Current Issue - 2008, Volume 3 Number 1


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LP Wong MSc, PhD, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Address for correspondence: Dr Wong Li Ping, Health Research Development Unit (HeRDU), Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Tel: 03-79675738, Fax: 03-79675769, E-mail:



Qualitative data is often subjective, rich, and consists of in-depth information normally presented in the form of words. Analysing qualitative data entails reading a large amount of transcripts looking for similarities or differences, and subsequently finding themes and developing categories. Traditionally, researchers `cut and paste’ and use coloured pens to categorise data. Recently, the use of software specifically designed for qualitative data management greatly reduces technical sophistication and eases the laborious task, thus making the process relatively easier. A number of computer software packages has been developed to mechanise this `coding’ process as well as to search and retrieve data. This paper illustrates the ways in which NVivo can be used in the qualitative data analysis process. The basic features and primary tools of NVivo which assist qualitative researchers in managing and analysing their data are described.
Key words: Qualitative research data analysis, NVivo

Wong LP. Data analysis in qualitative research: a brief guide to using NVivo. Malaysian Family Physician. 2008,3(1):14-20.


Qualitative research has seen an increased popularity in the last two decades and is becoming widely accepted across a wide range of medical and health disciplines, including health services research, health technology assessment, nursing, and allied health.1 There has also been a corresponding rise in the reporting of qualitative research studies in medical and health related journals.2

The increasing popularity of qualitative methods is a result of failure of quantitative methods to provide insight into in-depth information about the attitudes, beliefs, motives, or behaviours of people, for example in understanding the emotions, perceptions and actions of people who suffer from a medical condition. Qualitative methods explore the perspective and meaning of experiences, seek insight and identify the social structures or processes that explain people’s behavioural meaning.1,3 Most importantly, qualitative research relies on extensive interaction with the people being studied, and often allows researchers to uncover unexpected or unanticipated information, which is not possible in the quantitative methods. In medical research, it is particularly useful, for example, in a health behaviour study whereby health or education policies can be effectively developed if reasons for behaviours are clearly understood when observed or investigated using qualitative methods.4


Qualitative research yields mainly unstructured text-based data. These textual data could be interview transcripts, observation notes, diary entries, or medical and nursing records. In some cases, qualitative data can also include pictorial display, audio or video clips (e.g. audio and visual recordings of patients, radiology film, and surgery videos), or other multimedia materials. Data analysis is the part of qualitative research that most distinctively differentiates from quantitative research methods. It is not a technical exercise as in quantitative methods, but more of a dynamic, intuitive and creative process of inductive reasoning, thinking and theorising.5 In contrast to quantitative research, which uses statistical methods, qualitative research focuses on the exploration of values, meanings, beliefs, thoughts, experiences, and feelings characteristic of the phenomenon under investigation.6

Data analysis in qualitative research is defined as the process of systematically searching and arranging the interview transcripts, observation notes, or other non-textual materials that the researcher accumulates to increase the understanding of the phenomenon.7 The process of analysing qualitative data predominantly involves coding or categorising the data. Basically it involves making sense of huge amounts of data by reducing the volume of raw information, followed by identifying significant patterns, and finally drawing meaning from data and subsequently building a logical chain of evidence.8

Coding or categorising the data is the most important stage in the qualitative data analysis process. Coding and data analysis are not synonymous, though coding is a crucial aspect of the qualitative data analysis process. Coding merely involves subdividing the huge amount of raw information or data, and subsequently assigning them into categories.9 In simple terms, codes are tags or labels for allocating identified themes or topics from the data compiled in the study. Traditionally, coding was done manually, with the use of coloured pens to categorise data, and subsequently cutting and sorting the data. Given the advancement of software technology, electronic methods of coding data are increasingly used by qualitative researchers.

Nevertheless, the computer does not do the analysis for the researchers. Users still have to create the categories, code, decide what to collate, identify the patterns and draw meaning from the data. The use of computer software in qualitative data analysis is limited due to the nature of qualitative research itself in terms of the complexity of its unstructured data, the richness of the data and the way in which findings and theories emerge from the data.10 The programme merely takes over the marking, cutting, and sorting tasks that qualitative researchers used to do with a pair of scissors, paper and note cards. It helps to maximise efficiency and speed up the process of grouping data according to categories and retrieving coded themes. Ultimately, the researcher still has to synthesise the data and interpret the meanings that were extracted from the data. Therefore, the use of computers in qualitative analysis merely made organisation, reduction and storage of data more efficient and manageable. The qualitative data analysis process is illustrated in Figure 1.


NVivo is one of the computer-assisted qualitative data analysis softwares (CAQDAS) developed by QSR International (Melbourne, Australia), the world’s largest qualitative research software developer. This software allows for qualitative inquiry beyond coding, sorting and retrieval of data. It was also designed to integrate coding with qualitative linking, shaping and modelling. The following sections discuss the fundamentals of the NVivo software (version 2.0) and illustrates the primary tools in NVivo which assist qualitative researchers in managing their data.

Key features of NVivo

To work with NVivo, first and foremost, the researcher has to create a Project to hold the data or study information. Once a project is created, the Project pad appears (Figure 2). The project pad of NVivo has two main menus: Document browser and Node browser. In any project in NVivo, the researcher can create and explore documents and nodes, when the data is browsed, linked and coded. Both document and node browsers have an Attribute feature, which helps researchers to refer the characteristics of the data such as age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, etc.