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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Qualitative Data Analysis: Coding

Resources on conducting qualitative data analysis

Coding Qualitative Data

Planning your coding strategy

Coding is a qualitative data analysis strategy in which some aspect of the data is assigned a descriptive label that allows the researcher to identify related content across the data. How you decide to code - or whether to code- your data should be driven by your methodology. But there are rarely step-by-step descriptions, and you'll have to make many decisions about how to code for your own project.

Some questions to consider as you decide how to code your data:

What will you code? 

What aspects of your data will you code? If you are not coding all of your available data, how will you decide which elements need to be coded? If you have recordings interviews or focus groups, or other types of multimedia data, will you create transcripts to analyze and code? Or will you code the media itself (see Farley, Duppong & Aitken, 2020 on direct coding of audio recordings rather than transcripts). 

Where will your codes come from? 

Depending on your methodology, your coding scheme may come from previous research and be applied to your data (deductive). Or you my try to develop codes entirely from the data, ignoring as much as possible, previous knowledge of the topic under study, to develop a scheme grounded in your data (inductive). In practice, however, many practices will fall between these two approaches. 

How will you apply your codes to your data? 

You may decide to use software to code your qualitative data, to re-purpose other software tools (e.g. Word or spreadsheet software) or work primarily with physical versions of your data. Qualitative software is not strictly necessary, though it does offer some advantages, like: 

  • Codes can be easily re-labeled, merged, or split. You can also choose to apply multiple coding schemes to the same data, which means you can explore multiple ways of understanding the same data. Your analysis, then, is not limited by how often you are able to work with physical data, such as paper transcripts. 
  • Most software programs for QDA include the ability to export and import coding schemes. This means you can create a re-use a coding scheme from a previous study, or that was developed in outside of the software, without having to manually create each code. 
  • Some software for QDA includes the ability to directly code image, video, and audio files. This may mean saving time over creating transcripts. Or, your coding may be enhanced by access to the richness of mediated content, compared to transcripts.
  • Using QDA software may also allow you the ability to use auto-coding functions. You may be able to automatically code all of the statements by speaker in a focus group transcript, for example, or identify and code all of the paragraphs that include a specific phrase. 

What will be coded? 

Will you deploy a line-by-line coding approach, with smaller codes eventually condensed into larger categories or concepts? Or will you start with codes applied to larger segments of the text, perhaps later reviewing the examples to explore and re-code for differences between the segments? 

How will you explain the coding process? 

  • Regardless of how you approach coding, the process should be clearly communicated when you report your research, though this is not always the case (Deterding & Waters, 2021).
  • Carefully consider the use of phrases like "themes emerged." This phrasing implies that the themes lay passively in the data, waiting for the researcher to pluck them out. This description leaves little room for describing how the researcher "saw" the themes and decided which were relevant to the study. Ryan and Bernard (2003) offer a terrific guide to ways that you might identify themes in the data, using both your own observations as well as manipulations of the data. 

How will you report the results of your coding process? 

How you report your coding process should align with the methodology you've chosen. Your methodology may call for careful and consistent application of a coding scheme, with reports of inter-rater reliability and counts of how often a code appears within the data. Or you may use the codes to help develop a rich description of an experience, without needing to indicate precisely how often the code was applied. 

How will you code collaboratively?

If you are working with another researcher or a team, your coding process requires careful planning and implementation. You will likely need to have regular conversations about your process, particularly if your goal is to develop and consistently apply a coding scheme across your data. 

Coding Features in QDA Software Programs

The MAXQDA interface is the same across Mac and Windows devices. 

Useful Resources on Coding


Deterding, N. M., & Waters, M. C. (2021). Flexible coding of in-depth interviews: A twenty-first-century approach. Sociological Methods & Research, 50(2), 708–739.

Farley, J., Duppong Hurley, K., & Aitken, A. A. (2020). Monitoring implementation in program evaluation with direct audio coding. Evaluation and Program Planning, 83, 101854.

Ryan, G. W., & Bernard, H. R. (2003). Techniques to identify themes. Field Methods, 15(1), 85–109.