I am all in favor of using software programs to support qualitative data analysis (QDA) because such programs can help researchers to:
- manage (store, organize, sort through) large and complex data sets
- code and tag data more easily
- conduct rigorous searches on/through the data set
- identify, make sense of, test and describe patterns in the data set.
It’s important to note that even when using QDA software, the work of coding, analyzing, and testing the data still rests on the researcher. That is, the QDA program doesn’t do the analysis — it simply facilitates the process.
So you’ve decided to invest time, energy, and (perhaps) money into one of the dozens of QDA programs on the market. How do you go about choosing the best one for your needs?
Some factors to consider are:
- Compatibility with your hardware, i.e. can the software be used on a Mac? On a PC?
- The type of data you want to analyze (video, audio, text, still images, maps) and whether or not the software supports it. Note that some software packages are designed for certain types of data. For example, Transana is specially built to do very close analysis of audio-video data while Atlas.ti now supports GeoCoding of Google Earth maps. Not all QDA programs have these specialized features.
- Whether or not you need the program for transcription. Some programs are built to let you transcribe and code data, but playback features can vary greatly in their sophistication.
- Your arrangements for data analysis. Are you working by yourself or as part of a team? If you’re part of a research team, do you have access to a shared server where the QDA program can be housed? If not, how will you share data sets and updates with one another, and is the QDA program built to facilitate this? One appealing idea for research teams (particularly those without a shared server) is a cloud-based tool like Dedoose, which makes collaborative coding and sharing a snap.
- Reporting and other output options. What sort of reports, visuals, summaries, or other types of output do you need/want, and does the software have the capacity to produce these?
- Cost. Is there a flat one-time fee or will you have to pay a monthly/yearly fee? Are free trial versions available? Are there discounts for students? Better yet, is the software free?
- Usability. What is the typical learning curve? Can you successfully pick up and start using the QDA program within your time constraints? What user support (customer service center, online forums, manuals) exists for the program?