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GuidesResearch methodsA guide to coding qualitative research data

A guide to coding qualitative research data

Last updated

12 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

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When compiling feedback, whether from social mentions, online reviews, or surveys, how much time do you spend trying to find new insights from them? Asking open-ended survey questions provides more valuable insights than generating a Net Promoter Score (NPS) from your customers, via a single question in a survey.

Each time you ask open-ended and free-text questions, you'll end up with numerous free-text responses. When your qualitative data piles up, how do you sift through it to determine what customers value? And how do you turn all the gathered texts into quantifiable and actionable information related to your user's expectations and needs?

Qualitative data can offer significant insights into respondents’ attitudes and behavior. But to distill large volumes of text / conversational data into clear and insightful results can be daunting. One way to resolve this is through qualitative research coding.

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What is coding in qualitative research?

This is the system of classifying and arranging qualitative data. Coding in qualitative research involves separating a phrase or word and tagging it with a code. The code describes a data group and separates the information into defined categories or themes. Using this system, researchers can find and sort related content.

They can also combine categorized data with other coded data sets for analysis, or analyze it separately. The primary goal of coding qualitative data is to change data into a consistent format in support of research and reporting.

A code can be a phrase or a word that depicts an idea or recurring theme in the data. The code’s label must be intuitive and encapsulate the essence of the researcher's observations or participants' responses. You can generate these codes using two approaches to coding qualitative data: manual coding and automated coding.

Why is it important to code qualitative data?

By coding qualitative data, it's easier to identify consistency and scale within a set of individual responses. Assigning codes to phrases and words within feedback helps capture what the feedback entails. That way, you can better analyze and understand the outcome of the entire survey.

Researchers use coding and other qualitative data analysis procedures to make data-driven decisions according to customer responses. Coding in customer feedback will help you assess natural themes in the customers’ language. With this, it's easy to interpret and analyze customer satisfaction.

How do inductive and deductive approaches to qualitative coding work?

Before you start qualitative research coding, you must decide whether you're starting with some predefined code frames, within which the data will be sorted (deductive approach). Or, you may plan to develop and evolve the codes while reviewing the qualitative data generated by the research (inductive approach). A combination of both approaches is also possible.

In most instances, a combined approach will be best. For example, researchers will have some predefined codes/themes they expect to find in the data, but will allow for a degree of discovery in the data where new themes and codes come to light.

Inductive coding

This is an exploratory method in which new data codes and themes are generated by the review of qualitative data. It initiates and generates code according to the source of the data itself. It's ideal for investigative research, in which you devise a new idea, theory, or concept. 

Inductive coding is otherwise called open coding. There's no predefined code-frame within inductive coding, as all codes are generated by reviewing the raw qualitative data.

If you're adding a new code, changing a code descriptor, or dividing an existing code in half, ensure you review the wider code frame to determine whether this alteration will impact other feedback codes.  Failure to do this may lead to similar responses at various points in the qualitative data,  generating different codes while containing similar themes or insights.

Inductive coding is more thorough and takes longer than deductive coding, but offers a more unbiased and comprehensive overview of the themes within your data.

Deductive coding

This is a hierarchical approach to coding. In this method, you develop a codebook using your initial code frames. These frames may depend on an ongoing research theory or questions. Go over the data once again and filter data to different codes. 

After generating your qualitative data, your codes must be a match for the code frame you began with. Program evaluation research could use this coding approach.

Inductive and deductive approaches

Research studies usually blend both inductive and deductive coding approaches. For instance, you may use a deductive approach for your initial set of code sets, and later use an inductive approach to generate fresh codes and recalibrate them while you review and analyze your data.

What are the practical steps for coding qualitative data?

You can code qualitative data in the following ways:

1. Conduct your first-round pass at coding qualitative data

You need to review your data and assign codes to different pieces in this step. You don't have to generate the right codes since you will iterate and evolve them ahead of the second-round coding review.

Let's look at examples of the coding methods you may use in this step.

  • Open coding: This involves the distilling down of qualitative data into separate, distinct coded elements.

  • Descriptive coding: In this method, you create a description that encapsulates the data section’s content. Your code name must be a noun or a term that describes what the qualitative data relates to.

  • Values coding: This technique categorizes qualitative data that relates to the participant's attitudes, beliefs, and values.

  • Simultaneous coding: You can apply several codes to a single piece of qualitative data using this approach.

  • Structural coding: In this method, you can classify different parts of your qualitative data based on a predetermined design to perform additional analysis within the design.

  • In Vivo coding: Use this as the initial code to represent specific phrases or single words generated via a qualitative interview (i.e., specifically what the respondent said).

  • Process coding: A process of coding which captures action within data.  Usually, this will be in the form of gerunds ending in “ing” (e.g., running, searching, reviewing).

2. Arrange your qualitative codes into groups and subcodes

You can start organizing codes into groups once you've completed your initial round of qualitative data coding. There are several ways to arrange these groups. 

You can put together codes related to one another or address the same subjects or broad concepts, under each category. Continue working with these groups and rearranging the codes until you develop a framework that aligns with your analysis.

3. Conduct more rounds of qualitative coding

Conduct more iterations of qualitative data coding to review the codes and groups you've already established. You can change the names and codes, combine codes, and re-group the work you've already done during this phase. 

In contrast, the initial attempt at data coding may have been hasty and haphazard. But these coding rounds focus on re-analyzing, identifying patterns, and drawing closer to creating concepts and ideas.

Below are a few techniques for qualitative data coding that are often applied in second-round coding.

  • Pattern coding: To describe a pattern, you join snippets of data, similarly classified under a single umbrella code.

  • Thematic analysis coding: When examining qualitative data, this method helps to identify patterns or themes.

  • Selective coding/focused coding: You can generate finished code sets and groups using your first pass of coding.

  • Theoretical coding: By classifying and arranging codes, theoretical coding allows you to create a theoretical framework's hypothesis. You develop a theory using the codes and groups that have been generated from the qualitative data.

  • Content analysis coding: This starts with an existing theory or framework and uses qualitative data to either support or expand upon it.

  • Axial coding: Axial coding allows you to link different codes or groups together. You're looking for connections and linkages between the information you discovered in earlier coding iterations.

  • Longitudinal coding: In this method, by organizing and systematizing your existing qualitative codes and categories, it is possible to monitor and measure them over time.

  • Elaborative coding: This involves applying a hypothesis from past research and examining how your present codes and groups relate to it.

4. Integrate codes and groups into your concluding narrative

When you finish going through several rounds of qualitative data coding and applying different forms of coding, use the generated codes and groups to build your final conclusions. The final result of your study could be a collection of findings, theory, or a description, depending on the goal of your study.

Start outlining your hypothesis, observations, and story while citing the codes and groups that served as its foundation. Create your final study results by structuring this data.

What are the two methods of coding qualitative data?

You can carry out data coding in two ways: automatic and manual. Manual coding involves reading over each comment and manually assigning labels. You'll need to decide if you're using inductive or deductive coding.

Automatic qualitative data analysis uses a branch of computer science known as Natural Language Processing to transform text-based data into a format that computers can comprehend and assess. It's a cutting-edge area of artificial intelligence and machine learning that has the potential to alter how research and insight is designed and delivered.

Although automatic coding is faster than human coding, manual coding still has an edge due to human oversight and limitations in terms of computer power and analysis.

What are the advantages of qualitative research coding?

Here are the benefits of qualitative research coding:

  • Boosts validity: gives your data structure and organization to be more certain the conclusions you are drawing from it are valid

  • Reduces bias: minimizes interpretation biases by forcing the researcher to undertake a systematic review and analysis of the data 

  • Represents participants well: ensures your analysis reflects the views and beliefs of your participant pool and prevents you from overrepresenting the views of any individual or group

  • Fosters transparency: allows for a logical and systematic assessment of your study by other academics

What are the challenges of qualitative research coding?

It would be best to consider theoretical and practical limitations while analyzing and interpreting data. Here are the challenges of qualitative research coding:

  • Labor-intensive: While you can use software for large-scale text management and recording, data analysis is often verified or completed manually.

  • Lack of reliability: Qualitative research is often criticized due to a lack of transparency and standardization in the coding and analysis process, being subject to a collection of researcher bias. 

  • Limited generalizability: Detailed information on specific contexts is often gathered using small samples. Drawing generalizable findings is challenging even with well-constructed analysis processes as data may need to be more widely gathered to be genuinely representative of attitudes and beliefs within larger populations.

  • Subjectivity: It is challenging to reproduce qualitative research due to researcher bias in data analysis and interpretation. When analyzing data, the researchers make personal value judgments about what is relevant and what is not. Thus, different people may interpret the same data differently.

What are the tips for coding qualitative data?

Here are some suggestions for optimizing the value of your qualitative research now that you are familiar with the fundamentals of coding qualitative data.

Keep track of your codes using a codebook or code frame

It can be challenging to recall all your codes offhand as you code more and more data. Keeping track of your codes in a codebook or code frame will keep you organized as you analyze the data. An Excel spreadsheet or word processing document might be your codebook's basic format.

Ensure you track:

  • The label applied to each code and the time it was first coded or modified

  • An explanation of the idea or subject matter that the code relates to

  • Who the original coder is

  • Any notes on the relationship between the code and other codes in your analysis

Add new codes to your codebook as you code new data, and rearrange categories and themes as necessary.

How do you create high-quality codes?

Here are four useful tips to help you create high-quality codes.

1. Cover as many survey responses as possible

The code should be generic enough to aid your analysis while remaining general enough to apply to various comments. For instance, "product" is a general code that can apply to many replies but is also ambiguous. 

Also, the specific statement, "product stops working after using it for 3 hours" is unlikely to apply to many answers. A good compromise might be "poor product quality" or "short product lifespan."

2. Avoid similarities

Having similar codes is acceptable only if they serve different objectives. While "product" and "customer service" differ from each other, "customer support" and "customer service" can be unified into a single code.

3. Take note of the positive and the negative

Establish contrasting codes to track an issue's negative and positive aspects separately. For instance, two codes to identify distinct themes would be "excellent customer service" and "poor customer service."

4. Minimize data—to a point

Try to balance having too many and too few codes in your analysis to make it as useful as possible.


What is the best way to code qualitative data?

Depending on the goal of your research, the procedure of coding qualitative data can vary. But generally, it entails: 

  • Reading through your data

  • Assigning codes to selected passages

  • Carrying out several rounds of coding

  • Grouping codes into themes

  • Developing interpretations that result in your final research conclusions 

You can begin by first coding snippets of text or data to summarize or characterize them and then add your interpretative perspective in the second round of coding.

A few techniques are more or less acceptable depending on your study’s goal; there is no right or incorrect way to code a data set.

What is an example of a code in qualitative research?

A code is, at its most basic level, a label specifying how you should read a text. The phrase, "Pigeons assaulted me and took my meal," is an illustration. You can use pigeons as a code word.

Is there coding in qualitative research?

An essential component of qualitative data analysis is coding. Coding aims to give structure to free-form data so one can systematically study it.

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