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Thematic Analysis Software: how it works and why you need It

Most likely, you landed in this blog because you have too much feedback to easily analyze. You’d think you could never get enough of a good thing, but once you get to a certain point, there’s just too much to analyze, especially if you're doing manual analysis.  

Maybe you sent out a survey or collected reviews. Maybe your customers are using your contact form to send in opinions as free-text feedback.  Now that you have this mountain of feedback available, what do you do with it? Is there any easy way to identify common themes in responses? How can you create a clear and meaningful report to turn feedback into action?

Many businesses avoid asking open-ended questions in surveys. Analysis of free text comments can be time-consuming and expensive. Traditional methods involve hours of sorting through a wall of text in a spreadsheet, coding each text response by hand. This takes precious headcount and a ton of manual effort.

Some end up spending thousands on old-school text analytics software without meaningful outcomes.

Is there a more efficient, less expensive way to derive insights from your customer feedback? There is, and it's called thematic analysis software.

If you are only interested in manually analyzing your feedback, check out our guide: How to analyze your feedback in 10 minutes using word spotting. Or, download our toolkit which includes a spreadsheet template to help you get started.

We've also included a key takeaways section and a FAQs section at the end of the post - feel free to skip ahead!

What is thematic analysis?

Thematic analysis is a form of qualitative data analysis. The output of the analysis is a list of themes mentioned in text. These themes are discovered by analyzing word and the sentence structures.

For example, let's take these 3 sentences:

Three people with speech bubbles, each providing feedback about baby cot services on a plane.

These comments include both positive and negative sentiment. There are two key themes expressed in different words:

  • The helpfulness of flight attendants
  • Customers needed help setting up a baby cot

Thematic analysis can be applied to any text. Interviews, conversations, product feature requests, and open-ended questions in surveys or reviews are all well suited to this analytical method and can be fed directly into thematic analysis software.

In this article, we'll focus on the thematic analysis of feedback collected at scale. Applying thematic analysis to large quantities of feedback helps quantify themes that impact business metrics. This is the important first step to any data-driven change and the continuous improvement we all want so much.

Thematic analysis vs. sentiment analysis

Thematic analysis and sentiment analysis is not an either-or. In fact, sentiment analysis is often a part of a thematic analysis solution.

Sentiment analysis captures how positive or negative the language is. It finds emotionally charged themes and helps separate them during a review.  In our three flight attendant reviews, we saw one positive and two negative mentions of a theme:

Comments shown with negative and positive sentiment highlighted.

If you only had sentiment analysis, you would know that one person was happy and two unhappy. Thematic analysis tells you what they were happy or unhappy about. Combining thematic and semantic analysis in qualitative data analysis software results in better accuracy and nuance.

We've previously shared how thematic analysis compares to sentiment analysis. If you’d like to read up more on sentiment analysis, here is a comprehensive guide.

What is thematic analysis software?

Thematic analysis software automates thematic analysis. Some software combines human input with algorithmic analysis. More on this below.

Businesses use thematic analysis software for finding themes in customer feedback. Do your customers rate comfort over affordability? Would they pay more for faster service?

Thematic analysis software can help you find (and act on) the answers.

The best thematic analysis software is autonomous, meaning:

  • You don’t need to set up themes or categories in advance,
  • You don’t need to train the algorithm — it learns on its own,
  • You can easily capture the “unknown unknowns” to identify themes you may not have spotted on your own.

Want to see an example? You can trial Thematic for free here.

graphic representation of how thematic analysis software works

How does thematic analysis software work?

Here’s how thematic analysis software automatically analyzes customer feedback to identify and extract themes.

Natural language processing (NLP)

Natural language processing (NLP) is a subcategory of Linguistics and AI. NLP enables computers to analyze large amounts of natural language, aka text.

Thematic analysis software uses natural language processing to find themes in a text. Often, this software also displays that analysis in analytic tools and dashboards.

When a computer attempts to model the meaning of words, sentences, and text, we call it natural language understanding, or NLU.

NLU is a sub-area of natural language processing (NLP). Some NLP tasks, e.g. figuring out a part of speech of a word, might not need to model word meanings for accurate results. But when it comes to thematic analysis, NLU is important. It helps derive the meaning of words used in customer feedback. For example, it can capture that "accommodating" and "helpful" mean the same thing.

What about text analytics? This term is a more common way of referring to NLP and NLU in business settings.

How NLP is used in thematic analysis software

The goal of thematic analysis software is to automate theme discovery in text. Natural language understanding (NLU) is an important component of this process. This is different from applying text categorization, which simply puts text into buckets. NLU helps discover themes from the bottom up.

This helps us find “unknown unknowns”. These are recurrent points in feedback that you may not have considered. By finding these themes and tracking them over time, you can use your feedback to inform business decisions.

Algorithms can sometimes have a difficult time parsing negation. For example, imagine a customer responds to your survey with, “There’s nothing I did not like!” Many solutions will see “did not like” and categorize the feedback as negative.

The best thematic analysis software uses deep learning to recognize positive feedback, even if it’s couched in negative language.

Word embeddings

Word embeddings is a deep learning algorithm that finds similar words and phrases in text data. It analyzes occurrences of words across thousands of sentences and spits out a model.

One way of thinking about it would be that a word embeddings model translates our language (a vocabulary) to a computer’s language (vectors).

Thematic uses a custom word embeddings implementation to turn feedback into a hierarchy of themes:

Diagram showing the hierarchy of themes in customer feedback

Why you need thematic analysis software

Now that you know what thematic analysis software does, what about the why?

Here’s how companies can benefit from adding thematic analysis software to their tech stack:

Benefits of thematic analysis software: Time-saving, Increases accuracy, Quantify feedback, decision making

Save time and increase accuracy

When you’re running a business, time is a scarce resource. Thematic analysis software can save your team hundreds of hours a year and prevent them from making wrong decisions.

Many companies still analyze feedback using Excel. This is time-consuming and not scaleable, even for small businesses. Thematic analysis software will help you be more effective.

Thematic analysis software can also help avoid human errors. When people look at a dataset, they tend to view it through the lens of their own experiences and biases. They also might miss something unintentionally.

For example, we once tested Thematic against a human coder, Kate, when analyzing student feedback at a university.

Thematic found that students wanted better food/lunch options. Kate found the same issue, but at a much lower frequency. Why? When Kate looked at the student feedback, she tagged only one key issue per comment. Thematic tagged every issue mentioned in each student's comment. Once the university took improved food on campus, student satisfaction increased.

By using thematic analysis software, coders like Kate no longer have to code feedback. Instead, they can use their expertise to interpret the results and drive actions.

Students studying over lunch in a cafeteria.

Quantify customer feedback

When we talk about quantitative customer feedback, metrics like Net Promoter Score (NPS) often come to mind. And while NPS scores can be useful snapshots of customer satisfaction, they don’t always tell the whole story.

Why did one of your most loyal customers rate you an 8 instead of a 10? Why did a detractor churn, while a promoter doubled their orders per month? What impact on NPS will we see by taking an action to address a specific customer pain point?

Thematic analysis software helps you find these answers. It turns text feedback into the hard data you need to report and measure the success of an initiative.

“This has made it much easier to get projects across the line, with hard data that we can use to measure success of an initiative." - said one Thematic user on G2 Crowd.
“Better yet, we can see how specific themes impact NPS scores!” - shared another.

Make data-driven decisions and track results

Thematic analysis software can turn feedback into hard data not only for making decisions but also for tracking progress.  

This allows you to see whether actions you’ve taken are making a difference in real-time, and allows you to adjust your response and fine-tune your solution. In many situations, this can save an incredible amount of time and money.

Let's go back to our university example above. To start with, a high percentage of students disliked campus food. The university put initiatives in place to address this, then they re-surveyed students.

Thematic analysis will show whether students noticed, and what other issues are now on the rise.  Here is an example of how Thematic visualizes this in its platform.

Impact chart of different themes in Thematic

We see that by and large the university’s efforts were successful. If they’d like to continue working on student satisfaction, they'll need to dig in to what's causing issues with computer equipment, getting to campus, and social events.  

How to choose thematic analysis software

There are many qualitative data analysis software options on the market, but they don’t all perform to the same standards. Before you decide which text analysis solution to adopt, you’ll want to research both features and capabilities of each possibility on your shortlist.

Some software focuses more on audio files or interview transcripts, providing qualitative data analysis for focus groups and product research projects.  Others are more flexible, geared toward the continuous flow of customer reviews, support requests, and NPS surveys.

We've put together a free buyer's guide to help ensure you get what you need from a feedback analysis solution. Learn what to look for when trialing different solutions, so you can avoid buying a product that demos well but won't get you the depth of insights you need.

3 examples of thematic analysis software

Depending on your use case, you might want to use a different thematic analysis software. What's important is that it meets the individual needs of your company. Below, we describe our solution, Thematic, as well as two other highly rated solutions.

1. Thematic

We built Thematic specifically for automated feedback analysis. It's best suited for anyone who collects feedback from many different sources such as surveys, live chat, complaints, and reviews.

And this feedback-focused approach works: 87% of our customers increase their NPS by at least 8 points after using Thematic.

How Thematic works: combining AI with a human touch:

Since every business is different, Thematic is customizable on every level. Powerful AI combines with your unique expertise to create a personalized experienced that fits like a glove. There’s no one size fits all. All themes are discovered through thematic analysis and are custom for each dataset.

In the Themes Editor, you can adjust themes to make results more relevant to your business’s goals and priorities.

This combination of AI, NLP, and a human touch provides you with a list of themes that is:

  • Contextually accurate,
  • Varied enough to cover all of the topics in your dataset,
  • Meaningful for you and your priorities.

Once you have your themes list, Thematic displays your analysis through customizable dashboards and analytical tools. These tools let you:

  • Measure the importance of each theme,
  • Compare each theme across different segments of your data, such as demographics or tenure,
  • Calculate each theme’s impact is on metrics like satisfaction, loyalty, churn, and spend.

Here’s what our process looks like:

Diagram of how Thematic works

We give you the time and tools to focus on the more exciting parts of analyzing data and reporting on your findings.

2. DiscoverText

DiscoverText is another great example of thematic analysis in action. It's built for academic researchers who need to pull text from public data sources such as Twitter and analyze it quickly. Their data science methods originate in a decade of research with the National Science Foundation.

Like Thematic, DiscoverText understands the value in human and AI collaboration, recognizing that humans are good at some things and computers at others. DiscoverText writes that "a consistent back and forth between humans and machines increases the abilities of both to learn."

With DiscoverText, you can:

  • Fetch live feeds,
  • Filter by metadata,
  • Redact and annotate sensitive information,
  • Connect and work with peers in your browser.

3. Dovetail

Dovetail is a user research platform built for UX researchers who run small one-off research studies. Thematic analysis is one of its key features. It makes it easy to manually analyze text, tag specific parts of feedback with themes and then organize these themes. It's great for collaborating effectively with others and build up research repositories.

If you visit their website, you can see some animated examples of the software in action, transcribing audio files and pulling insights from  interview transcripts. Search for tags in an interview, and see an immediate count of all instances of what you’re looking for.

Key thematic analysis features include:

  • Highlighting to tag text,
  • Organizing taxonomies,
  • Sentiment analysis,
  • Graphical reporting.

Ready, set, go!

Now you are a master of thematic analysis software! You understand exactly what thematic analysis is and how it works. You also know how it can help you discover hidden insights in your feedback.

Researchers and insights professionals love the efficiencies thematic analysis software unlocks.

It saves time, money, and is just as accurate as human analysis! (and in some cases, even more accurate).

If you'd like to see how Thematic works on your data, book a demo with our team. They'll be able to set up a free trial on your dataset, so you can discover and review Thematic’s full functionality.

G2 reviews badge

Key Takeaways

  1. Thematic Analysis Software: This technology plays a crucial role in extracting actionable insights from piles of customer feedback. It works by identifying recurring themes in feedback data using natural language processing (NLP) and understanding (NLU).
  2. Advantages: Thematic analysis saves time and increases accuracy in handling feedback. It offers a scalable solution compared to traditional manual techniques. The software also helps mitigate errors that can come from human bias.
  3. Turning Feedback into Hard Data: With thematic analysis software, feedback can be quantified (from qualitative into quantitative data). This enables data-driven decisions from unstructured feedback, and allows you to monitor the impact of these decisions in real time.
  4. Choosing Thematic Analysis Software: When considering various software options, look for the features and capabilities that best meet your needs. The software should be able to identify themes autonomously, meaning it learns on its own without needing to set up themes or categories in advance.
  5. Sentiment and Thematic Analysis: Thematic analysis and sentiment analysis are often used together to gain deep insights. While sentiment analysis provides a binary view (positive or negative) of the feedback, thematic analysis helps understand the 'why' behind the sentiment.

Frequently Asked Questions about Thematic Analysis Software

What is thematic analysis software?

Thematic analysis software automates thematic analysis. It uses natural language processing and understanding to identify and extract recurring themes from large amounts of text data, such as customer feedback or open-ended survey responses.

How does thematic analysis software save time?

Traditional methods of analyzing text data, like using Excel spreadsheets, are time-consuming. They’re simply not scalable. Thematic analysis software automates this process, saving valuable time and effort.

How can thematic analysis software improve accuracy?

Human analysis is often affected by personal biases or oversight. Thematic analysis software minimizes these errors and is overall more consistent, enhancing the accuracy of the analysis.

What are some popular thematic analysis software platforms?

Notable examples of thematic analysis software include Thematic, DiscoverText, and Dovetail. Each of these platforms have unique features suited for specific use-cases.

How can I choose the best thematic analysis software for my needs?

When choosing thematic analysis software, consider factors like whether the software identifies themes autonomously, or requires training. Assess its capacity to handle the volume of data you're working with, how well it can turn feedback into quantitative data, and whether it suits your specific use-case and budget.

Ready to scale customer insights from feedback?

Our experts will show you how Thematic works, how to discover pain points and track the ROI of decisions. To access your free trial, book a personal demo today.

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