Power-up your research with diagrams and models

Did you know diagrams can be really useful at every stage of the research process? Even if, like me, you're not a visual person?

Visualize inputs, outputs and impacts

In my 15 years as an independent researcher, I have learned to love diagrams.  And the modelling feature of NVivo makes them very easy to create and revise.  They're great as working tools, whether you work alone or collaboratively, and as presentation tools for sharing thoughts, ideas, and findings beyond your research team.

As an example, here is a diagram of a logic model for a (fictional) community health project. 

I have included this to show how a diagram can convey a lot of information about a complex situation in a small amount of space.

The context for the project is described on the left.

Then the inputs are all depicted as types of people; it would theoretically have been possible to use concepts such as 'time' and 'money', but as these would be required for all outputs, this approach would have been less meaningful.  As it is, all the people contribute to all the outputs, apart from partner agency staff who only contribute to the smoking cessation service and the mental health support group, as shown by the arrows.

There is also no direct relationship between any of the outputs and outcomes.  From the diagram alone, could be argued that the smoking cessation service contributes directly to reduced smoking, but as smoking cessation is also explicitly encouraged during other outputs of this health project, that was not seen to merit an arrow.

Finally, the impact of the project is described on the right-hand side of the diagram.  A left-to-right arrow beneath or above the diagram (or both) could have been used to indicate the progression from context to impact, but this was not deemed necessary as the triangular shape chosen for the inputs, plus the two arrows from partner agency staff, seemed enough to indicate this progression – particularly within our culture which reads from left to right.

The above paragraphs demonstrate that diagrams need to be supported by textual explanation.

Plan and clarify

Here's another diagram, which I created with NVivo as I planned this blog post.  I include this as an example of how a diagram can be used to support work in progress.

This is a good diagram.  Not for its aesthetic or structural properties, or for its comprehensiveness: it doesn't set out to say everything that could be said about the use of diagrams in research, and the connectors are idiosyncratic.  Nevertheless, it is a good diagram, because it served as a useful tool to help me clarify my thinking.

If I'd been collaborating with a colleague or team, this diagram would have provided a useful basis for discussion.  For example, someone might have asked, 'Why don't you connect 'Writing' and 'With participants'?, which would be an entirely valid question.

Use colour and groups

This second diagram also shows another feature of NVivo's modelling facility: the potential for using colours, as well as shapes, to differentiate between areas or categories in your diagram.  This increases the potential complexity of what you can present, as well as the visual appeal.

For example, the octagonal shapes in the diagram above denote ways in which diagrams can be created or used, and these are then grouped by colour, into people-focused (pink), hard copy (green), and using technology (silver).

I particularly like the fact that you can hide and unhide all the items of a particular colour at the click of a mouse, which is helpful in thinking through relationships and connections.

Explore connections, relationships and progressions

The main virtue of diagrams is their ability to show connections, relationships, and progressions. This means diagrams are useful from the earliest stages of research, to map out plans and record ideas.

Diagrams can be created by hand with paper and pens, or using specialist diagram software such as Gliffy, or other specialist software which supports diagramming such as NVivo and its modelling function.

Another feature of NVivo that I appreciate is the way your diagrams can interact with your project.  You can link any shape in a diagram with any node, source, or other project item.  Then, if you wish, you can click through from the linked shape to open the project item to which it is linked.

Collaborate with participants

Diagrams can be created by one person alone, or by two or more people working sequentially or together. Alternatively, researchers and participants can construct diagrams together, a method often used in grounded theory research.

There are many uses for diagrams within the research process.  For example, at the data gathering stage, researchers can ask participants to create diagrams to show how they see some aspect of the research topic.

Move from themes to concepts

Diagrams can be particularly useful in data analysis to help you visualise your data and the ideas and relationships which develop as you work through the analytic process.  Again, this is often used in grounded theory research, to help researchers move from coding or identifying themes to conceptualising their findings.

For example, Charles Buckley and Michael Waring, from Loughborough University in the UK, used diagrams at various stages of grounded theory studies of children's attitudes to physical activity (Buckley and Waring 2013).  At the analytic stage, they found that creating diagrams helped them to generate, explore, record and communicate insights about their data.  They say,

"During the process of research, the use of diagrams can help the researcher make sense of relationships that may not have been previously explicit. In this way, they become an active part of the theory generation and not only support developing conceptualisation but also actively encourage clarity of thought." (page 152)

Visual Metaphors

Jennifer Lapum from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, worked with a multidisciplinary team, including artists and researchers who were experienced in using arts-based research methods, to study patients' experiences of open-heart surgery (Lapum et al 2012).

As part of their analytic process, they drew their findings as visual and diagrammatic metaphors.  Visual metaphors included 'an obstacle course, a conveyor belt, a balance beam, a patched quilt, a crumbling foundation, a foggy valley, and metamorphosis' (page 105).  Words and arrows were added to these to show connections, relationships and progressions, thereby turning them into diagrammatic metaphors.

Show complex and simultaneous relationships

Diagrams can be very useful in presenting and disseminating qualitative or mixed method research, as they offer the option to show complex and simultaneous relationships more clearly than text or narrative.

They can be helpful for researchers working in teams, to present aspects of their work to each other in the course of the project, as well as for researchers to present their methods and findings to various audiences.

Diagrams are particularly useful for conceptualisation, although some researchers worry that using diagrams in this way can be reductive.  But for others, diagrams in conjunction with other forms of communication, such as text, allow deeper understanding for broader audiences than text alone.

NVivo usefully makes it incredibly easy to export diagrams, by simply copying-and-pasting, into software programs such as Word and PowerPoint.

Get back to the drawing board

So if you've never tried using diagrams in your research, why not give it a go?  And I heartily recommend using NVivo's modelling function, which makes it incredibly easy to create and revise diagrams.

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