How to Conduct Thematic Analysis Manually VS With TA Software

Thematic analysis

What is Thematic Analysis?

Thematic analysis is a way of identifying themes or topics within a body of written data (qualitative data), for example from transcripts of interviews and focus groups, online survey responses or social media comments. The researcher combs through the data to identify recurring themes and patterns of meaning.


Why Conduct Thematic Analysis?

Qualitative data is typically more difficult to analyse and make sense of than structured quantitative data. Thematic analysis helps to turn unstructured data into measurable insights. Several common applications of thematic analysis include:

  • Market researchers who want to uncover consumer insights may use thematic analysis to analyse survey responses. They can uncover recurring themes or patterns in the data, which can be used to inform marketing strategies, product development and customer service initiatives.
  • Psychologists use thematic analysis on patient interview transcripts. The thematic analysis can provide an overview of their experiences, which helps them diagnose and treat them more effectively.
  • Educators or researchers who are studying a particular phenomenon may use thematic analysis to identify the underlying themes and patterns in their data. They can then use this information to make an informed decision or draw meaningful conclusions.

Methods of Thematic Analysis

1. Manual analysis

For many years the only option was to conduct thematic analysis manually. To this day some researchers prefer this method as it doesn’t require any specialised software and is therefore accessible to everyone.

However, manual thematic analysis is a time-consuming, resource-draining process for researchers and analysts. Later we’ll run through exactly what it entails. People who regularly conduct thematic analysis often opt to use another, less arduous method.

Additionally, manual analysis is subject to researcher bias and human error. As a result, qualitative data is often distrusted or perceived as less valuable than quantitative data which is easier to analyse objectively.

2. Thematic analysis software

Thematic analysis software has been around for years to assist in automating the process of generating themes.

However, with older software, including some of the most popular software still in use, researchers often still need to put in substantial time to manually tag the data and train the software to recognise patterns. Even when it does use AI is often not advanced enough to accurately recognise human speech patterns beyond simple synonyms.

3. Thematic analysis with NLP

Advancements in natural language processing (NLP) technology have enabled automated coding and theme generation with more accuracy than ever before.

With NLP technology, data training is minimal, if necessary at all, and thousands of texts can be processed in a matter of minutes.

Read on to get more detail about each of the methods.

The 6 Steps of Manual Thematic Analysis

There are various approaches to conducting thematic analysis, but one of the most popular forms, and the one we’ll describe here, is referred to as “Reflexive TA”. The reflexive TA method was developed by psychology researchers Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke in 2006 and follows a six-phase process.

1. Familiarisation

The first phase involves immersing yourself in the data by reading it over repeatedly. The purpose of this step is to familiarise yourself with the content and make initial notes of your observations on each data item and the entirety of the dataset.

2. Coding

The next step is to label your data with codes that define important and relevant features within the data. Coding must be done across the entire dataset, and this step should be repeated at least once more to prevent you from missing anything.

3. Theme generation

This next phase involves reviewing all the codes and organising them into broader themes and patterns. Braun and Clarke define themes as a “pattern of shared meaning underpinned by a central concept or idea.”

4. Theme review and development

At this stage, you should examine all the themes from the previous stage and compare them against the dataset as a whole. Identify which themes are relevant to the research question. Develop themes further or discard irrelevant themes.

5. Refining, defining and naming themes

Develop a detailed analysis of each theme to truly understand their meaning. At this stage, you should come up with a succinct and informative name for each theme so that it’s easy to understand.

6. The write-up

Finally, it’s time to develop an analytic narrative that combines all of the relevant themes. Reflexive TA was developed for use in an academic context, but this step also applies to writing informative reports for use in a business setting.

The Challenge of Manual TA

Now that you’re familiar with the six-step method, it’s easy to picture just how much of a time drain thematic analysis can be. It’s clear why researchers and analysts favour quantitative data. When qualitative data is used, research is often conducted on a smaller sample, providing less breadth and scope than would be possible if time and resources weren’t a factor.

However, qualitative data is extremely rich in information. Not only can it better describe people’s feelings, attitudes and experiences, but it can also bring to light new information that may otherwise be overlooked.

On top of that, there is also a vast amount of readily available untapped qualitative data online in the form of social media comments, posts and reviews. The greatest challenge researchers and analysts are facing today is battling with an insurmountable quantity of data streaming in by the minute. Manual TA is too time-consuming for practical use in many situations.

That’s where thematic analysis software comes in.

Thematic Analysis Software

There are many different types of thematic analysis software out there. Some of them simply make it easier to manually highlight and organise data. Quirkos is an example of TA software that helps you visually organise your data, but the heavy lifting (coding and theme generation) is still up to you, making it unsuitable for large data sets.

Others require a lengthy amount of time to train the software in an initial setup phase. This is also time-consuming and can be difficult for people who are unfamiliar with how the process works.

Natural language processing

NLP is the bridge connecting human speech to computer processing. Human language is extremely complex. There are many ways we can express an idea, experience or emotion. We can be subtle, we can be descriptive, and we can be obtuse. To decode meaning, we sometimes need to read between the lines.

Humans process this information without too much effort, but this task is extremely difficult for computers. That’s where NLP comes in. NLP programs enable computers to make sense of large amounts of natural language in the form of written text.

Symanto is at the cutting edge of natural language processing (NLP). Our technologies enable automatic topic detection without needing to spend hours pre-training software, making it the best option for large data sets.

While some TA software uses basic synonym detection, the NLP technologies we develop at Symanto are far more advanced and able to capture nuanced communication in unstructured, qualitative data without the need for excessive pre-training. This makes thematic analysis with Symanto faster and more accurate.

Get Started With Symanto

Find out more about our advanced NLP capabilities for topic and sentiment detection. Our team will be happy to discuss your requirements and find the best solution for you. Get in touch or or register today for a free 21 day trial of our text analysis software today.