Popular Techniques for Visualizing Qualitative Data

In May 2017, I was privileged to present at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry on ‘Popular Techniques for Visualizing Qualitative Data’. This blog post is a summary of that presentation.

Qualitative data (sometimes referred to as unstructured data) is virtually any information that can be captured that is not numerical in nature. Qualitative data includes electronic journal articles, audio from interviews, video from focus groups, open ended question responses from online surveys, social media posts, and much more.

Visualizing qualitative data is useful for providing clarity during analysis and helps to communicate information clearly and efficiently to others. Representing data visually is useful during analysis for identifying connections and patterns which would otherwise be difficult to discern. Using visualization techniques is a continual analysis process, rather than being included at the end of data collection.

In early 2017, QSR International conducted a survey on SurveyMonkey with qualitative researchers around the world from academia, health, not for project, government, and enterprises. This blog post looks at the 1,020 survey responses, focusing on popular techniques for visualizing qualitative data; those visualizations that are regularly used, those visualizations that are used to explore or gain insights, and those visualizations that are used to report on or share information.


Visualizations that are regularly used

Qualitative researchers regularly use the following visualizations:

  • 56% Coding Stripes which are colored bars displayed alongside content that allows visual scanning of sections of content to assist in seeing patterns and co-occurrence of themes, sentiment, or cases.
  • 31% Word Clouds which reflect the language within the data by emphasizing the most commonly occurring words in the context of other frequently occurring words by using font size to indicate the number of times a word occurs.
  • 28% Charts which are used to explore and present aggregated data such as the makeup of themes for content or which content makes up a theme.
  • 25% Word Trees which display a key word with context displayed as branches that grow based on frequency; they assist in finding recurring themes or phrases that surround the key word by using branch size to indicate the number of times a sentence occurs.
  • 17% Concept Maps which are used to map out connections to present ideas, interpretations, or theories; these are typically a free-form visualization made up of different shapes and connectors to articulate links such as this causes, this requires, or this contributes to.
  • 15% Mind Maps which are a brainstorming tool that starts with a central topic or main idea; they can be used to map theoretical groups of concepts sorted into themes.
  • 14% Hierarchical Charts which visualize a hierarchy to see patterns in thematic structures or view demographics of cases and content; they use size to convey meaning and use color to show additional information.
  • 13% Explore Diagrams which focus on a single item, showing all the other items connected to it, allowing the user to step forward and back through the different connections between items.
  • 10% Comparison Diagrams which show what two items have in common and how they differ; they can be used to compare content, themes, or cases – to see their similarities and differences.
  • 9% Project Maps which are a way of visually exploring and presenting different items and connections within a research project; they can be used to identify emerging patterns, theories and explanations.
  • 8% Sociograms which are a graphic representation of social links that a person has; it plots the structure of interpersonal relations in a group and can assist in performing social network analysis on a population of cases and their relationships.
  • 5% Geovisualizations which refers to a set of tools and techniques supporting the analysis of geospatial data through interactive visualization; they provide deeper understanding of location groupings and is particularly useful with demographic information.


Visualizations used to explore or gain insights

Qualitative researchers use visualizations to explore or gain insights into their data as follows: 62% Coding Stripes, 41% Word Trees, 37% Word Clouds, 36% Charts, 27% Concept Maps, 26% Explore Diagrams, 25% Mind Maps, 22% Comparison Diagrams, 21% Hierarchical Charts, 15% Project Maps, 12% Sociograms, and 10% Geovisualizations.


Visualizations used to report on or share information

Qualitative researchers use visualizations to report on or share information as follows: 32% Charts, 27% Word Clouds, 18% Word Trees, 15% Concept Maps, 14% Hierarchical Charts, 12% Coding Stripes, 10% Mind Maps, 10% Explore Diagrams, 9% Project Maps, 9% Comparison Diagrams, 7% Sociograms, and 5% Geovisualizations.


Visualizations vary according to research stage

This survey revealed that qualitative researchers use a range of different visualizations with different preferences based on the stage of research. When visualizing data to explore or gain insights, Coding Stripes (62%) are the most popular technique; whereas when visualizing data to report on or share information, Charts (32%) are the most popular technique. Interestingly, Word Trees and Word Clouds are the second and third most popular techniques, swapping places depending on the stage of research.

It will be interesting to see how technology continues to impact how we visualize qualitative data in the future, and how we go about understanding human-generated content.

What visualizations have you used? How has your approach changed?

Note: This blog post also appears on LinkedIn Pulse.

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