Forget Atlas.ti and MaxQDA: NVivo is your friend!


[UPDATE: Please note the updates at the end of this post, which basically revoke my enthusiastic statement in the main post]

Okay, I admit that the headline is perhaps a bit premature since I have not yet extensively worked with NVivo, but I just have to note that I am absolutely thrilled with what I’ve seen so far (NVivo 9.2)! I’m just wondering how it could happen to me that I did not see this earlier. I know I looked at it about 5 years ago so maybe it just wasn’t so good then or maybe it was too expensive for an underpaid PhD student? Maybe I was turned off by its rather commercial rather than academic appearance and self-presentation?

I can’t remember the reasons why I ended up choosing between Atlas.ti and MaxQDA, but I’m pretty sure I’ll work with NVivo from now on. I will write more about my NVivo experiences in a couple of months. At this point I can just mention some of the features that completely won me over:

Firstly, Since NVivo 9, several people can work simmultaneously on the same project (coding data etc). This is only possible in connection with NVivo Server, an extra software with an extra license (and hence extra costs), but I am not aware that any other QDA software offers such excellent team work features. In Atlas.ti, for example, you have to bundle your project and send it to your colleague who then can work on it, bundle it again and send it back to you. You can also merge projects in Atlas.ti, but once they are merged, its again only one user who can work on them at a time. (A note of caution: I have not yet had the chance to try out NVivo server but a colleague told me that there still seem to be some instability and connectivity problems that need to be resolved. So I’m not yet praising NVivo server! I’m just saying that there is huge potential!)

A second feature which is a must for me is the possibility to code scanned pdfs (handwritten fieldnotes!) Atlas.ti can do this but not MaxQDA. And NVivo can do it. I’ve tested it! Excellent!

Thirdly, I like to have my audiofiles linked and synchronized with my transcripts, which allows me to do rough transcripts at first and then go into detail where necessary by jumping to the respective audiosegment by clicking into the text. Again, Atlas.ti can do that. I think MaxQDA also introduced it recently (not sure though). Well, and NVivo can too, but my first impression here was actually a bit disappoiting since it does not seem to support “karaoke mode” when playing the audio and it puts the transcript into a table in which every row corresponds to a segment in the audio file. Its a bit clumsy to handle compared to the pure text version in Atlas.ti, but the problem with Atlas.ti transcripts for me has always been that they easily get messed up and the deitor is behaving strangely, for example by inserting a timestamp in front of the cursor instead of behaind it and and sometimes not allowing you to move the cursor past it. Well, anyway, the table layout of transcripts in NVivo seems to make the whole thing more stable. Hopefully anyway.

Another thing I like about NVivo is the way it displays code stripes not only down alongside your transcript (or other texts) but also across, along the envelope of your audio. It is also very flexible regarding which codes you want to have displayed.

Finally, I will just mention the incredible variety of analysis features, including the possibility to cluster your texts according to similarities in word use, the possibility to show the contexts in which a word is frequently used, and the possibility to automatically include synonyms and similar words in a word search. So for example, if you search for “tourist”, it can also look for “traveller” etc.

Let me know what your experiences witj NVivo or, if you prefer another QDA program, why you think it is better. Just post your comments below!

[UPDATE 04/11/2011: Here is a blogpost that came to a different conclusion than me, and I think Abdulrahman is making some valid points, especially about the speed…]

[UPDATE 13/10/2012: I don’t have time to write much today, but since this post is still one of the most popular ones on this blog, I need to say that I basically revoke my judgement: I cannot recommend NVivo 10 any more than Atlas.ti 7! The main reason why I am annoyed with NVivo is not so much about certain functionalities (if you want to import web-pages or study posts on social networks, NVivio 10 probably is still your choice) but about those little annoyances that keep bugging you while you work. I have a whole list of these, but the most annoying thing has been the way that NVivo links a transcript with the respective audio file: the transcript is in a table and one paragraph is a table cell. In addition, scrolling through the transcript table doesn’t go smoothly but takes quite big jumps so that you don’t know where actually you are in the transcript whenever you move the mouse wheel. It is also cumbersome to play a specific passage that you are looking at. Firstly because the way to get the audio playing is not intuitive and once you get it to play, it always starts at the beginning of that particular table cell. So if you got a long text within one cell, you cant’ really count that as text-audio synchronization in a meaningful way. The second huge drawback that I want to mention is that although NVivo 10 has become somewhat faster, it is still very slow (at least when you use it with NVivo server) which gets the more  annoying the more you are accustomed to the program and want to move around quickly. Finally, it seems that Atlas.ti has greatly improved with version 7.0 and I will check it out in the coming days to see if it still annoys me as much as when I decided to move to Atlas.ti with my new project.]


14 thoughts on “Forget Atlas.ti and MaxQDA: NVivo is your friend!

  1. Interesting post, particularly the fact that you like Nvivo so much. I wonder if it has improved that much since version 8. I tried to like that version (it was the one we had for free at university), but found it so incredibly slow and cumbersome interface (why, dear God, did they put an outlook-esque interface on a Qualitative analysis programme?). I then bought Atlas,ti 6, but found it too difficult to use and ended up going for Maxqda. In its latest version it actually also is able to code pdf’s (including photo’s and transcript pdfs) and does the audio transcription. I guess it’s horses for courses, and would definitely recommend using all programmes before buying!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. Its interesting to know that MaxQDA now also has full pdf support. – If that is true. Are you sure that it allows you to code parts of images in pdfs (rather than just the whole image?) That would be an important improvement. What makes NVivo still interesting for me is the server functionality which I will test when I am back from my fieldtrip. When I played around with NVivo with a locally saved project, my impression was not that it was extremely slow, just slow enough to notice it. I will have to see whether the slowness gets more annoying in day to day work. The interface has been improved, I think, but it still takes a while to understand it. But that is the case with all three programs, I think. What I miss in all three, NVivo, MaxQDA, and Atlas.ti is an easier way to save and code webpages, perhaps through an integrated browser. Its very combersome to surf the web for relevant texts and then save them in a document, then import them into the QDA software and then code it.

    • You should try QDA Miner from Provalis. There software is realy fast and easy to use. You can code PDF’s and other common document formats and it has a lot of statistical features and graphics that help you to analyse your data. You can download a full trial version from there website. However, I don’t think it does the audio and video transcription.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Could you please share more of your experience of using NVivo? What do you think of the software now?

    Thanks a lot 🙂

    • Hi Leia!
      I am still not totally convinced of NVivo 9. I keep encountering little things that are just annoying. For example, a Memo cannot be linked to more than one document. Hello? Or whenever you want to select a specific document or set of documents (e.g. to do a query or simply to link it) you always have to go manually through a lot of menues and lists. That can make working with NVivo rather cumbersome at times. There seems to be no easy drag-and-drop way or other shortcut to, for example, link a memo to another document that you are currently working on or to do a word count on the currently open documents. You always have to go through the selection menu…

      Another thing is that the coding stripes are always invisible by default, which means you have to turn them on manually every time you start working. Or who doesn’t want to see the codes applied to a document? You kind of wonder: Is this a program for coding or what?

      Well, and the text-audio syncronization is not that great either. NVivo uses table rows to delimit the increments that are transcribed and link them to the audiofile. The problem is that when you code those increments (which might be whole paragraphs) only innone piece, i.e. you cant code a single word or sentence within a table row. As a result, I am not using that functionality but I use F4 to trascribe, and the time codes that F4 saves as part of the text then tell me where to look if I want to go back and listen to a certain passage. That’s not really the idea either, is it? On the other hand, this table option seems to be a bit more robust than what I experienced with the more sophisticated sync functionality in Atlas.ti 6 (not sure if those issues have been resolved meanwhile).

      But having said that, I still think NVivo is a great option, especially when you want to work. in teams (because of the server functionality). My impression is also that NVivo is easier to learn for Newcomers, but that’s just a guess.

      QSR has announced NVivo 10 for June 2012 and one of the improvements they promis is speed, which would be a big step forward if it’s true. Let’s see.

  3. If you think NVivo is great you should take a look at Dedoose. It’s a web app ( that is far easier to use, pretty inexpensive, great for teams, and works on everything including tablets.

    • Thanks, I’ve looked at it and find it had great potential but the greatest drawbacks (apart from the monthly fee, which my university is unlikely to cover since it’s already offering NVivo and Atlas.ti for free) are that it is not designed for inductive (e.g. grounded theory) approaches – after all, it’s not called indoose – and that it does not provide synchronization between audio and transcribed text. You can either work with the audio/video of the interview but not with both at the same time.

      • Hi Chris, while the other issues I can’t really speak to, Dedoose definitely allows transcripts with video and audio these days, and uses excerpting to synchronize. It is somewhat of a newer feature. Regarding Atlas/NVivo being free, I can say that we definitely offer the best prices especially at the university level, and we only charge for months where it is actually used.
        ~ JT

      • JT, I don’t think dedoose offers text-media synchronization. The feature of attaching excerpts to audio or video is far from equivalent. And regarding cost: the pricing model may be attractive, and but that doesn’t help if the standard software is already paid for. Whatever dedoose costs, it will be more expensive than using those standard packages…

  4. On Dedoose -vs Nvivo – importing webpages and Pdfs seems much easier in Nvivo, and there seem to be more tools for linking different transcripts and extracts in Nvivo. I’d prefer to go with something less institutionalised and I like the look of dedoose, but having tried both out briefly I think nvivo will be better for my situation (different if the collaborative working and mixed methods is your priority).

  5. Nvivo has no backwards compatibility, so you are always stuck buying into the latest version if you work as a team. You can open other file formats such as Atlas but they are then stuck in Nvivo’s format meaning, yes the whole team has to shift software (clever).

    The software is also clunky and does very badly with Dragon Dictate. I have used the software since version 2 but have to say that I like Atlas as version 7 really has addressed a number of issues. It works brilliantly with Dragon which is a plus for me.

    Have you tried doing video in nvivo? it is terrible, with a script in boxes…. when was the last time you types an essay or a transcript in a table…
    however I like the transcript tool, where it creates a new timestamp everytime you stop the tape.

    also 10 minutes with the modelling tool which has not changed in 10 years and you will want to give up.

    memos are only attached at a document level, which is not great and no multiple links… this is not well thought through. Rather than add new features it would be great to see some of the existing ones work a little better. For example you did not play with PDF’s for very long. they have always been the bain of NVivo, with jumbled text.

    And version 10 is faster, but still noticably slow on my i7 8gb machine. I would hate to think what the server version would be like.

    I am not sure that nvivo is any easier to learn than other software, it is in places counter intuitive. Have a go at setting up a report without using the custom settings…. good luck.

    But much of these types of discussion are subjective.

    • Thanks, Rab, for sharing those experiences. They mirror my own which I have not found the time to report at length here. One of the reasons is that I am increasingly torn between Atlas and Nvivo since both of them have some very serious flaws. Just recently, when I decided to go back to Nvivo (see update above), the first thing that happened was that Atlas seriously crashed multiple times and the import of F4 transcripts was faulty. I think they fixed it now after I sent them a screencast and the docs I was using. But that kind of errors is just unacceptable, in my opinion. So there you go. The problem seems to be the competition for users by offering more and more features rather than making existing ones work (better).

  6. I have used nvivo since two months and I am finally giving up and moving to atlas … Its very slow and kept hanging with sql issues and the support takes too long to respond with no help. I notice that the issue I am facing , many people have faced and is a bug of nvivo. Unfortunately because of this I have lost the work I have done so far as the file refuses to open and I am quite frustrated about it . Its time I move on to some other sofware than face this issue again. Unfortunately I have to purchase the new software , while nvivo is given by my uni. I am still okay with shelling out little money than losing days of work and struggling with the slow factor.

    • Hi Uma, please check out, It’s a newer competitor to Atlas.Ti, MaxQDA, QDAMiner, Etc. The cost is minimal, it’s easy to use, extremely secure (per project encryption available), and accessible from any computer.
      ~ JT

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