Analyzing open-ended questions: A bright future for word clouds

Commercial survey research firms usually charge clients significantly extra to include “open-ended” questions in a survey.  They tend to be messy and time-consuming.  Traditionally, analysts would read through a selection of responses to create categories of frequent or typical responses, then read back through all of the responses to categorize them.

For publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, multiple people would categorize responses independently, then work together to create a synthesized coding scheme to limit bias.

Most qualitative text-analysis software still requires you to manually “code” responses.

With all that work, open-ended questions are still important in exploratory and qualitative research – and frequently satisfying for survey respondents looking for an opportunity to say what is on their mind, unhindered by structured response categories.

But the tag-cloud age has been a blessing to those without the time and money to do full, traditional analysis of text responses.   Graphics with words sized by frequency of use enables analysts to quickly get a sense of the nature of open-ended responses.

New editions of survey software – even budget packages like Survey Monkey – include cloud-creating tools to help users understand open-ended responses at a glance, without all the coding work.

Even those doing traditional coding enjoy working with clouds, which help analysts to quickly create an initial set of codes.

If your survey package doesn’t have cloud-generating capacity, no problem.  Worldle is a free site that lets you create art-like word clouds.  The clouds in the previous post were created using Worldle.  It’s a terrific, easy-to-use site that lets you paste in your text – our data came straight from a spreadsheet – and generate a word cloud with one click.  It automatically removes common words, allows you to choose the relative cloud shape, color scheme, font and orientation of the words.  We chose to illustrate the top 100 terms for each question.  Wordle lets you save and use your clouds however you want to.

I really like the tool’s artistic quality.  Wordle clouds almost beg to be shown to others.  Then they become motivated, too.  My daughter, upon first seeing Wordle, immediately had a vision about making a sign to promote a bake sale.  A few descriptive terms later, she had created a beautiful graphic to draw people’s attention.

This is where research moves from information to influence.  Imagine asking your constituents about their needs – or your organization’s impact – then printing a graphic of their responses to hang in your office as a reminder and motivator to staff.  Unlike a research report, which may or may not get read before being filed away (or worse!), word cloud art can keep research right in front of your team.  The graphic format makes the information more memorable as well.

Researchers, meanwhile, can compare and contrast different audience segments, as I did in the word cloud below.

What applications can you think of for word clouds?

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