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5 qualitative data analysis methods

Qualitative data uncovers valuable insights that help you improve the user and customer experience. But how exactly do you measure and analyze data that isn't quantifiable?

There are different qualitative data analysis methods to help you make sense of qualitative feedback and customer insights, depending on your business goals and the type of data you've collected.


Before you choose a qualitative data analysis method for your team, you need to consider the available techniques and explore their use cases to understand how each process might help you better understand your users. 

This guide covers five qualitative analysis methods to choose from, and will help you pick the right one(s) based on your goals. 

  1. Content analysis

  2. Thematic analysis

  3. Narrative analysis

  4. Grounded theory analysis

  5. Discourse analysis

5 qualitative data analysis methods explained

Qualitative data analysis (QDA) is the process of organizing, analyzing, and interpreting qualitative research data—non-numeric, conceptual information, and user feedback—to capture themes and patterns, answer research questions, and identify actions to improve your product or website.

Step 1 in the research process (after planning) is qualitative data collection. You can use behavior analytics software—like Hotjar—to capture qualitative data with context, and learn the real motivation behind user behavior, by collecting written customer feedback with Surveys or scheduling an in-depth user interview with Engage.

Use Hotjar’s tools to collect feedback, uncover behavior trends, and understand the ‘why’ behind user actions.

1. Content analysis

Content analysis is a qualitative research method that examines and quantifies the presence of certain words, subjects, and concepts in text, image, video, or audio messages. The method transforms qualitative input into quantitative data to help you make reliable conclusions about what customers think of your brand, and how you can improve their experience and opinion.

Conduct content analysis manually (which can be time-consuming) or use analysis tools like Lexalytics to reveal communication patterns, uncover differences in individual or group communication trends, and make broader connections between concepts.

#Benefits and challenges of using content analysis
Benefits and challenges of using content analysis

How content analysis can help your team

Content analysis is often used by marketers and customer service specialists, helping them understand customer behavior and measure brand reputation.

For example, you may run a customer survey with open-ended questions to discover users’ concerns—in their own words—about their experience with your product. Instead of having to process hundreds of answers manually, a content analysis tool helps you analyze and group results based on the emotion expressed in texts.

Some other examples of content analysis include:

  • Analyzing brand mentions on social media to understand your brand's reputation

  • Reviewing customer feedback to evaluate (and then improve) the customer and user experience (UX)

  • Researching competitors’ website pages to identify their competitive advantages and value propositions

  • Interpreting customer interviews and survey results to determine user preferences, and setting the direction for new product or feature developments

Content analysis was a major part of our growth during my time at Hypercontext.

[It gave us] a better understanding of the [blog] topics that performed best for signing new users up. We were also able to go deeper within those blog posts to better understand the formats [that worked].

Hiba Amin
Senior Demand Gen Manager, TestBox

2. Thematic analysis

Thematic analysis helps you identify, categorize, analyze, and interpret patterns in qualitative study data, and can be done with tools like Dovetail and Thematic.

While content analysis and thematic analysis seem similar, they're different in concept: 

  • Content analysis can be applied to both qualitative and quantitative data, and focuses on identifying frequencies and recurring words and subjects

  • Thematic analysis can only be applied to qualitative data, and focuses on identifying patterns and themes

#The benefits and drawbacks of thematic analysis
The benefits and drawbacks of thematic analysis

How thematic analysis can help your team

Thematic analysis can be used by pretty much anyone: from product marketers, to customer relationship managers, to UX researchers.

For example, product teams use thematic analysis to better understand user behaviors and needs and improve UX. Analyzing customer feedback lets you identify themes (e.g. poor navigation or a buggy mobile interface) highlighted by users and get actionable insight into what they really expect from the product. 

💡 Pro tip: looking for a way to expedite the data analysis process for large amounts of data you collected with a survey? Try Hotjar’s AI for Surveys: along with generating a survey based on your goal in seconds, our AI will analyze the raw data and prepare an automated summary report that presents key thematic findings, respondent quotes, and actionable steps to take, making the analysis of qualitative data a breeze.

3. Narrative analysis

Narrative analysis is a method used to interpret research participants’ stories—things like testimonials, case studies, focus groups, interviews, and other text or visual data—with tools like Delve and AI-powered ATLAS.ti.

Some formats don’t work well with narrative analysis, including heavily structured interviews and written surveys, which don’t give participants as much opportunity to tell their stories in their own words.

#Benefits and challenges of narrative analysis
Benefits and challenges of narrative analysis

How narrative analysis can help your team

Narrative analysis provides product teams with valuable insight into the complexity of customers’ lives, feelings, and behaviors.

In a marketing research context, narrative analysis involves capturing and reviewing customer stories—on social media, for example—to get in-depth insight into their lives, priorities, and challenges. 

This might look like analyzing daily content shared by your audiences’ favorite influencers on Instagram, or analyzing customer reviews on sites like G2 or Capterra to gain a deep understanding of individual customer experiences. The results of this analysis also contribute to developing corresponding customer personas.

💡 Pro tip: conducting user interviews is an excellent way to collect data for narrative analysis. Though interviews can be time-intensive, there are tools out there that streamline the workload. 

Hotjar Engage automates the entire process, from recruiting to scheduling to generating the all-important interview transcripts you’ll need for the analysis phase of your research project.

4. Grounded theory analysis

Grounded theory analysis is a method of conducting qualitative research to develop theories by examining real-world data. This technique involves the creation of hypotheses and theories through qualitative data collection and evaluation, and can be performed with qualitative data analysis software tools like MAXQDA and NVivo.

Unlike other qualitative data analysis techniques, this method is inductive rather than deductive: it develops theories from data, not the other way around.

#The benefits and challenges of grounded theory analysis
The benefits and challenges of grounded theory analysis

How grounded theory analysis can help your team

Grounded theory analysis is used by software engineers, product marketers, managers, and other specialists who deal with data sets to make informed business decisions. 

For example, product marketing teams may turn to customer surveys to understand the reasons behind high churn rates, then use grounded theory to analyze responses and develop hypotheses about why users churn, and how you can get them to stay. 

Grounded theory can also be helpful in the talent management process. For example, HR representatives may use it to develop theories about low employee engagement, and come up with solutions based on their research findings.

5. Discourse analysis

Discourse analysis is the act of researching the underlying meaning of qualitative data. It involves the observation of texts, audio, and videos to study the relationships between information and its social context.

In contrast to content analysis, this method focuses on the contextual meaning of language: discourse analysis sheds light on what audiences think of a topic, and why they feel the way they do about it.

#Benefits and challenges of discourse analysis
Benefits and challenges of discourse analysis

How discourse analysis can help your team

In a business context, this method is primarily used by marketing teams. Discourse analysis helps marketers understand the norms and ideas in their market, and reveals why they play such a significant role for their customers. 

Once the origins of trends are uncovered, it’s easier to develop a company mission, create a unique tone of voice, and craft effective marketing messages.

Which qualitative data analysis method should you choose?

While the five qualitative data analysis methods we list above are all aimed at processing data and answering research questions, these techniques differ in their intent and the approaches applied. 

Choosing the right analysis method for your team isn't a matter of preference—selecting a method that fits is only possible once you define your research goals and have a clear intention. When you know what you need (and why you need it), you can identify an analysis method that aligns with your research objectives.

Gather qualitative data with Hotjar

Use Hotjar’s product experience insights in your qualitative research. Collect feedback, uncover behavior trends, and understand the ‘why’ behind user actions.

FAQs about qualitative data analysis methods