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Qualitative Data Analysis: Step-by-Step Guide (Manual vs. Automatic)

When we conduct research, need to explain changes in metrics or understand people's opinions, we always turn to qualitative data.

Qualitative data is typically generated through:

  • Interview transcripts
  • Surveys with open-ended questions
  • Contact center transcripts
  • Texts and documents
  • Audio and video recordings
  • Observational notes

Compared to quantitative data, which captures structured information, qualitative data is unstructured and has more depth. It can answer our questions, can help formulate hypotheses and build understanding.

But unfortunately, analyzing qualitative data is difficult. While tools like Excel, Tableau and PowerBI crunch and visualize quantitative data with ease, there are no such mainstream tools for qualitative data. The majority of qualitative data analysis still happens manually.

That said, there are two new trends that are changing this. First, there are advances in natural language processing (NLP) which is focused on understanding human language. Second, there is an explosion of user-friendly software designed for both researchers and businesses. Both help automate qualitative data analysis.

In this post we want to teach you how to conduct a successful qualitative data analysis. We will teach you how to conduct the analysis manually, and also, automatically using software solutions powered by NLP.

We’ll guide you through the steps to conduct a manual analysis, and look at what is involved and the role technology can play in automating this process.

More businesses are switching to fully-automated analysis of qualitative data because it is cheaper, faster, and just as accurate. Primarily, businesses purchase subscriptions to feedback analytics platforms so that they can understand customer pain points and sentiment.

Man deciding whether he will analyze his qualitative data manually or automatically
Will you analyze your qualitative data manually or automatically?

We’ll take you through 5 steps to conduct a successful qualitative data analysis. Within each step we will highlight the key difference between the manual, and automated approach. Here's an overview of the steps:

The 5 steps to doing qualitative data analysis

  1. Gathering and collecting your qualitative data

  2. Organizing and connecting into your qualitative data

  3. Coding your qualitative data

  4. Analyzing the qualitative data for insights

  5. Reporting on the insights derived from your analysis

What is Qualitative Data Analysis?

Qualitative data analysis is a process of gathering, structuring and interpreting qualitative data to understand what it represents.

Qualitative data is non-numerical and unstructured. Qualitative data generally refers to text, such as open-ended responses to survey questions or user interviews, but also includes audio, photos and video.

Businesses often perform qualitative data analysis on customer feedback. And within this context, qualitative data generally refers to verbatim text data from sources such as reviews, complaints, chat messages, support centre interactions, customer interviews, case notes or social media comments.

Qualitative Data Analysis methods

Once the data has been captured, there are a variety of analysis techniques available and the choice is determined by your specific research objectives and the kind of data you’ve gathered.  Common approaches include:

Content Analysis

This is a popular approach to qualitative data analysis. Other analysis techniques may fit within the broad scope of content analysis. Thematic analysis is a part of the content analysis.  Content analysis is used to identify the patterns that emerge from text, by grouping content into words, concepts, and themes. Content analysis is useful to quantify the relationship between all of the grouped content. The Columbia School of Public Health has a detailed breakdown of content analysis.

Narrative Analysis

Narrative analysis focuses on the stories people tell and the language they use to make sense of them.  It is particularly useful for getting a deep understanding of customers’ perspectives on a specific issue. A narrative analysis might enable us to summarize the outcomes of a focused case study.

Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis is used to get a thorough understanding of the political, cultural and power dynamics that exist in specific situations.  The focus here is on the way people express themselves in different social contexts. Discourse analysis is commonly used by brand strategists who hope to understand why a group of people feel the way they do about a brand or product.

Thematic Analysis

Thematic analysis is used to deduce the meaning behind the words people use. This is accomplished by discovering repeating themes in text. These meaningful themes reveal key insights into data and can be quantified, particularly when paired with sentiment analysis. Often, the outcome of thematic analysis is a code frame that captures themes in terms of codes, also called categories. So the process of thematic analysis is also referred to as “coding”. A common use-case for thematic analysis in companies is analysis of customer feedback.

Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is a useful approach when little is known about a subject. Grounded theory starts by formulating a theory around a single data case. This means that the theory is “grounded”. It’s based on actual data, and not entirely speculative. Then additional cases can be examined to see if they are relevant and can add to the original theory.

Methods of qualitative data analysis; approaches and techniques to qualitative data analysis

How to do Qualitative Data Analysis: 5 steps

Now we are going to show how you can do your own qualitative data analysis. We will guide you through this process step by step. As mentioned earlier, you will learn how to do qualitative data analysis manually, and also automatically using modern qualitative data and thematic analysis software.

To get best value from the analysis process, it’s important to be super clear about the nature and scope of the question that’s being researched. This will help you select the research collection channels that are most likely to help you answer your question.

Depending on if you are a business looking to understand customer sentiment, or an academic surveying a school, your approach to qualitative data analysis will be unique.

Once you’re clear, there’s a sequence to follow. And, though there are differences in the manual and automatic approaches, the process steps are mostly the same.

The use case for our step-by-step guide is a company looking to analyze customer feedback - in order to improve customer experience. You can follow these same steps regardless of the nature of your research. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Gather your qualitative data and conduct research

The first step of qualitative research is to do data collection. Put simply, data collection is gathering all of your data for analysis. A common situation is when qualitative data is spread across various sources.

Classic methods of gathering qualitative data

Most companies use traditional methods for gathering qualitative data: conducting interviews, running surveys, and running focus groups. This data is typically stored in documents, CRMs, databases and knowledge bases. It’s important to examine which data is available and needs to be included in your research, based on its scope.

Using your existing qualitative feedback

As it becomes easier for customers to engage across a range of different channels, companies are gathering increasingly large amounts of both solicited and unsolicited qualitative feedback.

Most organizations have now invested in Voice of Customer programs, support ticketing systems, chatbot and support conversations, emails and even customer Slack chats.

These new channels provide companies with new ways of getting feedback, and also allow the collection of unstructured feedback data at scale.

The great thing about this data is that it contains a wealth of insights and that it’s already there! When you have a new question about your customers, you don’t need to create a new research study or set up a focus group. You can find most answers in the data you already have.

Typically, this data is stored in third-party solutions or a central database, but there are ways to export it or connect to a feedback analysis solution through integrations or an API.

Utilize untapped qualitative data channels

There are many online qualitative data sources you may not have considered. For example, you can find useful qualitative data in social media channels like Twitter or Facebook. Online forums, review sites, and online communities such as Discourse or Reddit also contain valuable data about your customers, or research questions.

If you are considering performing a qualitative benchmark analysis against competitors - the internet is your best friend. Gathering feedback in competitor reviews on sites like Trustpilot, G2, Capterra, Better Business Bureau or on app stores is a great way to perform a competitor benchmark analysis.

Customer feedback analysis software often has integrations into social media and review sites, or you could use a solution like DataMiner to scrape the reviews.

G2.com reviews of the product Airtable. You could pull reviews from G2 for your analysis.
G2.com reviews of the product Airtable. You could pull reviews from G2 for your analysis.

Step 2: Connect & organize all your qualitative data

Now you all have this qualitative data but there’s a problem, the data is unstructured. Before feedback can be analyzed and assigned any value, it needs to be organized in a single place. Why is this important? Consistency!

If all data is easily accessible in one place and analyzed in a consistent manner, you will have an easier time summarizing and making decisions based on this data.

The manual approach to organizing your data

The classic method of structuring qualitative data is to plot all the data you’ve gathered into a spreadsheet.

Typically, research and support teams would share large Excel sheets and different business units would make sense of the qualitative feedback data on their own. Each team collects and organizes the data in a way that best suits them, which means the feedback tends to be kept in separate silos.

An alternative and a more robust solution is to store feedback in a central database, like Snowflake or Amazon Redshift.

Keep in mind that when you organize your data in this way, you are often preparing it to be imported into another software. If you go the route of a database, you would need to use an API to push the feedback into a third-party software.

Computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS)

Traditionally within the manual analysis approach (but not always), qualitative data is imported into CAQDAS software for coding.

In the early 2000s, CAQDAS software was popularised by developers such as ATLAS.ti, NVivo and MAXQDA and eagerly adopted by researchers to assist with the organizing and coding of data.  

The benefits of using computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software:

  • Assists in the organizing of your data
  • Opens you up to exploring different interpretations of your data analysis
  • Allows you to share your dataset easier and allows group collaboration (allows for secondary analysis)

However you still need to code the data, uncover the themes and do the analysis yourself. Therefore it is still a manual approach.

The user interface of CAQDAS software 'NVivo'
The user interface of CAQDAS software 'NVivo'

Organizing your qualitative data in a feedback repository

Another solution to organizing your qualitative data is to upload it into a feedback repository where it can be unified with your other data, and easily searchable and taggable. There are a number of software solutions that act as a central repository for your qualitative research data. Here are a couple solutions that you could investigate:  

  • Dovetail: Dovetail is a research repository with a focus on video and audio transcriptions. You can tag your transcriptions within the platform for theme analysis. You can also upload your other qualitative data such as research reports, survey responses, support conversations, and customer interviews. Dovetail acts as a single, searchable repository. And makes it easier to collaborate with other people around your qualitative research.

  • EnjoyHQ: EnjoyHQ is another research repository with similar functionality to Dovetail. It boasts a more sophisticated search engine, but it has a higher starting subscription cost.

Organizing your qualitative data in a feedback analytics platform

If you have a lot of qualitative data and it is customer or employee feedback, you will benefit from a feedback analytics platform. A feedback analytics platform is a software that automates the process of both sentiment analysis and thematic analysis.

Companies use the integrations offered by these platforms to directly tap into their qualitative data sources (review sites, social media, survey responses, etc.). The data is then organized and analyzed consistently within the platform.

If you have data prepared in a spreadsheet, it can also be imported into feedback analytics platforms.

Once all this data has been organized within the feedback analytics platform, it is ready to be coded and themed, within the same platform.

Thematic is a feedback analytics platform that offers one of the largest libraries of integrations with qualitative data sources.

Some of qualitative data integrations offered by Thematic
Some of the integrations offered by Thematic

Step 3: Coding your qualitative data

Your feedback data is now organized in one place. Either within your spreadsheet, CAQDAS, feedback repository or within your feedback analytics platform. The next step is to code your feedback data so we can extract meaningful insights in the next step.

Coding is the process of labelling and organizing your data in such a way that you can then identify themes in the data, and the relationships between these themes.

To simplify the coding process, you will take small samples of your customer feedback data, come up with a set of codes, or categories capturing themes, and label each piece of feedback, systematically, for patterns and meaning. Then you will take a larger sample of data, revising and refining the codes for greater accuracy and consistency as you go.

If you choose to use a feedback analytics platform, much of this process will be automated and accomplished for you.

The terms to describe different categories of meaning (‘theme’, ‘code’, ‘tag’, ‘category’ etc) can be confusing as they are often used interchangeably.  For clarity, this article will use the term ‘code’.

To code means to identify key words or phrases and assign them to a category of meaning. “I really hate the customer service of this software company” would be coded as “poor customer service”.

How to manually code your qualitative data

  1. Decide whether you will use deductive or inductive coding. Deductive coding is when you create a list of predefined codes, and then assign them to the qualitative data. Inductive coding is the opposite of this, you create codes based on the data itself. Codes arise directly from the data and you label them as you go. You need to weigh up the pros and cons of each coding method and select the most appropriate.

  2. Read through the feedback data to get a broad sense of what it reveals. Now it’s time to start assigning your first set of codes to statements and sections of text.

  3. Keep repeating step 2, adding new codes and revising the code description as often as necessary.  Once it has all been coded, go through everything again, to be sure there are no inconsistencies and that nothing has been overlooked.

  4. Create a code frame to group your codes. The coding frame is the organizational structure of all your codes. And there are two commonly used types of coding frames, flat, or hierarchical. A hierarchical code frame will make it easier for you to derive insights from your analysis.

  5. Based on the number of times a particular code occurs, you can now see the common themes in your feedback data. This is insightful! If ‘bad customer service’ is a common code, it’s time to take action.

We have a detailed guide dedicated to manually coding your qualitative data.

Example of a hierarchical coding frame in qualitative data analysis
Example of a hierarchical coding frame

Using software to speed up manual coding of qualitative data

An Excel spreadsheet is still a popular method for coding. But various software solutions can help speed up this process. Here are some examples.

  • CAQDAS / NVivo - CAQDAS software has built-in functionality that allows you to code text within their software. You may find the interface the software offers easier for managing codes than a spreadsheet.

  • Dovetail/EnjoyHQ - You can tag transcripts and other textual data within these solutions. As they are also repositories you may find it simpler to keep the coding in one platform.

  • IBM SPSS - SPSS is a statistical analysis software that may make coding easier than in a spreadsheet.

  • Ascribe - Ascribe’s ‘Coder’ is a coding management system. Its user interface will make it easier for you to manage your codes.

Automating the qualitative coding process using thematic analysis software

In solutions which speed up the manual coding process, you still have to come up with valid codes and often apply codes manually to pieces of feedback. But there are also solutions that automate both the discovery and the application of codes.

Advances in machine learning have now made it possible to read, code and structure qualitative data automatically. This type of automated coding is offered by thematic analysis software.

Automation makes it far simpler and faster to code the feedback and group it into themes. By incorporating natural language processing (NLP) into the software, the AI looks across sentences and phrases to identify meaningful statements.

Some automated solutions detect repeating patterns and assign codes to them, others make you train the AI by providing examples. You could say that the AI learns the meaning of the feedback on its own.

Thematic automates the coding of qualitative feedback regardless of source. There’s no need to set up themes or categories in advance. Simply upload your data and wait a few minutes. You can also manually edit the codes to further refine their accuracy.  Experiments conducted indicate that Thematic’s automated coding is just as accurate as manual coding.

Paired with sentiment analysis and advanced text analytics - these automated solutions become powerful for deriving quality business or research insights.

You could also build your own, if you have the resources!

Thematic finds codes and sentiment within qualitative data automatically
Thematic finds codes and sentiment within text automatically

The key benefits of using an automated coding solution

Automated analysis can often be set up fast and there’s the potential to uncover things that would never have been revealed if you had given the software a prescribed list of themes to look for.

Because the model applies a consistent rule to the data, it captures phrases or statements that a human eye might have missed.

Complete and consistent analysis of customer feedback enables more meaningful findings. Leading us into step 4.

Step 4: Analyze your data: Find meaningful insights

Now we are going to analyze our data to find insights. This is where we start to answer our research questions. Keep in mind that step 4 and step 5 (tell the story) have some overlap. This is because creating visualizations is both part of analysis and reporting.

The task of uncovering insights is to scour through the codes that emerge from the data and draw meaningful correlations from them. It is also about making sure each insight is distinct and has enough data to support it.

Part of the analysis is to establish how much each code relates to different demographics and customer profiles, and identify whether there’s any relationship between these data points.

Manually create sub-codes to improve the quality of insights

If your code frame only has one level, you may find that your codes are too broad to be able to extract meaningful insights. This is where it is valuable to create sub-codes to your primary codes. This process is sometimes referred to as meta coding.

Note: If you take an inductive coding approach, you can create sub-codes as you are reading through your feedback data and coding it.

While time-consuming, this exercise will improve the quality of your analysis. Here is an example of what sub-codes could look like.

Example of sub-codes

You need to carefully read your qualitative data to create quality sub-codes. But as you can see, the depth of analysis is greatly improved. By calculating the frequency of these sub-codes you can get insight into which  customer service problems you can immediately address.

Correlate the frequency of codes to customer segments

Many businesses use customer segmentation. And you may have your own respondent segments that you can apply to your qualitative analysis. Segmentation is the practise of dividing customers or research respondents into subgroups.

Segments can be based on:

  • Demographic
  • Age
  • Interests
  • Behavior
  • And any other data type that you care to segment by

It is particularly useful to see the occurrence of codes within your segments. If one of your customer segments is considered unimportant to your business, but they are the cause of nearly all customer service complaints, it may be in your best interest to focus attention elsewhere. This is a useful insight!

Manually visualizing coded qualitative data

There are formulas you can use to visualize key insights in your data. The formulas we will suggest are imperative if you are measuring a score alongside your feedback.

Impact

If you are collecting a metric alongside your qualitative data this is a key visualization. Impact answers the question: “What’s the impact of a code on my overall score?”.

Using Net Promoter Score (NPS) as an example, first you need to:

  1. Calculate overall NPS
  2. Calculate NPS in the subset of responses that do not contain that theme
  3. Subtract B from A

Then you can use this simple formula to calculate code impact on NPS.

Visualizing qualitative data: Calculating the impact of a code on your score
Calculate the impact of a code on your score

You can then visualize this data using a bar chart.

You can download our CX toolkit - it includes a template to recreate this.

Trends over time

This analysis can help you answer questions like: “Which codes are linked to decreases or increases in my score over time?”

We need to compare two sequences of numbers: NPS over time and code frequency over time. Using Excel, calculate the correlation between the two sequences, which can be either positive (the more codes the higher the NPS, see picture below), or negative (the more codes the lower the NPS).

Now you need to plot code frequency against the absolute value of code correlation with NPS.

Here is the formula:

Analyzing qualitative data: Calculate which codes are linked to increases or decreases in my score
Calculate which codes are linked to increases or decreases in my score

The visualization could look like this:

Visualizing qualitative data trends over time
Visualizing trends over time

These are two examples, but there are more. For a third manual formula, and to learn why word clouds are not an insightful form of analysis, read our visualizations article.

Using a text analytics solution to automate analysis

Automated text analytics solutions enable codes and sub-codes to be pulled out of the data automatically. This makes it far faster and easier to identify what’s driving negative or positive results. And to pick up emerging trends and find all manner of rich insights in the data.

Another benefit of AI-driven text analytics software is its built-in capability for sentiment analysis, which provides the emotive context behind your feedback and other qualitative data.

Thematic provides text analytics that goes further by allowing users to apply their expertise on business context to edit or augment the AI-generated outputs.

Since the move away from manual research is generally about reducing the human element, adding human input to the technology might sound counter-intuitive. However, this is mostly to make sure important business nuances in the feedback aren’t missed during coding. The result is a higher accuracy of analysis. This is sometimes referred to as augmented intelligence.

Codes displayed by volume within Thematic. You can 'manage themes' to introduce human input.
Codes displayed by volume within Thematic. You can 'manage themes' to introduce human input.

Step 5: Report on your data: Tell the story

The last step of analyzing your qualitative data is to report on it, to tell the story. At this point, the codes are fully developed and the focus is on communicating the narrative to the audience.

A coherent outline of the qualitative research, the findings and the insights is vital for stakeholders to discuss and debate before they can devise a meaningful course of action.

Creating graphs and reporting in Powerpoint

Typically, qualitative researchers take the tried and tested approach of distilling their report into a series of charts, tables and other visuals which are woven into a narrative for presentation in Powerpoint.

Using visualization software for reporting

With data transformation and APIs, the analyzed data can be shared with data visualisation software, such as Power BI or Tableau, Google Studio or Looker. Power BI and Tableau are among the most preferred options.

Visualizing your insights inside a feedback analytics platform

Feedback analytics platforms, like Thematic, incorporate visualisation tools that intuitively turn key data and insights into graphs.  This removes the time consuming work of constructing charts to visually identify patterns and creates more time to focus on building a compelling narrative that highlights the insights, in bite-size chunks, for executive teams to review.

Using a feedback analytics platform with visualization tools means you don’t have to use a separate product for visualizations. You can export graphs into Powerpoints straight from the platforms.

Two examples of qualitative data visualizations within Thematic
Two examples of visualizations within Thematic

Conclusion - Manual or Automated?

There are those who remain deeply invested in the manual approach - because it’s familiar, because they’re reluctant to spend money and time learning new software, or because they’ve been burned by the overpromises of AI.  

For projects that involve small datasets, manual analysis makes sense. For example, if the objective is simply to quantify a simple question like “Do customers prefer X concepts to Y?”. If the findings are being extracted from a small set of focus groups and interviews, sometimes it’s easier to just read them

However, as new generations come into the workplace, it’s technology-driven solutions that feel more comfortable and practical. And the merits are undeniable.  Especially if the objective is to go deeper and understand the ‘why’ behind customers’ preference for X or Y. And even more especially if time and money are considerations.

The ability to collect a free flow of qualitative feedback data at the same time as the metric means AI can cost-effectively scan, crunch, score and analyze a ton of feedback from one system in one go. And time-intensive processes like focus groups, or coding, that used to take weeks, can now be completed in a matter of hours or days.

But aside from the ever-present business case to speed things up and keep costs down, there are also powerful research imperatives for automated analysis of qualitative data: namely, accuracy and consistency.

Finding insights hidden in feedback requires consistency, especially in coding.  Not to mention catching all the ‘unknown unknowns’ that can skew research findings and steering clear of cognitive bias.

Some say without manual data analysis researchers won’t get an accurate “feel” for the insights. However, the larger data sets are, the harder it is to sort through the feedback and organize feedback that has been pulled from different places.  And, the more difficult it is to stay on course, the greater the risk of drawing incorrect, or incomplete, conclusions grows.

Though the process steps for qualitative data analysis have remained pretty much unchanged since psychologist Paul Felix Lazarsfeld paved the path a hundred years ago, the impact digital technology has had on types of qualitative feedback data and the approach to the analysis are profound.  

If you want to try an automated feedback analysis solution on your own qualitative data, you can get started with Thematic.

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