The preliminary exam in almost any graduate program requires the organization of a tremendous amount of reading material. One of the preliminary exams I’m taking, the one in social science research methods, for instance, requires a familiarity with over 40 unique sources, spanning 18 distinct topics. That’s a reading list of over 4 pages in length! Furthermore, the exam requires that I write three ten page papers over the course of three consecutive days regarding three unknown methodology questions drawing from potentially any and all of the materials on the reading list. It’s a lot to read and a lot to recall. To organize the information in these reading materials, and speed up my ability to recall topics, quotes and my own notes on them, I tried using a qualitative data analysis (QDA) software system, a preparation strategy which I really wish had worked better.
Generally speaking, QDA software systems allow researchers to organize qualitative data. These suites allow researchers to select content across a number of documents and classify all their selections under different themes. In a slightly more technically way, content across many documents can be selected by a researcher using QDA software, content which they can then in turn associate with different nodes (i.e., themes), both to which they can apply numerous annotations. Content and themes created in this manner can then be relabeled and nested (or unnested) based on the sense-making of the person doing the research. Content selected in this way is recalled by simply double-clicking on the node associated with it. The result of all this work is a spidery network of content, which, as an organization method, offers some attractive qualities.
Organizing content, themes, and annotations by nodes and links is potentially a convenient, timesaving data organization strategy.
- No longer must researchers copy and paste important quotes from their documents into separate files. Instead they can work directly on their documents and tag, with a flick of the mouse, whatever they think is important.
- No longer must researchers work with long note outlines. Content is important, of course, but, when trying to make sense of a large collection of identified themes, content items can at times get in the way. Nodes and content are generally shown in QDA packages using separate windows, which simplifies the outline and allows for easier theme management. In this way a researcher can spend more time thinking about how their themes relate to one another and only look at quotes and annotations when they actually need them.
- No longer must researchers keep track of page numbers. Each content item is tied to the original page within the document it was found. Page numbers, in this way, need only be written out by a researcher when they themselves are actually ready to write about the content referenced. Front loading page numbers is a lot of work and needless work when the content items identified do not make it into the working document.
QDA software packages are a promising way in which researchers can spend more time reading and thinking about their content than explicitly managing it.
To investigate QDA, I looked into QSRI’s software suite NVivo 10. Plenty of great tutorials exist on how to use NVivo 10, put out both by QSRI and members of the NVivo community. For this reason, I’m going to spend more time talking about what I didn’t like about NVivo 10 than how to specifically do certain things with it. Suggestions are also provided as to how NVivo 10 could potentially be made more effective.
Node Matrix Column Width Adjustments Change Other Column Widths
- Resizing the column ‘Created On’ resized all other columns as well, most notably the ‘References’ column. These others columns themselves now need to be corrected, which requires the user to do extra work. This needs to be fixed.
Node Column Names Misalign after Adjusting Column Widths in a Narrow UI Frame
- Resizing the column ‘Name’ misaligned the column names of the node matrix. Because of this, tracking columns names now falls to the user, which is work, extra work they might prefer not to do. This needs to be fixed.
Can’t Easily Retrieve Content From a PDF File
- Content selected by ‘Region’ isn’t shown when opening an ‘Open Node…’ frame. Instead, the region coordinates of the selected content are shown. The point of retrieving content is to actually get the content and not a list of instructions as to where it is the content is located. Content retrieval executed in this way actually passes the burden of content retrieval to the user.
View Selected Content
- Selected content can be viewed in the ‘Open Node…’ frame under the ‘PDF’ tab. Even though the unselected part of the document is masked, the content is only found by scrolling around the document itself. This has the benefit of connecting the content with the page it’s on, but getting the content still requires the user to do the work. Is it possible, upon opening an ‘Open Node…’ frame, to generate and display an image of the region selected instead of the coordinates at which it is located? Or, alternatively, is it possible to make available the tools usually available when working with image files when working with PDF files?
Can’t ‘Insert Row’ Content with a PDF File
- PDF files are not treated the same way as image files, though working with PDF files might be easier if they were.
Working with an Image File
- When working with an image file, selected regions can be inserted into a table using the ‘Insert Row’ option. Doing this allows a user to more or less overlap a comment with a selected image region, a comment which can then be connected to a node and recalled as text when needed. In this way, a scanned document can be coded, which, in a round about way, can include a PDF file, when the PDF file itself has first been exported to collection of image files. This conversion process, however, is a lot of work when working with multiple PDF files and when the PDF files themselves each contain multiple pages. Is it possible to include a bulk file conversion function with the software suite?
Annotations Not Displayed In-Line With Retrieved Content
- Content annotations are retrieved and shown when opening an ‘Open Node…” frame. However, separating annotations from the content items to which they refer requires the user to do added work when transferring their content to a working document. Instead of copying and pasting at once all retrieved content from an ‘Open Node…’ frame to a working document, the user is required to intersperse, in some manual piece-by-piece way, their annotations among the content items they transferred. It falls to the user to copy an annotation, search a working document for the annotation’s associated content item, and paste it into place. Why not give users the option, when viewing a node in an ‘Open Node…’ frame, to have their annotations inserted in-line with the content items themselves?
Can’t Quickly Unnode Content
- Removing a selected content item from a node requires the user to first find the original content item they selected. This isn’t so bad, since the software mostly keeps track of this through nodes, but it still requires the user to find and select the item they originally selected, which can require extra work on behalf of the user. Why not let users deselect content from nodes through the ‘Open Node…’ frame?
Have to Readjust the UI for Every Document Opened
- Every time a user opens a document they must adjust the UI so as to work with it. With a lot of files, this means doing the following sequence of steps repeatedly: ‘Click to edit’, move and readjust the frame, readjust, when working with images, the region-content table, zoom in on the file viewed, reselect ‘Nodes’ from the navigation pane. This is too much work. Why not make newly opened documents default to the last configuration specified by the user? Or, alternatively, why not implement a tab system of sorts where files can be opened into the user adjusted workspace?
To be fair, NVivo 10 does everything I want a QDA application todo. It lets me select content, associate content with different nodes, nest and unnest nodes, modify node labels, annotate content and nodes, and, most importantly, recall everything done with simply the click of a mouse. However, NVivo 10 falls short regarding content selection options and UI design, which in turn create extra work for the user. One scanned PDF document, for instance, can, when converted to a collection of images, require a user to manage about thirty separate files, files which require the user to do a lot of unnecessary software fidgeting. This fidgeting with NVivo adds up fast and quickly outweighs the productivity gains had in using the software. At this point in its development, I don’t recommended NVivo 10 to most other graduate students looking for an effective means by which to better manage their preliminary exam materials.