If you’re an applied researcher working in the field of user research, you may not have been exposed to Grounded Theory or aware that it is the approach you’ve adopted for research synthesis. If you’re an academic researcher, you may be familiar with the term but unaware of how this theory is applied in user research.

In either scenario, a more comprehensive understanding of Grounded Theory, including the basics, when and how to use it, and how to use grounded theory in Notably.

Let's explore the basics and find out how it can level up your research toolkit.

Grounded Theory basics

Grounded Theory was developed through the collaborative efforts of Sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss during their 1965 study on the Awareness of Dying. They critiqued the prevailing approach to qualitative research, which focused on hypothesis-driven methods. Recognizing its limitations and the need for theories to emerge organically from social research rather than being predetermined, they pioneered an inductive qualitative research methodology. 

This approach flips the script on traditional research methods. While other approaches start with a hypothesis and seek to confirm or disprove it, grounded theory inverses that process. It begins with the data itself and organically develops a theory or hypothesis that fits the facts.

Here’s a practical example for how a grounded theory approach differs from a traditional one. You're a design researcher conducting a usability test for a new mobile app interface. You've observed that users encounter issues with navigation and struggle to complete tasks efficiently. In the traditional approach, you formulate a specific hypothesis, such as attributing these usability challenges to the layout of the app's menus. To test this hypothesis, you'd conduct controlled usability tests and measure task completion times.

With a grounded theory approach, instead of immediately jumping into testing, you start analysis with an open mind . You might use a mixed-methods approach by conducting  in-depth user interviews, screen recording analysis, and collecting user feedback during real-world app usage. As you marinade in the data, you notice intriguing patterns, such as usability issues being more pronounced for users with different levels of familiarity with similar apps or variations in user behavior that are tied to specific contextual factors like time of day or location.

The key differences in these approaches are that one aims to prove or disprove a hunch whereas grounded theory allows the solution to bubble up from the data organically. 

Why use grounded theory?

Grounded theory isn't limited to a specific field; it's a versatile method that can handle a broad range of complex issues. Its adaptability shines thanks to three fundamental stages present in all grounded theory research:

  1. Coding: You start with unstructured data and search for conceptual anchors, breaking it down into manageable pieces. You highlight key phrases and ideas until broader categories emerge. As your research progresses, you become more selective about how you code and organize your research notes.. In Notably, this coding process is done through a process of “highlighting and tagging” in the ‘data’ section of a project.
  2. Summarizing: Once you've identified various conceptual anchors, you begin taking notes on each. These memos serve as the building blocks for your evolving theory and guide your subsequent analysis. In Notably, you can do this process automatically with the help of AI using our AI Summary templates.
  3. Theming: Using your notes and concept categories, you aim to connect everything through a central category that ties it all together. Additionally, you actively seek inconsistencies or "negative cases" that don't neatly fit your emerging patterns. In Notably, this is done through the process of theming in the ‘Analysis’ section of a project.

While these steps are distinct, they all involve continuous theorization. You naturally develop theories as you grasp the bigger picture, all the while questioning your assumptions and remaining open to adjustments along the way. Grounded theory promotes adjusting your perspective during the research process rather than saving it for when you're writing your final insights.

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How Grounded Theory Facilitates Data Analysis

Exploring Unnoticed Problems and Connections

Grounded theory encourages researchers to approach their study with an open mind, free from preconceived notions or hypotheses. Unlike traditional research methods that begin with a specific hypothesis, grounded theory starts with the raw data and aims to discover patterns, problems, and connections that may not have been apparent initially. This approach allows researchers to explore uncharted territory and uncover unexpected insights that might be missed with a hypothesis-driven approach.

Embracing a Wide Array of Data Sources

Grounded theory promotes the use of a wide range of data sources, including interviews, text, online interactions, casual conversations, and any other relevant information. This flexibility in data collection ensures that researchers gather a comprehensive set of information, increasing the richness and depth of their analysis. By incorporating diverse data sources, grounded theory provides a holistic view of the research topic.

Continuous Theorization

Grounded theory involves continuous theorization throughout the research process. As researchers sift through the data, identify conceptual anchors, and create notes, they naturally develop theories. These theories evolve and adapt as more data is collected and analyzed. The process encourages a self-critical mindset, where researchers question their assumptions and remain open to adjusting their theories based on the emerging insights. This dynamic approach to theory development distinguishes grounded theory from more rigid, hypothesis-driven methods.

Enhancing Analytical Skills

Grounded theory demands that researchers hone their analytical skills. The method challenges them to connect data points, identify patterns, and synthesize concepts as they progress through the research. It also encourages researchers to actively seek inconsistencies or areas of tension that don't fit neatly into their emerging patterns. This analytical rigor not only helps in theory development but also sharpens the researcher's overall analytical abilities.

Applying Grounded Theory to Your Research with Notably

Embracing grounded theory might require a shift in your research perspective. While none of the individual stages are overly complex, you'll need to tap into your creative thinking, which can be a bit of a learning curve. You'll also need to strike a balance between letting your creative side roam free and letting your logical side rigorously evaluate your budding theories.

The good news is that these challenges become less daunting with practice. At Notably, we’ve built a product that equips even inexperienced researchers with the tools to conduct a rigorous grounded theory analysis.

  1. Data: Inside a new project, begin adding your raw research data. This can be videos, audio files, research notes, or even whitepapers. Wherever you are gathering research from, we support it in its most basic format. Then, you can summarize this data with one of our AI powered templates, to bring forward the most important information. From here, you can begin breaking down your data file into smaller pieces or “highlights”. These highlights are what can be used later in Analysis. You can take this one step farther by adding Tags to any of your highlights and data files. Tags add meaning to these snippets of information and can provide another lens to your data analysis.
  2. Analysis: Once you have added your highlights to your Analysis board, you can begin to sort through your notes, dragging and dropping them into clusters or “Themes”. These themes represent patterns that are starting to bubble up from your data. These themes are flexible, so nothing is set in stone! This is your chance to start playing with your data. I encourage you to start recoloring your canvas by sentiment, filtering down by tags, and searching for keywords. This is a data-driven canvas that allows you to take a bird’s eye perspective on your data during the synthesis process. 
  3. Generating Insights: As you are seeing patterns emerging, you can begin to document your findings and thoughts in an “Insight”. You can take this one step farther by using one of our AI-powered Insight Templates to apply different design thinking frameworks to your data. These templates can help you to zoom in on problem areas and pain points from your data, assist in idea generation, and even storytelling from your data. These Insights are an ideal way to document and share what your research means, and why it matters.

In conclusion, Grounded Theory offers a dynamic and transformative approach to qualitative research, emphasizing inductive exploration over hypothesis-driven methods. This method enables researchers to delve deeper into their data, uncover hidden connections, and embrace a broader array of data sources. The continuous theorization process challenges researchers to refine their analytical skills and remain open to evolving insights throughout their study. 

Notably streamlines the process, making it easier for both beginner and seasoned researchers to conduct rigorous Grounded Theory analysis, from data organization to insight generation. Sign up for free here and see what new knowledge you will uncover.

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