Editor’s note: John Owen is CEO of QSR International, an Australia-based research software firm.

In the world of research, the infiltration of technology has been greeted with mixed reviews. Many have embraced the new horizons that technology brings but others have taken a more skeptical view, choosing to continue working in more traditional methods. This difference is clearly evident when examining the tools of the trade. For example, while most quantitative researchers have welcomed the technological advancements, there is still a strong resistance to moving away from the long-established pen-and-paper approach within sections of the qualitative research field.

Qualitative research generates a large amount of raw material, usually in the form of text, but increasingly now in the form of audio, video and digital photos. Further, the Internet has allowed researchers to reach a rapidly expanding audience in a variety of differing environments, from blogs to social networks to online surveys.

Traditionally, qualitative researchers have used manual methods to organize and manage this high volume of data and are faced with hours of sorting, highlighting, cutting and pasting. This physical process seems to have implied a more human touch or connection by linking the researcher more directly to those being researched, which in some ways differentiates qualitative from quantitative researchers. It was not that long ago in the academic world that the idea of using software to analyze qualitative data was viewed as methodologically unsound and going against the important “closeness to data” by distancing the researcher from the source material. However, the main purpose of the computer is no longer one of literally computing numerical data. Instead, computers are used for manipulating all kinds of information, particularly multimedia material.

In general terms, academics have embraced software tools for use in all forms and disciplines of qualitative research. This is not the case in the commercial world, where researchers still generally rely on manual, paper-based methods or basic software workarounds in Microsoft Word or Excel to compile their research data.

The big question is why? Is this a case of widespread technophobia by the commercial research community or are there more mundane and logical reasons why large sheets of paper covered with notes and highlighter pen markings are still a common sight in researchers’ offices?

Justify their method

Unlike the academic researcher, qualitative researchers in the commercial world are rarely called upon to justify their method of research and are employed because of their expertise to deliver the insight sought by their clients. Indeed, there could be a fear that the use of computers could damage their credibility in the art of interpreting qualitative data and dilute their ability to glean insight from vast quantities of information. In this instance, is the fear of technology the result of the researcher’s beliefs or is there a resistance from the client to bringing technology to the forefront of qualitative research?

Regardless, there seems to be an important misunderstanding of the purpose of software that needs to be debated to ensure that qualitative research does not fall behind its quantitative counterpart. In considering the question of using a computer program in the analysis of qualitative research data, it is necessary from the outset to understand fully what computers can and cannot do in the research process.

While software offers several ways of organizing and managing qualitative research data, computer programs do not, on their own, analyze the information. Instead, technology provides researchers with support, structure and quality control of their data. A computer can free the mind of the researcher from the mechanics of qualitative data analysis so the focus can be placed on the more important aspect of research - the thinking.

Another benefit is the size of the research projects that can be undertaken thanks to the capabilities of computer storage. These days it’s not unusual for national research projects to be spread across a country and feature numerous moderators and 100 interviews and focus groups generating enormous data files. Conducting studies of this magnitude in the traditional pen-and-paper format would involve massive amounts of work.

Responsibility of the researcher

It is vital for everyone involved in the qualitative or quantitative research field to understand that the decisions made to uncover themes in a study remain the responsibility of the researcher, not the computer. The strength of the analysis depends to a large extent on the well-established strategies used in analyzing qualitative research data, regardless of whether computer technology is used.

In addition, the software allows the analysis process to be structured. Its progress can be recorded as it develops, thus establishing an audit trail that clearly demonstrates how the analytic ideas and themes emerged. The ability to review processes and procedures has always been of the highest order in scientific research to allow peer review. Rather than stifling this important part of the research process, technology can actually enhance it by allowing comment and criticism of the computer audit trail throughout the project. Researchers can also use this information to substantiate that they are not subject to any kind of bias or preconceived notions.

Significant pressure

Commercial researchers are often put under significant pressure to deliver the client briefing within unrealistic time frames, ones which can force compromise in the quality of the results. Given this all-too-common scenario and the lack of any form of encouragement from the clients to deliver greater transparency of the analysis that delivered the recommendations, is it any wonder that the commercial researcher will follow the most cost-effective and expedient method possible to meet the client’s demands?

While some academics are proactive in using software in their research projects, their teaching-university colleagues at the undergraduate level often remain focused on traditional processes. Few universities introduce the concept of using qualitative software tools at the undergraduate level (although some educational institutions have introduced software in undergraduate courses in marketing and business). The result is that the majority of qualified qualitative researchers emerge from the educational system with a mindset that technology has no place in the world of qualitative analysis. There are signs that this is beginning to change, as the younger generation who are used to technology expect the inclusion of it in their studies and future careers. But there is still a long way to go.

Ways that are different

There is evidence that researchers who include technology in their projects are undertaking analysis in ways that are different from those used before software was available. This is because researchers no longer need to keep to habits that were only necessary because they used paper-based material. This in turn encourages researchers to use new data forms and introduce new types of analysis that technology makes possible.

Instead of technology being a barrier to research, the tools for qualitative analysis have the potential to open up a raft of new and interesting insights into consumers’ current activities and behaviors. The qualitative research industry needs to recognize this as an opportunity and not be left behind by relying solely on traditional methods.