Insight that matters – how to analyse qualitative data in design

Thematic analysis is an easy and powerful method for making sense of qualitative data.

Impact requires solid insight

As designers, we use insight to define user needs, understand human behaviour, and speak for the people impacted by our solutions. But when we talk about insight, we sometimes say things like this:

The good news: we can learn to use qualitative methods to strengthen our design projects.

An intro to thematic analysis

I use thematic analysis to make sense of qualitative data in design projects. It is easy, fun and flexible. And it works.

  • ask good questions and collect data
  • code the data using the appropriate strategy
  • discover and describe emerging themes
Process overview of thematic analysis with individual post-it-notes for each step. It starts with a question, interviews and transcripts, then we code and sort the codes.   Then, we interpret the codes to discover emerging themes that fit the data set. At the end we describe our results as findings backed by representative quotes.
Thematic analysis starts with a question, interviews and transcripts (blue), before we perform the coding as a team (yellow or white). Next, we sort and interpret the codes to discover emerging themes that fit the data set (green). At the end we describe our results as findings backed by representative quotes.

The starting point

As part of a team of designers, I use thematic analysis primarily to understand user needs and context. A key step is to ask appropriate questions to what the data should answer.

  • What factors are important for successful onboarding of new employees?
  • How do people relate to a web page as part of a customer journey?
  • What motivates people who use a specific dating app?
  • What do expert users need from a digital interface at a high-risk environment?

High quality data

Impactful, actionable insight requires a solid foundation for the analysis. I prefer to use interview notes of in-depth interviews as the raw data.

A flexible coding process

According to Braun and Clarke, thematic analysis is flexible because we can choose between an analysis at the surface level or look for underlying meaning. A second option is to code using a pre-defined set of codes, or approach the data with open hearts and minds and develop the codes as we go.

Process overview of the different coding alternatives. Top row shows the goal of identifying surface level meaning with a targeted coding, whereas the lower row shows how to discover underlying meaning with an open, inductive coding.

The codes

A code is a short description of the meaning contained in a quote. Braun and Clarke note that it is important to give your full attention to each quote, and then carefully consider the meaning in the data.

List of five quotes with accompanying codes on post-it-notes. The quote “Talking to people means a lot to me” has the code “Personal relation is important”.
Examples of codes assigned to individual quotes. Two of the themes that emerged from the analysis was that customers related to the company through personal connections, and that the web pages did not support the customers to get to know the company.
Screenshot from Miro showing six interviews coded with post-it notes. Codes are colour-coded according to the role of the informant.
Screenshot from Miro showing six interviews coded with post-it notes. Codes are colour-coded in yellow, orange and green according to the role of the informant.

The emerging themes

After coding the entire data set, we copy the codes to a new area, and start sorting using affinity mapping.

Screenshot from Miro showing three different timepoints in the process of sorting 150 post-it-notes into groups.
Screenshot from Miro showing the sorting process with affinity mapping.
Screenshot from Miro showing 150 post-it-notes sorted into fourteen groups of varying size.
Screenshot from Miro showing the fourteen groups of codes. The analysis is not done yet.

The resulting themes

The fourteen groups are adapted from a recent project regarding onboarding of new employees at a large company. We wondered about the following: What factors are important for new employees to succeed?

Screenshot of Miro showing the three overarching themes from the analysis.

Communicating the results

We often use storytelling to bind together the different themes as a user story. Listeners can see themselves in the analysis, and relate to the findings in a more human way.

An alternative to counting

It is still tempting to count when presenting qualitative results. But instead of saying that four of five talked about culture at work, we tried to phrase it like this: “In our analysis, we found that the culture at work is important.” or “The informants tell us three important things: A, B, and C …”

Developing new design skills

Already during the sorting process, the emerging themes start an enjoyable and contagious creative process. The sentences that describe each group of post-it-notes often provide space for inspiration and reflection, and discussions around the themes can help choose a direction and develop new concepts.

Read more

The good news is that you can learn to use qualitative methods to strengthen your design projects!

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