Data Visualization: 3 Ways to Make Your Qualitative Reports Pop
What Can Data Visualization Do for Us?
Data visualization—the graphical representation of information and data—can be a powerful tool in qualitative reporting. While we certainly can’t completely escape text-centric pages in our qualitative reports, graphics add visual interest and help break up the monotony of pages (or slides) of text. Done well, graphics help support qualitative findings and enable us to communicate in more interesting ways beyond words on paper (or a screen). Effective data visualization can also help readers understand concepts more quickly and easily and make information more memorable.
All the Cool Kids Are Doing it
Newspapers and other media outlets have jumped on board the data visualization bandwagon. Publications like The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times employ full-time data journalists to augment their reporting. These folks take an enormous trove of data on a particular topic—for instance, the earlier start of spring in some parts of the U.S. or the confirmed U.S. measles cases by county in 2019 —and expertly slice, dice and manipulate the information into interactive graphics that communicate big ideas in an accessible and elegant way.
Data Visualization and Qual: Not a Linear Journey
Visualizing quantitative data is relatively easy. Hard numbers and percentages naturally lend themselves to visual representation. Charts, graphs and their modern equivalent—infographics—are easy to create from quant data.
Qualitative data can be harder to visualize; transforming qual data into graphics isn't as straightforward or simple. A search for “infographics and qualitative data” reveals that some people even argue that qual data can’t be turned into infographics. Take heart, however. An equal number argue that it can and provide examples to back this assertion.
But it’s not a linear journey from qualitative data to data visualization. Many of us have heard from end clients who want hard numbers or percentages included in a final report to quantify how various concepts or ideas stacked up against each other. We can explain that “qual isn't quant” until the cows come home, but clients persist in making such requests.
Instead of giving in to these requests (or refusing them outright), there is another option. We can take this as the opportunity to develop data visualization approaches that give our clients the detail they want and expect without compromising the qualitative nature of the report. A few examples follow.
Word Clouds – an Oldie but Goodie
Word clouds are a common data visualization technique in qualitative reports. Using font size (and often color), they convey magnitude of various responses, thoughts or ideas. Larger words=more popular/frequent/common. This approach works well because it’s a way to provide granular detail without showing the actual numbers behind the information.
While word clouds aren't the answer for every situation, they are a great tool, and websites for creating them abound. The PollEverywhere blog lists nine favorite word cloud generators, including Wordle and Tagxedo. A Google search for “word cloud generator” will point you to others.
Customer Journey Maps: Timelines in Disguise
Customer journey maps are another way to employ data visualization in qualitative reports. These maps are essentially timelines; a quick Google search on this term turns up many great examples that can be easily adapted to fit your particular purpose.
Here’s one example: a timeline detailing milestones in the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps history from 2010 to 2014.
The example above is organized by year, but the general format can be adapted to visualize a customer journey. Year markers become phases in the purchase journey: research, comparison, selection, purchase. The linear format allows room above and below the line for details on the individual steps consumers undertake in each phase.
Venngage is one great resource for infographic templates and tools, including many for timelines (such as the one below). They offer a couple different subscription plans. But you can peruse the templates for free, and that might be all the inspiration you need to create your own.
Bubble Graphs – Form and Function
Bubble graphs are another idea we can borrow from data journalism. During the 2012 London Olympics, The New York Times kept a running medal count by country and visualized the data in a simple table (below). The information is clear, but the table doesn't do a great job conveying the magnitude of differences among countries.
The Times formatted the same information into a bubble graph. This approach does a much better job conveying magnitude. You can easily identify the countries that led the medal counts. Readers could hover over any circle for more detailed information, including a country’s medal count by type (gold/silver/bronze). (Visit the link below the graphic and try it for yourself!)
The same idea—sans numbers, of course—could be employed in qualitative reporting. For example, we could use a bubble graph to report the characteristics that participants want in a dog.
Readers can immediately see which characteristics were most important and which were mentioned by fewer participants. By keeping numbers out of it, the graphic remains faithful to the spirit of qualitative research.
Sky’s the Limit
These are just a few examples of how data visualization techniques can be employed to make qualitative reports more engaging and communicate findings and implications more effectively.
Here are several links to more examples; many additional resources can be found by searching data visualization:
What are your go-to data visualization techniques and tools? What works? What doesn't? If you have advice or a favorite resource to share, please leave a comment.
Maria Virobik joined QRCA in 2018 but has worked in qualitative research since 1997. After early dalliances in the advertising world, she came to her senses and has been devoted to qualitative analysis and reporting ever since. Originally from Southern California, she and her husband sold their house last year and now live a nomadic lifestyle with their two marginally obedient dogs, Lucy and Ginger Snap.