The tools we use: Gahhhh, where is the killer qualitative analysis app?

For the August issue of Ethnography Matters, Jenna, Heather, and Rachelle have written great posts about their fieldnote tools in the Tools we Use series. Now I have all these new apps I want to try for data analysis!

So this is when I admit here that I have no perfect process. I really don’t. Sometimes this upsets me and sometimes I just say whatever.  I’ve only figured out parts of the process. For example, last month, I wrote in depth about my use of Instagram to live fieldnote. But that’s just one part of the long path of fieldwork analysis. Now that I’ve finished data gathering,  I am no longer in the excitement of fieldwork. I don’t have a team of people to work with as I usually do on projects. For my China research,  it’s just me. And all I can think is, how am I going to analyze all this data without going crazy?

I’ve tried all the coding software possible for qualitative research, but there is no app that fulfills my needs. I have developed an aversion to anything that claims to be a “qualitative analysis tool.” These tools are lacking in user friendliness, collaborative features, platform diversity, and service support. If it doesn’t run on a mac and if the software’s website is unusable – that’s already a clue.

As far as fieldwork tools go, hardly anything drives an ethnographer more crazy than trying to find the most appropriate fieldwork tools. Of all the ethnography courses I’ve taken and all the books, dissertation, and papers I’ve read, none of them go into depth on the tools that ethnographers use to support their process. I suspect that one of the reasons why ethnographers don’t write about the tools they use is because they may use an ad hoc process that is messier and less structured than they’d like to admit.

Short of making the dream killer qualitative data app myself, I have to reply on a my very ad hoc, imperfect, and ever changing process (but I’m still holding out for that perfect kill qual app!)

I use different tools when I conducting participant observations and formal interviews.

Participant Observations

I totally rely on my iphone to document participant observation. (my transition from a feature Nokia phone to a smartphone)
  • iPhone camera and Instagram: I take pictures first in the iPhone camera and I live fieldnote some of the pictures to Instagram.
  • iphone notes app: this is a non-disruptive way to take notes and if you are on a 3G connection you can sync it to gmail, which makes me feel releived to know that I’m constantly backing up. I often show my screen to the participant to let them see that I am taking notes and not doing anything else.
  • Instant Messaging (text, what’s app, weibo, we chat or tweet): I copy and paste all correspondences into the participant’s Evernote file.


  • a large notebook: I take notes with a pen and a notebook during an interview. I find that using a notebook makes it more personal and feels less transactional. It would be so much easier if I could type into an ipad or laptop, but it depersonalizes the interaction. And like Rachelle, I often ask my participants to draw out what they are describing in the notebook. But I don’t bring colored markers like Rachelle brilliantly suggests!
  • Olympus WS-710M Audio recorder: I know everyone loves the Zoom Audio Recorder, but I find it too clunky. I prefer the Olympus because it’s discreet and has a retractable USB drive which means that it’s one step less to transfer the audio onto my drive

Organizing Fieldwork data:

  • I copy and paste my iPhone notes from my gmail “notes” folder (all iPhone notes are synced to gmail) to my evernote folder “daily fieldnotes”.
  • I write daily fieldnotes on my computers in Evernote.
  • I have an Evernote folder called, “Participants”. I  create a file on each participant and assign them a number with the city I met them in. For example, 10_BJ is participant #10 who I met in Beijing. I drop in any pictures I’ve taken on my cellphone or Canon S100. I write a participant summary and includes info on where and how I met the participant and their contact information. I tag each participant’s file so that it will be searchable.
  • I print each participant’s picture along with a summary and put it on a wall.
  • I sticky note like crazy – it’s how I sort out my ideas and make sense of the mess in my head.
  • I use Mendeley and was an early fan of it, but I have to admit that as they have scaled, they have not been great on responding to the community’s issues quickly. I am a community adviser and even I am a bit frustrated on feedback time. I echo Heather’s experience with Mendeley, but that being said, I still prefer it over to Zotero simply because it just works much faster , I don’t care for Microsoft Word plugins. I like the social aspect of Mendeley, and you can share reading lists (like we have done here at Ethnography Matters – you can join our list of Ethnographic Monographs!).
And that is as far as I’ve gotten – I will be going into analysis these next few months and will share my new system once I figure it out!
Even though I am working on a new process this time, I’ve conducted a lot of previous fieldwork and post-fieldwork analysis, and I’ve learned about some things that work for me:
  • Complex software can get in the way of analysis.
  • Sometimes, all you need to do is print out your fieldnotes, take a highlighter, and talk it over with yourself or with someone else.
  • Big walls are important – I’ve found that I need lots of wall space to spread my ideas out.
  • Recreate fieldisite with pictures – print out pictures of your fieldsite and participants and hang them up on a wall, it helps put my brain and heart back into my fieldsite.
  • Find a colleague/friend to talk over your analysis and make this a regular thing – this is SOOO important. Don’t just find a writing group, create a data analysis group!
  • Bring multiple batteries for all your devices during fieldwork.
  • Always have an overload of sticky notes of diff colors and sizes.
  • Carry sticky notes with you everywhere you go. Write down ideas and concepts onto the notes and then when you go home, stick them onto the wall. Reorganize your wall every time you re-conceptualize your process.

Despite listing all those tools to support my ethnographic work, I firmly believe that the most important tool is your energy.  Whether you do fieldwork online and offline, both you and your participant establish a relationship by weaving together a net of trust.

And I find that the fastest way to weave this net is through a smile  or a 🙂 that shows that you are totally present in that moment. It’s unbelievable what happens when people feel that you are genuinely interested in hearing their stories – they end up sharing their world with you.

Energy is not something that is taught in Ethnography or Design Research 101, it’s cultivated as part of your daily practice to be a human being in this world. And ultimately, that is who we are studying, so it’s not a bad thing to become more human.

What fieldwork tools do you use? What works for you? Tell us in the comments or contribute your process to the Tools we Use series!

UPDATE September 7, 2012:

People have suggests in the comments, tweets and fb messages to  look at Moment App, Dedoose, Ethos, and Capture Notes. If anyone has tried any of these, please let us know your experience! I took a look at Ethos and I couldn’t get past even setting up a project. I found it totally unusable. Moment seems good for self-documentation, but it’s not sharable. Capture Notes is only available on the ipad, it’s not mobile friendly and since I don’t incorporate the ipad into my fieldwork I can’t use it. I would love to try Dedoose but it seems to require more sit down time!

UPDATE September 9, 2012

Some readers thought I wanted a “killer” app that would perform analysis. This is definitely not what I meant! I want an app that supports me in my ethnographic work by managing my data. I don’t want an app that does coding or even helps me do ethnography. If Geertz were still alive, he would ask where is the killer notebook. The killer qualitative app would just be another tool for ethnographers to record data. Just like how no notebook could ever replace an ethnographer, neither could an app.


Read other posts in the Tools We Use series:

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Categories: Tools we use

Author:tricia wang

I research how technology makes us human. As a cultural sociologist, I use a range of ethnographic methods to create socially relevant insights about how people use digital tools in their day to day lives. I write about digital culture at, China tech at, and cities at Follow me on twitter @triciawang.

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19 Comments on “The tools we use: Gahhhh, where is the killer qualitative analysis app?”

  1. Sam Ladner
    September 5, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    Tricia, have you considered Nvivo? I agree with you that most software is too complex, and I’m not recommending Nvivo. Once upon a time, I was an Nvivo whiz, and now? It’s too complex for its own good. It’s collapsed onto itself.

    There’s also dedoose, which I’ve been dying to try, but haven’t had the need yet. I hear good things about it.

    • September 5, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

      Sam I despise Nvivo – I tried to become a Nvivo whiz 🙂
      But I failed – and I realzied it wasn’t me! It’s unusable. Have you seen their website? it’s impossible to navigate so that already makes the software unusable for me.

      I just checked out Dedoose’s site – do you know of anyone using it who could write a review? Thanks for the tip – the website is navigable – so that’s a plus! 🙂

  2. September 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm #

    This is incredibly useful + has me thinking about what would be on the killer app wishlist… Along with user friendliness, collaborative features, platform diversity, and service support, I would want it to be thoughtful and explicit about ways of handling confidential information.

    Doesn’t seem like anything out there combines all of that.

    • September 5, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

      let’s turn ethnographymatters into a corporate spinoff so we can make our dream qual app!

  3. September 20, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

    Great post! I have often found myself asking the exact same question. I have used Atlas.ti in the past, but since it is so loaded with functionalities, people end up using it as an advanced database. Well, I’ll get back to looking for that sleek, intuitive, collaborative app that works across platforms and data-sources and which doesn’t require a PhD in data-mining to work with…

  4. Joshua
    October 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

    Have you tried Fulcrum? I used it recently in the field and aside from having to use it on an iPhone, it was excellent. The flexibility in setting up forms is really great. I had a form setup with a basic biographical survey. I could type in the info I needed, record an interview, take a photo of the participant, and log their GPS coordinates, all from the same simple form.

    • March 27, 2013 at 3:54 pm #

      hey Joshua – have you written up your process anywhere? I’d love to explore Fulcrum!

  5. JF
    November 27, 2012 at 10:23 pm #

    See also QDA Miner Lite. It’s a free computer assisted qualitative data analysis software. This new freeware provides an easy-to-use tool for coding, annotating and analyzing collections of documents and images such as interview or focus-group transcripts, journal articles, web pages, or customer feedback.

    QDA Miner Lite has been designed to meet the basic needs of researchers and analysts performing qualitative data analysis. This CAQDAS tool is ideal for those on tiny budgets (or no budget) or those who wish to teach qualitative research in classes.

    For more information go to:

  6. Paul Dupuis
    January 27, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

    Have you looked at HyperRESEARCH from Researchware ( It was developed for the Mac in 1990 and has remained on the Mac ever since.

  7. March 28, 2013 at 11:14 am #

    Can anyone recommend an app for capturing social media pages (e.g. ) as pdfs? On windows.


  8. JF
    September 6, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

    For your information, Provalis released QDA Miner Lite v1.2. It’s a new update of the free version of the computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software, QDA Miner. For more information, visit: Free qualitative software

  9. September 12, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    Hi Tricia – This is a great post! Full disclosure, I work at Dedoose ( and want to help. If you have not yet given Dedoose a shot, we would love to have you give it a try (free for 30 days) and share your thoughts on how to improve it for ethnography. We were actually founded with ethnography in mind as one of our Co-Founders is an anthropologist. His name is Dr. Tom Weisner. If you just want to take a peek around the tool, our CEO (and the other Co-Founder) Dr. Eli Lieber offers free one hour demos with small groups online every Tuesday. This way you can ask any questions you might still have for us. We are really glad that you are doing so much research on the best tool for your work! Here is the link to our blog to sign up for our demo:

  10. Ryoko Imai
    September 23, 2013 at 9:59 pm #

    I’ve used Dedoose for interview data a while back, and loved it. But I’m not sure if it would work just as well for ethnographic data. I am now learning to use atlas-ti, and not liking it at all…


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