Using Visuals to Present and Explain Qualitative Data

Categories: Creative Methods, Data Analysis, Focus Series, Other, Presentation, Visuals, and Creativity, Qualitative, Research

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A MethodSpace focus for May is on ways to use visuals to represent key ideas, themes in the data, and results of the study, in qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods research and evaluation. Find all posts in this unfolding series.

We welcome Lydia Hooper for guest posts about qualitative research uses of data visualization. See Lydia’s previous MethodSpace posts: Using Visuals to Support Your Writing Process and Share Research Visually. See Lydia’s website to learn more about her work related to using visuals in research and evaluation.

by Lydia Hooper

Anyone with an interest in data visualization who searches out insights and best practices, whether online or in their networks, will certainly discover two trends: one, most discussions are about quantitative data, and, two, the focus tends to be on presenting data.

Although there has been more dialogue recently about data visualization used for exploratory purposes, the field has yet to bring qualitative data visualization to the fore. This is unfortunate because there is so much qualitative data we need to understand better, and because qualitative data helps us understand certain things much better than quantitative data does.

Whereas quantitative data is about what, when, where, and how much, qualitative data is about:

  • Who – data may include quotes or personal statements
  • How – data is about processes and/or change over time
  • Why – data seeks to identify themes and/or parts of a whole

In this article and another to follow I will cover a lot of ground based on my experience working on many qualitative data visualization projects over the years.

Purpose of visuals that help us analyze and explore

There are many benefits of using visuals, particularly when it comes to aiding in the understanding of complex information and ideas. The one that is most overlooked, underrated, and misunderstood is the benefit that the creator of such visuals receives, one that must precede any other benefit that a visual might bestow on another.

It might seem obvious that in order to clearly communicate something, one must first clearly understand it. Still, when it comes to creating visuals, most people almost instinctively think about a product for presenting.

At least at first, it is much more useful to think about visuals as tools for thinking. I think of data visuals that are exploratory in nature (as opposed to explanatory) as being less about communicating data to others and more about communicating with the data itself. Again, this is a vital step that must precede any effort to share any knowledge with anyone else.

Best types of visuals for exploring

Most people who work with qualitative data will use some go-to tools for exploring it, though they may not recognize the extent to which they are visual:

  • Flip charts or whiteboards for notes taken during meetings
  • Software like NVivo used for analyzing large qualitative data sets
  • Presentation slides or other visuals used when sharing information among a team

Use of these tools can be taken a step further with the intentional use of some visual diagrams, ones that might be less familiar than the well-known quantitative pie, line, or bar chart/graph.

  • Mind map
  • Network map
  • Word cloud
  • Fishbone diagram

Want to go deeper with your analysis? Consider using visual symbology as you create these or other diagrams to better understand patterns:

  • Colors or shapes are best for indicating different categories
  • Proximity is best for showing closeness of relationships (if items are closer together we will automatically associate them with one another)
  • Weight or width is best for indicating level of importance, for example of ties or connections
  • Size can also be used for emphasizing importance or extent, but since studies have shown that people aren’t good at comparing area, differences need to be dramatic

If you are curious to learn more, read this article on my blog and leave me a comment with your questions!

Be sure to stay tuned for more tips and tools in my next article on using visuals to present and explain. Also, to make the critical transition from knowledge of best practices to application which is the root of true understanding, check out my free workbook on Using Human-Centered Design to Visualize Qualitative Data as well as my monthly live online training sessions offered via my Patreon page!

Related MethodSpace Posts

One thought on “Using Visuals to Present and Explain Qualitative Data

  1. Thanks Janet and others for this theme month -I have had a quick browse and mull- I have had a superbusy month in my job but hope to return to May in June or July when my workload has lessened and browse slowly and carefully through the valuable postings for May!


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