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Move from early ideas to analytical insight with NVivo visualizations

29 March 2017 - BY Kath McNiff

Here are five NVivo visualizations to help you analyze your qualitative data and communicate your findings in a compelling way.

Words and phrases are a qualitative researcher’s bread and butter. Whether it’s interview transcripts, survey responses or journal articles, words convey rich meaning and subtle insights in your data.

Sometimes, however, focusing on large slabs of text for long periods of time can be onerous, making it hard to see the bigger picture. This is where visualizations can help.  

In this blog, I’ll demonstrate how visualizations helped me step back from a sea of books and articles and put together my last blog post,  “How do I assess the credibility of my qualitative research?”.

I also recommend tips on how you too can visualize your research. 

1. Word Clouds

A word cloud is a visual display of the words used in your source materials. Words that are used most frequently are displayed in larger fonts and other words appear in smaller, varying font sizes.

It’s perfect for getting a birds-eye view of the most commonly used terms in your source materials and can give you a heads-up on emerging themes.

For example, this is a Word Cloud I used when writing my blog on credibility in qualitative research:


A Word Cloud shows the most frequently occurring words

To create it, I:

1.    Imported journal articles and book excerpts into NVivo.
2.    Ran a Word Frequency query.
3.    Displayed the results in a Word Cloud.

While reviewing the Word Cloud, I noticed all sorts of exciting concepts but the idea of ‘validity’ was a standout.

To dig deeper and explore the viewpoints of various authors, I double-clicked on the word ‘validity’. This prompted NVivo to run a Text Search query and to display each occurrence of the word in context:


The results of a Text Search query

This way, I could easily read through and see what all the authors had to say about ‘validity’ but, to get more visual, I decided to display these results in a Word Tree.

2. Word Tree

A Word Tree displays your text search results as a tree with branches for the various contexts in which a word or phrase occurs.

Not only does it let you explore a keyword in context (KWIC), but it also helps you to see the recurring themes or phrases that surround a word.

Here’s the Word Tree for my search on the word ‘validity’:


Word Trees let you explore a keyword in context

In a Word Tree, you can click on a branch to highlight it. Seeing the phrases that come before and after your keyword can set you on a path to discovery and insight.

While exploring my ‘validity’ Word Tree, I noticed some interesting patterns. For example, the term ‘quantitative’ occurs in a couple of contexts, along with the idea that grounded theorists ‘seldom embrace the criteria of validity’. 

Perhaps ‘validity’ is a loaded term that is controversial among some qualitative researchers?

This was interesting, so I drilled down into the data and did more reading to explore these ideas.

The Word Tree helped me see the language authors were using to talk about ‘validity’ and highlighted some fascinating new leads.

3. Mind Map

Mind Maps are diagrams that have a central idea in the middle with associated ideas arranged around it.

They’re great for brainstorming, taking a holistic look at your data and visualizing how themes are connected. They’re also a fun break from endless reading.

Here’s a Mind Map I created to capture my early thoughts about credibility in qualitative research:


Capture your initial ideas in Mind Map

I created the Mind Map in a few simple steps:

1.    Choose Mind Map from the Explore tab in the ribbon.
2.    Name the Mind Map.
3.    Add a title for the central idea.
4.    Use the toolbar above the Mind Map to add associated ideas.

Mind Maps are a great way to not only capture your thinking but also create an initial coding structure. Then, as you read through your source materials, you can select content and code it at the ready-made nodes.

When I was ready to start coding, I clicked the Create as Nodes button and automatically turned this Mind Map into a preliminary node hierarchy:


Click Create as Nodes to turn your mind map into a node hierarchy

As I read through my articles and book excerpts, I coded passages at these initial theme nodes and at new themes that emerged along the way.

After doing a substantial amount of coding, I wanted to compare the ideas of influential authors. First, I ran a matrix coding query to cross-tabulate themes and authors and this helped me to compare the coded content. Then I decided to do a visual comparison using a Comparison Diagram.

4. Comparison Diagram

A comparison diagram is an automatically generated visualization that lets you compare the similarities and differences between two items in your project.

To create a comparison diagram:

1.    On the Explore tab in the ribbon, click Comparison Diagram.
2.    Select the items you want to compare.

Here’s my comparison diagram comparing the coding for two influential authors, Saldana and Charmaz. Based on my coding, the diagram indicates that the authors both address ideas of generalizability, ethics and reflexivity:


Use a comparison diagram to see the themes (nodes) that authors have in common

If I zoom out, I can see that there are points of difference too:


The outside nodes in a comparison diagram highlight themes (nodes) that are not common

I double-clicked on nodes of interest to open them and do more reading. This helped me determine where the experts agreed and where their thinking diverged. 

As I went along, new ideas emerged and I did more coding to capture my developing insights. I was beginning to feel that some concepts like; ‘integrity’, ‘transparency’ and ‘reflexivity’ were becoming more significant. 

5. Hierarchy Charts

Hierarchy Charts show your nodes as a set of nested triangles of varying sizes, where size represents the amount of coding at each node.

With a few clicks you can get a handle on the dominant themes:

1.    On the Explore tab of the ribbon, click Hierarchy Chart.
2.    Choose to chart nodes.

Here is the Hierarchy Chart that NVivo generated based on my coding:


Hierarchy Charts show your nodes as a series of nested boxes

The chart helped me to confirm my hunch – the larger boxes indicating that along with ‘validity’ the concepts of ‘reflexivity’, ‘integrity’ and ‘transparency’ were the more heavily coded themes. It also highlighted other interesting themes that I may have overlooked.

Eventually, the more dominant themes became key points in my blog post about credibility in qualitative research.

You can generate Hierarchy Charts at regular intervals to see how your own coding is progressing. 

Recharge your analytic batteries

It’s easy to forget about visualizing your data when you’re intensely focused on the written word. But when I feel stuck or need to step back and think about a project, visualizations give me a fresh perspective and often reveal exciting new leads. 

They also provide an engaging way to present your findings or share your progress with colleagues – just right-click to export them for use in reports and presentations.

The visualizations in this post are available in NVivo for Mac and in NVivo 11 Pro for Windows – give them a try on your next qualitative project.

What visualizations have helped you in the past? Share your experiences in comments below.