software projects such that they can be treated in isolation or integrated as required. Systematic use of data organisation tools within CAQDAS packages (which allow you to organise data according to known characteristics (e.g. socio-demographic variables such as age, gender etc.) enable the comparison of subsets and the identification of patterns and relationships across the dataset. The preparation of data (e.g. formatting transcripts) is particularly important when working with structured data (i.e. where repeated structures occur within or across documents; e.g. in focus-group data or structured interview data). Most CAQDAS packages include ways to code on the basis of such structures. See the Online QDA page on preparing data for general information about transcription and the preparing multimedia data for use in CAQDAS packages.

Methodology

Although these software packages are referred to as ‘qualitative analysis tools’ they can increasingly be used to manage aspects of mixed methods projects. For example, where a large scale survey is followed up by interviewing a sub-set of the sample, there will be quantitative data about qualitative data. The quantitative data collected through closed survey questions will need to be analysed using a statistical packages such as SPSS or Stata and the interview transcripts can be analysed using a CAQDAS package. However, the qualitative and quantitative data can be integrated by importing relevant quantitative data from the statistics software package into the qualitative software package. See combining and converting qualitative and quantitative data for more discussion of this. 

Analytic approach

There are a range of qualitative methodologies or approaches, many of which can be applied using CAQDAS packages. See the Methodologies section of the online QDA website for descriptions of different approaches. 

CAQDAS packages are well suited to code-based analysis as coding functionality is usually at their heart. Together with the factual organisation of data through the application of attributes or variables to handle known characteristics, this enables both cross-case coding-based analysis and within-case coding analysis. Where code-based approaches are used, software packages support inductive, deductive or combined approaches. For general information on coding in qualitative data analysis see the Online QDA page on how and what to code, or consult texts such as Strauss and Corbin 2008; Flick 2009; Dey 1993; Silverman 2007; Boyatzis 1998). See moving on beyond initial coding for strategies for getting the most out of coding using CAQDAS packages. 

However, thematic or conceptual coding may not always be the most appropriate means of categorising data, and some packages provide alternative means of working with qualitative data; for example through the use of linking tools to track non-linear associations, which can be particularly useful for narrative-based approaches (see Silver and Fielding 2008; and Silver and Patashnick 2011 for more discussion on this). 

CAQDAS packages also provide tools which allow textual data to be explored according to content: i.e. to consider the context within which keywords or phrases are used, which can be useful for approaches interested in the use of language.  Some applications of these approaches are discussed in relation to initial coding approaches in the context of analysing open-ended survey question data. 

References

Boyatzis, R. (1998) Transforming qualitative information: thematic analysis and code development, Sage Publications, London

Dey, I (1993) Qualitative Data Analysis: A user-friendly guide. London : Routledge

Flick U (2014) An Introduction to Qualitative Research, 5th Edition, Sage Publications, London

di Gregorio, S & Davidson J (2008) Qualitative Research for Software Users, McGraw Hill, Open University Press, UK

Lewins, A., & Silver, C. (2007) Using Qualitative Software: A Step by Step Guide, London Sage Publications

Silver, C., & Fielding, N. (2008) 'Using Computer Packages in Qualitative Research', in Willig C & Stainton-Rogers W (eds.) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology, London, Sage Publications

Silver, C & Patashnick P (2011) ‘Finding Fidelity : Advancing audiovisual analysis using software’ The KWALON Experiment: Discussions on Qualitative Data Analysis Software by Developers and Users, FQS, Vol 12, No 1

Silverman D (2013) A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition, Sage Publications, London