NVivo coding in a pandemic

Lyn Lavery

For many researchers the effects of the pandemic continue, with various cities around the world in lockdown and research work occurring in home offices rather than on university campuses. While this brings a wide range of challenges to the research process, many researchers I’ve worked with over the last few months have experienced specific challenges with their NVivo coding. It’s difficult to focus on the nuances of a qualitative transcript while home schooling children, and many of us have been struggling with concentration and focus, both of which are a necessity when you’re at the all-important coding stage. While I don’t have a magic solution for you (the reality is that working from home is hard and there’s no getting round that!), I’m hoping some of the following tips might help.

Go easy on yourself. I realise you’ve likely heard this advice time and time again, but that’s because it’s a good piece of advice! Coding requires intensive thinking/analytic work, and if you’re working in an environment with numerous distractions, it can be difficult to complete coding within your usual timeframes. Take a look at your overall research plan and see if you can either extend out the timing allocated for the coding phase, or swap it with something else. Perhaps your time would be better spent updating your literature review or writing your methods chapter for example.

Engage in a related but less intensive task. Rather than swapping to a completely unrelated task as suggested in the previous tip, perhaps you could do something that would still move your coding forward. Could your transcripts benefit from another review to check for accuracy before you code? Could you listen to recordings of your interviews when you’re out for your daily walk? What I’m suggesting here is that you find ways to stay connected to your data if you don’t progress with the actual coding. It will be much harder to come back to it if you take a complete break.

Start out by coding broadly. If you’re at the beginning stages of the coding process, and you’re in the midst of developing your coding framework, it might be easier to start with a smaller number of quite broad codes that you then break down later. Coding broadly takes a little less brain power, and once you’ve done this it should be a lot more do-able to code more specifically from each of the broader codes. This is actually a great strategy for using NVivo in general, but do note that the appropriateness of this will depend on your data analysis approach.

Make sure you have an “unsure” code. Having an “unsure” code is something I suggest for all NVivo projects, but I think this advice is particularly appropriate right now. The idea behind an “unsure” code is to store any data that you’re just not quite sure about—you may be unsure where it fits or if you have a code for it at all. Coding it at “unsure” means that you capture the information and can then revisit it at a later time. What often happens is that when you review this code at a later stage, it’s immediately apparent where the data fits and you can recode it immediately to exactly where it belongs. Using this code as temporary storage means you’re less likely to make mistakes with your coding, and it can also save significant time if you’re having trouble making decisions at the moment. Of course if all your data is being coded to “unsure” then you might want to try another strategy!

Take a break from the computer. We’re spending a lot more time on screens and in Zoom meetings these days. Your thinking may be a bit clearer if you step away from the computer and work on your analysis outside of NVivo. If you have a printer on hand, print off your transcripts and use highlighters and margin notes to engage with your data. If you’re trying to develop themes, write the names of your codes on pieces of card and arrange them into bundles—once you’ve gathered a group of similar codes together, try giving it a label to move you forward towards a possible theme. For developing coding frameworks and themes, Post-it Notes can be your best friend. Have a look around the house and get as many colours as you can. Write ideas on them to help you explore your thinking—you could even use the Post-it App to save an electronic version of your thoughts. Eventually you’ll need to return to NVivo and work with your ideas there, but having a break from your screen might just move your thinking forward.

Hopefully some of the above tips help you out in these challenging times. If you have any tips of your own, I’d love to hear them—connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn and let me know what’s worked for you. If you’re interested in learning more about NVivo, coding and qualitative analysis, join us for our Research Accelerator 2021 virtual event.