Choosing a Qualitative Data Analysis Software Program


Many software programs are available to aid with qualitative research. Qualitative software programs, also known as Computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS), typically assists with transcription, coding, and analysis; and can be used with any type of qualitative or non-numerical data (i.e., interviews, focus groups, images, videos, etc.). These programs allow for research that could be difficult to complete otherwise, including research with complex analyses, large samples, or large research teams. The following post will describe the pros and cons of using software programs. It will also briefly describe four of the most popular programs, ATLAS.ti, Dedoose, MAXQDA, and NVivo. Lastly, it will provide links to further information and tutorials of each of the programs described below.

Relevant Characteristics of Qualitative Software

Software programs can help organize and manage your data. However, use requires both access to a program and a working knowledge of how to use that program. There may be some cases where these barriers to software use outweigh the possible benefits, or where it would be preferable not to use software. There are several things to consider when deciding whether your research calls for the use of a software program. These criteria are adapted from Applied Thematic Analysis by Guest, MacQueen, and Namey (2012).

The first factor to consider is the size of your research team . With larger teams, typically consisting of more than two coders or analysts, a software program is highly recommended to help manage the data with multiple people accessing and working with it. Next, the size of your dataset, or number of participants should be considered. With smaller sample sizes you might not need a high powered software program; however, with larger samples, typically anything over 20 cases, software programs are recommended to manage the files and ease analysis across files. The analysis goal should also be considered, where software is recommended for theory-building projects and might not be necessary for exploratory work. Lastly, the complexity of the study must be considered. The more complex the study design, the higher the need for a program to aid with data management and analysis.

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Figure 1. When to use qualitative software (Guest, McQueen, & Namey, 2012, p. 224)

“Methods Made Easy”

Popular Software ProgramsWhen choosing a software program most people consider factors such as cost, difficulty of use, reliability, operating system, and available support. While there are many available programs, below are more detailed descriptions of four of the most popular programs for public health research: ATLAS.ti, Dedoose, MAXQDA, and NVivo.
Similarities among Software Programs**While there are some distinguishing characteristics between these four software programs, there are several basic features that are common throughout. First, most of these programs are typically affordable at a low cost for students (~$100 or less), but can be very expensive otherwise. Most programs can be launched with either Windows or Mac operating systems and have available support systems via email or call lines, as well as web-based tutorials. Additionally, most can import and analyze a variety of file types including text, audio, graphics, and video. Lastly, the majority allow for working in teams or with multiple coders. Below we describe major differences among the four most popular programs.

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ATLAS.ti helps researchers systematically analyze complex phenomena hidden in text, multimedia, and geospatial data. It is a tool that helps the analyst locate, code, and annotate qualitative data, weigh and evaluate the importance of codes, and visualize the relationships between them. ATLAS.ti consolidates large volumes of documents and keeps track of notes, annotations, codes and memos from text, images, audio, video, and geospatial data. In addition, it provides analytical and visualization tools designed to open new interpretative views on the material. The program also allows for multi-site, multi-user analysis of data.

Advantages of Atlas.ti
  • Support for multimedia files and PDFs.
  • Google Earth is embedded within the program.
  • Multiple ways of working in the system (flexibility) for different styles.
Limitations of Atlas.ti
  • Managing the project requires care because of the external database system—changes need to be carefully saved.
  • Main working code list does not have a functioning hierarchical structure.
  • Query tool lacks the ability to integrate searchers for text with searches for coded data.
Tutorials Available


Dedoose assists researchers in analyzing large amounts of mixed methods data collected by single or multi-member research teams. The web-based capabilities and flexibility with operating systems make it user-friendly for many qualitative projects. Dedoose allows the use of audio, graphic, text, or video data to be uploaded for coding. The use of a weighted and hierarchical coding system enables in depth analysis to understand patterns in the data. Additionally, many interactive data visualizations are available for presenting the data.
Advantages of Dedoose
  • Relatively low cost and discounts for students and teams
  • Web-based
  • Window/Mac operating systems
  • Simultaneous access to data (facilitates team work)
  • Mixed methods appropriate
  • Weighting and color coding
  • Support services available: user guide online, videos, and call/email
Limitations of Dedoose
  • Need Internet to use
  • Data security concerns with web-based features
  • Potential to lose data with web-based feature; however, nightly backups of data and data encryption for privacy and security are available
Tutorials Available


Similar to other software, MAXQDA allows for research projects with complex designs, large datasets, and multiple team members or coders. MAXQDA uses a color system that allows for easy coding. Coding can also be done with a simple drag and drop feature. Moreover, weights can be assigned to each segment. These weights, ranging from 0 to 100 indicate how strongly a segment fits the given code. This aids with analysis and help identity strong examples or quotes.
With multiple analysis options including chart and table building, this program is ideal for mixed methods research. Other analysis options include excellent data visualization options. Additionally, MAXQDA allows for easy coding and analysis with non-text based files such as photos or videos.
Advantages of MAXQDA
  • Free 30 day trial
  • Low cost for students
  • Cloud-based, or does not require internet access
  • Excellent for mixed methods
  • Coding is made easy with drag and drop, color assignments, and weights
  • Several tutorials, user discussion boards, and support options are available via the MAXQDA product website.
Limitations of MAXQDA
  • Projects cannot be accessed simultaneously by multiple users. Rather team members must have access to the program, work separately, and then merge files together.
Tutorials Available


NVivo enables users to collect and organize unstructured data for qualitative analysis. Data can be imported from multiple applications and social media sites while auto coding allows for quick analysis of large chunks of data. Coding includes a drag and drop feature and option of hierarchical analysis. Media files transcribed through NVivo are automatically synced to its corresponding original media file. In addition, NVivo Server allows multiple researchers to manage and share projects simultaneously and in real time.
NVivo uses an interface similar to Microsoft making it user-friendly, while it is easily accessible from any mobile device including an iPhone, iPad, tablet, and Android phone using EverNote. These features work well for various size projects and with single to multiple person teams. Online video tutorials and support manual are available for users who wish to view a demonstration or need assistance with understanding NVivo functions.
Advantages of NVivo
  • Available in several languages-English, Chinese (Simplified Chinese), French, German, Japanese, Portuguese or Spanish.
  • Allows for simultaneous use and sharing of data among research team members
  • Supports multiple file types
  • NCapture add-on imports data from social media sites (e.g. Facebook posts, LinkedIn comments, YouTube videos)

Limitations of NVivo
  • Importing large datasets can take a large amount of time or may result in an error message
  • NVivo Mac has limited functionality (e.g. undo option not available for all actions)
  • Files from other programs, such as OneNote, not always imported accurately (i.e. missing data, change in layout).
Tutorials Available

Other Options for Qualitative Analysis

Described above are just four of the many software projects. However, there are hundreds of available programs that can be used. Deciding on a qualitative data analysis software program is a difficult decision and involves weighing costs and benefits for each individual user or team. Some additional software options include free and proprietary programs:
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Further Readings & Online Resources for Choosing a CAQDAS:

ReferencesGuest, G., MacQueen, K. M., & Namey, E. E. (2012). Applied Thematic Analysis. Sage Publications, Inc, Thousand Oaks, CA.