A question I often get when discussing online qualitative exercises is: what does the output look like? It’s true that qualitative data doesn’t come as easily packaged in a nice graph or chart as quantitative data does. In fact, how you analyze and captivatingly display qualitative results is a process that requires not only an analytical and logical mind but also a creative touch.

In particular, if you lack experience with qualitative data, it’s hard to find the story behind all the quotes and opinions you've received. I’ve put together a simple three-step process that you can use to begin synthesizing this information and creating your output.

  • Step 1: Bring order to the chaos. It’s important to know what the majority of your participants are saying. Start by creating a list of key themes as you read through the data, then tally each response that falls under that theme. You are not aiming to report numbers or percentages in the results, but this is the only way to begin to make sense of the wealth of information that you have at your fingertips.
  • Step 2: Stay focused and logical.You can’t create a sequential story if you let off-topic comments derail you. It's easy to focus on the negative comments — even if they don't reflect what the majority of participants are saying. Mark interesting comments or points, for example, by color-coding them, and come back to them after you have categorized the responses and answered the questions that underpin your main objective. Creating “callouts” in your report is a great way to highlight elements that aren't key parts of the story but that are interesting enough to share.
  • Step 3: Make your story come to life.As the participants’ comments are your “data,” you need to ensure you have enough room for these quotes. Break out your insights into short, digestible chunks, following each with three or four quotes. Depending on your reporting method (text document, slides, or another format), you can make a big splash by adding a few images or finding creative ways to display your results. As it's harder to convert qualitative data into an infographic, utilizing design skills can really make a difference — especially if you’re trying communicate these results to an outside audience. No one wants to read page after page of dry text; if this is how you display the information, your insights may be lost in a sea of words.

Remember to remain neutral throughout this process. Of course, everyone has their hypothesis of what the research will reveal, but make sure you are looking at all sides. After you’ve completed steps one to three, evaluate the results. Look at those quotes that are saying something different. What is the undercurrent of information? Is there someone with a completely opposite view? This will help you: a) prepare for possible pushback, or b) find white space opportunities.

While this is only the tip of the iceberg, these are the three key steps I always employ when analyzing qualitative data. How do you typically approach your qualitative analysis? What else would you add to this list?