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Better Project Planning with Digital Tool Kits and the NVivo Shell

02 November 2017 - BY Judith Davidson

In my evolving practice as a qualitative research making use of digital tools, I employ a project planning approach that is grounded in the notion of the digital tool kit, where design work itself takes place in an NVivo Project.  Here’s how it came to be and how it works. 

The Digital Tool Kit

When I started teaching qualitative research in 1999, I focused on one significant digital tool—Qualitative Data Analysis Software—in the form of NUD*IST.  Today, I try to develop a digital tool kit perspective among my students.  Qualitative Data Analysis Software (QDAS) serves as the anchor for that toolkit.  This is a viewpoint that I describe in detail in my forthcoming book from Oxford University Press on teamwork in qualitative research.  This table, taken from that manuscript, illustrates my views.  For teams or individually conducted research this range of tools is basic for conducting research in a digital world.   
Communication and Project Management Data and Literature Collection Qualitative Research Data Organization and Management
-Synchronous and asynchronous communication tools for individual and group interactions
-Project Planning tools
-Digital Storage
-Tools to support individual and collaborative writing
-Dissemination Tools including social media forms
Data Collection:
Will vary based upon face-to-face or virtual collection of data.  Might include audio and visual recording, mobile applications, and note taking devices. 
Literature Collection
-Reference Manager
-web clipping and note taking
-Qualitative Data Analysis Software (QDAS); necessary for organizing materials collected from diverse members in diverse forms and analyzed by broad number of individuals.  Provides tools for organization, visualization, and probing materials.  Be aware of how the tool allows for (or restricts) collaboration 
-Tool selected should integrate with reference manager, notetaking and other digital tools used in project

NVivo has been a good QDAS choice for my purposes because of the range of other digital tools with which it can be integrated, including Endnote, which I use as my bibliographic manager, and OneNote or Evernote (I am still trying to figure out which will become my primary notetaking tool). 
Employing the term “digital tool kit” raises resonances for me with the text—Digital Tools and Qualitative Research (Paulus, Lester, & Demske, 2014), as well as my much earlier work with the Hanau Model School Partnership bringing technology into a cluster of K-12 schools. 

It makes best sense to plan out your digital tool kit as you are creating the research design for the overall project.  By projecting early on what needs you will have and what tools will help you to get the job done, you will be better prepared for the subsequent work you need to do. 

The NVivo Shell

Over time I have found that by starting my research design work in my QDAS tool (NVivo in my case), I can kill two birds with one stone by also getting my NVivo Shell set up and ready to go.  The NVivo Shell was a term created by a former doctoral student, Charmaine Hickey, to describe the creation of a project outline in NVivo before the project has actually gotten underway.  

I start from within NVivo by creating a project planning memo in which I describe the course of the project from data collection through completion.  As I go along I create as many source and node placeholders as is reasonable—from a folder for interviews to the development of case attributes for the interviewees.  Whatever I imagine as part of the project, I also try to imagine how it will be organized within NVivo and make a placeholder to put the future materials or ideas. 

When I have developed the written plan and placeholders, I have been known to go into the mapping tool, where I create a map, draw in the placeholders and examine them in this visual format to help me better understand what is present and what might be missing. 
Making use of the two—a digital tool kit approach and the NVivo Shell—leads to more robust project planning and projects that I believe produce more useful, trustworthy, and interesting results with greater efficiency.