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Research and beyond: using NVivo for all kinds of qualitative data

26 April 2017 - BY Laura Lagendyk

Laura Lagendyk is an NVivo Platinum Trainer with over 15 years’ experience leading academic and applied health research teams. Here she asks us to think outside the box when it comes to using NVivo.

Think NVivo 11 is (only) research software?

When I talk about using NVivo in my work in the Canadian healthcare system, people often respond with something like, “Well, I haven't learned to use NVivo because I don’t do research.”

Then they go on to tell me about doing qualitative analysis – of literature, interviews, focus groups, reports, you name it! – the way they’ve “always done it.” Copying and pasting text and counting cells in Excel spreadsheets – highlighting documents with grand color schemes – arranging sticky notes on walls. 

Sound familiar? 

Yet, even if the project is not research, these are all tasks that could be done more efficiently in NVivo.
So if you are a person who assumed that NVivo is a tool that’s only useful in qualitative research, I want to expand how you think about it.

Where else can I use NVivo?

From my own work using and training others how to use NVivo, I have examples of many different ways it can be used to support and improve analysis of qualitative data.

For instance, I have experience with healthcare projects that used NVivo for:

  • Environmental scans – using coding features to theme the literature review and interviews with subject matter experts.
  • Policy review – using text search queries to scan dozens of policy documents to compare definitions of terms to see how consistent they were (or were not!)
  • Evaluation – using case nodes, auto coding and manual coding to combine healthcare provider survey and interview data in an evaluation of a large network of agencies.
  • Quality improvement – using auto coding to assess for themes logged in patient concerns data, and to analyze trends over time in responses to open-ended questions in a regularly administered patient satisfaction survey.

When can I use NVivo?

NVivo can be used at multiple stages of qualitative analysis projects. In addition to using it for data analysis I also use NVivo for:

  • Scoping, planning – using project maps to brainstorm ideas and export the maps for presentation, and to lay out analysis plans and convert the map to nodes.
  • Managing project documents – using project folders to house all relevant documents including literature, project charter, data collection instruments, consent forms, team notes, analysis plans and presentations.  
  • Tracking team and analysis processes – using memos to capture questions between team members working asynchronously on the project, and to track analysis decisions (e.g., audit trail of methods used) and hours (time coding interviews).
  • Reporting – exporting memos as draft sections of a report, complete with quotes; using memos to track hours and estimate resources for future work or funding requests (what’s a reasonable length of time to complete the work? what FTE is required?)

Engaging stakeholders in the results

In my work we use NVivo in an iterative process of coding, memos, queries and team discussion to produce solid themes that represent the data. Yet, I am sometimes disappointed that stakeholders seem only mildly interested in the themes we worked so hard to produce.

Does this happen to you?  

If it does, here’s a hint. Use NVivo’s word cloud in your reports or presentations, explain that they are based on word frequency (“the bigger the font the more the word was used”) and suddenly your audience is hooked. 

Let me share an example.

In an environmental scan that included hundreds of people interviewed in dozens of focus groups we assessed the current state of provision of patient and family centered care in an organization. In one word cloud we produced for the report, ‘time’ showed up front and centre.

A word cloud based on focus groups of healthcare providers

One steering committee member commented, “Well that makes sense. All this data is from healthcare providers. They’re probably saying they don’t have ‘time’ to provide patient and family centered care. Wait until you show the patient data. I’ll bet ‘time’ doesn’t show up as frequently.”

But ‘time’ did show up frequently in the patient data – and in almost every focus group.

Word clouds based on focus groups of patients

But, we explained, the interviewees were using ‘time’ differently. Healthcare providers talked about needing ‘time’ to provide care. Patients talked about wait ‘time’ and wanting more ‘time’ with healthcare providers. And our theme about ‘time’ reflected that. 

Suddenly the steering committee was engaged in the data – examining all the word clouds, assessing the themes against the word frequency, asking about words they expected to see but were missing, and so on.

Mission accomplished! Great impact from an easy-to-use feature in NVivo.


Whether evaluation, quality improvement, or an environmental scan, NVivo makes qualitative analysis easier, assists in project management and can increase the impact of your results. 

The next time you have a project with qualitative data, consider using NVivo from start to finish – whether or not it’s research.

Are you already using NVivo in innovative ways? Love to hear about it in the comments below.