As the value of user experience research has become more widely recognized, focus groups, user interviews, and ethnographic observations are now familiar practices in the strategy and design phase of digital product development.

While we at WillowTree champion the value of user research, simply collecting this great data isn’t enough; a rigorous method for analysis is needed to make sure that you get accurate insights from the data.

In this post, we focus on one such method for gaining user insights from qualitative data: coding. In what follows, we’ll set out the kind of information and value that can be extracted from interviews, outline the process, and point to some of the benefits of coding.

Why we Code

In contrast to simply reviewing collected material, coding provides an organizing principle to messy, qualitative data and increases our ability to deliver insight. It is an especially helpful process when analyzing ethnographic data or semi-structured interview data that contain open-ended questions and highly variable responses.

From the coding process, researchers can identify things like a respondent’s worldview, latent expectations or motivations, frustrations, and tensions.

Once phenomena like these are identified, we can examine their patterns of distribution to locate areas of opportunity and develop user personas that are organized around habits, culture, values, and practices.

Insights like these allow us to design products tailored to a variety of clients goals, such as increasing user engagement, adding to brand value, or boosting online purchases.

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The Coding Process

The coding process breaks down into 4 basic steps: establish your code categories, make a coding sheet, code, and analyze the resulting patterns.

1. Establish Code Categories

You can draw on a variety of sources to establish your code categories. They might come from the project scope, current scholarship, your previous research, or open coding. Exactly what constitutes a code will vary depending on project needs. It might be something as simple as “negative feelings” or “respondent mentions app,” or it can be something more nuanced such as “expresses tensions between work and family obligations.”

For example, if we were helping our client to design a new website, we might conduct interviews where we ask users to view the current site and provide feedback. Knowing that the project scope includes questions around the ability of the website to accurately communicate the client’s identity, we would include the following codes: image4

2. Make a Code Sheet

Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s worth taking the time to write out a formal coding sheet. Coding sheets should note the name of the code as well as signals that will help the researcher identify the code in the interview. This will help to keep your codes consistent over time and between members of the research team. image3

3. Code

With your code sheet in hand, return to the data and assign the appropriate codes to your transcripts or notes. This process can take a variety of forms: do it by hand with highlighters, use comment balloons in your word processor, or copy and paste snippets of text into a document assigned to each code.


4. Identify Patterns

To identify patterns, it is helpful to keep a master spreadsheet that documents the occurrences of your codes for each interview or case. The kinds of patterns that you look for will vary depending upon the needs of your project. You might simply want to know how frequently a particular code occurs. Or you might look at the co-occurrence of codes in order to group interviewees into persona types.

In this example, we might learn that those users who manage to locate the “About Us” material are able to get an accurate understanding of the organization, but those who rely primarily on images are coming away with mixed or inaccurate depictions of the organization. That insight informs our design process, pointing to new imagery with thoughtful attention toward content and user perception as a key aspect of producing a successful product for our client. image1

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Added Benefits

In addition to providing a technique for organizing and analyzing data, there are a few other reasons to invest in a rigorous method like coding. One of the biggests benefits is that it helps to guard against bias. We all have topics, problems, or design features that we feel particularly interested in or are passionate about. And, most of us come to a project with hunches (aka hypotheses) about what users do and need. When you draw on interview material without a rigorous framework for analysis, it is all too easy to focus on these pet theories and interests and to miss other valuable insights. Coding helps the unexpected to surface.

Secondly, using coding to organize qualitative data makes it easier to quickly locate relevant stories and quotes that bring your data to life. You won’t need to rely on your memory or spend hours searching your recordings and transcripts to locate colorful examples. Your coding sheet will tell you exactly where to find them.

Finally, coding is one of the best ways to locate higher-level patterns that cut across projects. Overtime, this can help your team to develop a general bank of knowledge about user needs and habits that can be applied to a variety of use cases, allowing your team to quickly deliver refined, research-tested products to clients.