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Mind mapping in qualitative research

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How mind mapping compares with traditional analysis in qualitative research

In this article…

  • Comparing mind mapping with traditional qualitative research
  • How mind mapping works
  • Benefits of mind mapping and implications for future research


Christopher Tattersall is research and development manager; Julia Powell is chronic condition nurse practitioner; James Stroud, is principal clinical psychologist; both at Hywel Dda Health Board. Jan Pringle is PhD student, University of Dundee.


Tattersall C et al (2011) Mind mapping in qualitative research. Nursing Times; 107: 18, early on-line publication.

Background We tested a theory that mind mapping could be used as a tool in qualitative research to transcribe and analyse an interview.

Method We compared results derived from mind mapping with those from interpretive phenomenological analysis by examining patients’ and carers’ perceptions of a new nurse-led service.

Results Mind mapping could be used to rapidly analyse simple qualitative audio-recorded interviews.

Conclusion More research is needed to establish the extent to which mind mapping can assist qualitative researchers.

Keywords: Mind mapping, Qualitative research, Phenomenology

  • This article has been double-blind peer reviewed


5 key points

  1. Mind mapping is a technique used to capture ideas, concepts and themes in diagramatic form
  2. Interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) is a method more traditionally used in qualitative research
  3. IP focuses on individuals’ personal perspectives (phenomenology)
  4. Mind mapping enables researchers to capture research themes more quickly than IPA
  5. Further research is needed to establish how mind mapping may be best used in qualitative research

Mind mapping is a technique used to capture such things as ideas, themes, concepts and tasks in an illustrative format. The mind map begins with a central concept such as a word or image being placed in the centre of a sheet of paper, with sub-headings or related themes branching off. These branches can be subdivided or related to other branches (Fig 1).

Individual users develop their own way of using shapes, colours, lines or symbols in their mind maps. They convert the information into a combination of written, diagramatic and graphical representations allowing related themes to be linked on both paper and in their mind (Buzan, 2003). 

Mind mapping in phenomenology

Phenomenological enquiry is a commonly used qualitative research method, in which researchers try to interpret participants’ perceptions of reality. In discovering the essence of a “phenomenon”, researchers often try to “bracket” preconceived notions, or at least be aware of any preconceived ideas they may have.

Miles and Huberman (1994) stated that qualitative analysts decide what things mean from the time they begin collecting data, even when they claim to work inductively. It may be a naive for researchers to try and consider information with a clear and non-judgemental mind during the data collection phase of qualitative research. However, to accept this subjectivity and embrace it by using mind mapping may be more realistic. Mind mapping also allows free thinking, and has an aim to: “clear the mind of previous assumptions about the subject” (Buzan, 2003).

Traditionally, transcribed data is broken down into themes from which findings are taken. A more suitable way of analysing data may be to accept analysis begins at the interview stage and that formal analysis should begin soon after – or even during – the interaction, without waiting to produce transcribed text. Mind mapping could help with this.

With mind mapping the boundary between transcribing and analysing data may become blurred because the process of transcribing using a mind map will allow researchers to think creatively, making links between themes, or statements while the transcribing is underway.

Tattersall et al (2007) concluded that mind mapping should allow researchers to make rapid and valid transcriptions and to analyse qualitative interviews.


In theory, mind mapping could be used in phenomenological research to transcribe and analyse interactions between people as they are listened to (Tattersall et al, 2007). This study applied this theory to a qualitative study, comparing the results obtained by mind mapping with those obtained by a traditional qualitative analysis.


A research project conducted by a chronic condition nurse practitioner (CCNP) was used as the vehicle for assessing the difference between mind mapping and traditional analysis. The research was an examination of patient and carer perspectives of a new CCNP service within the community setting. Ethical approval was obtained.

The interviews were semi-structured and designed to elicit patient and carer perceptions of the CCNP service. Eight subjects (a mix of patients and carers) were recruited using a purposive sampling method; the CCNP who conducted the interviews was not known to participants.

Interviews were recorded and the recordings were analysed by different types of researchers using the following methods:

  • Method 1: A novice researcher (the CCNP who conducted the interviews) who was inexperienced in qualitative research and mind mapping but had a basic knowledge of both used mind mapping to produce transcription and analysis.
  • Method 2: A research manager who was experienced in quantitative research and mind mapping but had little experience of traditional qualitative research also used mind mapping to produce transcription and analysis.
  • Method 3: A clinical psychologist who was experienced in qualitative research methods transcribed interviews into text and analysed using interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA). This method focuses on an individual’s personal perspective (phenomenology) with researchers acknowledging that this cannot be done directly or completely due to their own conceptions (Murray and Chamberlain, 1999).

The researchers’ findings were confidential until all the analysis was complete.


The themes, along with a synopsis of researchers’ comments are reported below:

Method 1

Theme 1 Psychosocial support

Participants felt the CCNPs provided support. They also valued the proactive aspect of the service, such as the CCNPs helping patients and carers with the stress of coping with long-term illness. They felt the CCNPs treated them as individuals, and were approachable and accessible.

Theme 2 Advocacy and accessing services and equipment

All participants said the CCNPs helped them to access other services and equipment, and advocated on their behalf. The data suggests the nurses in particular negotiate with GPs for changes in medication and to access different treatment options.

Theme 3 Education and advice

The study data suggested that advice and education were important aspects of the care provided by the CCNPs.

Theme 4 Clinical skills

Patients and carers appreciated the CCNPs’ clinical skills and recognised without these nurses’ interventions they would have to see their GP much more often. Patients also said how the CCNPs initiated investigations and instigated changes to treatment.

Theme 5 Patient dependence

Patients and carers were invited to discuss any areas of the service they disliked or felt could be improved. All responses were positive, although one patient felt more visits from the CCNP were needed.

Theme 6 Confusion over role definition

The data suggested some patients were confused about the inclusion criteria for the CCNP service.

Method 2

Theme 1 Support

Many of the positive aspects of the CCNP service perceived by participants focused on the individualised care or advice given by the nurses. This focused on aspects of life not directly concerned with patients’ physical conditions, but which affected their daily lives. Patients talked about how their main carer had received advice about health, social services and transport.

Theme 2 Liaison

One part of the CCNP service mentioned by all participants was the benefit of having a link between the patient and other health or social service professionals. They saw having a good relationship with a health professional who can liaise with other agencies as a significant benefit. Some examples given were that the CCNPs could “chivvy things along” with regard to social care issues.

Theme 3 Contact

Patients saw having an easily contactable CCNP as a benefit. One suggested there was insufficient contact but these comments were due to social rather than health needs. Comments such as “you know someone’s there”, “feel individual” and describing the nurse as “my rock” were mentioned when discussing the patient and nurse relationship. In addition to these social aspects of the relationship, the physical care provided by the CCNPs was appreciated because it reduced the need to visit the surgery.

Method 3

Theme 1 Positive practical aspects of the service

Participants appreciated a number of practical aspects of the service. They valued the education and advice they received from the nurses. 

Patients saw the CCNPs as having a broad knowledge and remit and the ability to help patients access other services. The nurses were seen as being in a powerful position to offer patients practical support, including suitable aids.

Theme 2 ”Human” side to the service

Some patients compared their current treatment with previous treatment, which they viewed as being less “humanising”. They felt the current service was important, because it treated them “like a human”. Patients believed there was a human side to the service for a number of reasons: all said they had a close relationship with the CCNPs, and saw them as accessible and flexible. The nurses were regarded as being never too busy to meet patients’ needs, and patients also felt the nurses communicated well with them.

Theme 3 Interaction between “practical” and “human” aspects of services

One of the most striking themes was the interaction between the “human” and “practical” aspects of the service. Participants believed they were treated as humans and that the CCNPs were knowledgeable, providing practical support. They saw this combination as a vital safety net for them.

Not only did participants have someone to confide in, but they also had someone who they could trust to give them appropriate practical support where necessary. The CCNPs treated their patients with dignity and respect, and were knowledgeable about service issues. This meant patients often felt the CCNPs were aligned with them, and would fight for their needs.

Theme 4 Emotional impact on the patient

Participants believed the service had a positive impact on them, both on an emotional and practical level. The interaction between the practical and human sides of the service reduced pressure on patients. There was also a sense that the service empowered patients and give them a sense of control.


When we looked at the results, the theme descriptions varied widely, but this was to be expected given the researchers’ varied backgrounds and the subjective nature of the research methodology. However, the majority of themes revealed by the traditional research method were comparable with those derived from mind mapping.

If the research from the individual methodologies were taken to their conclusion, the service improvements and recommendations would be very similar. For example, if we take method 2 – the most simplistic of the analyses – the theme of “support” can be seen in the “psychological support” and “education and advice” themes of method 1, as well as in the themes of positive “practical aspects of the service”, “human side of the service” and “emotional impact on the client” from method 2. Although these comparisons are again subjective, we can be confident that all themes have been captured by all three researchers (see Table 1).

All these themes can be linked with others from different methodologies apart from the theme of “confusion over role definition” from method 1.

One of the benefits of mind mapping is its speed. The estimated time spent on methods 1 and 2 in familiarising ourselves with the data and the subsequent mapping process was 3–4 hours. However, the traditional IPA method took up to an estimated 16.5 hours, which included 10 hours transcribing, 3–4 on familiarisation and 1.5 on clustering and organising themes.


Assuming the methodology is of good quality, a huge benefit of mind mapping is the reduction in time spent on the transcribing and analysis aspects of qualitative research. With the simple research aim: “Patient and carer perspectives of a new CCNP service within the community setting” we covered a variety of themes by using mind mapping compared with traditional analysis. We have therefore shown mind mapping has potential, at least in simple qualitative research.

The benefit of mind mapping may well be in the analysis of bigger pieces of work where hours of audio recordings are produced. Conversely, the main advantage may be that it offers a “quality check” for traditional researchers, to ensure all themes have been considered – although, ironically this creates a longer analysis period. We therefore need more research into these areas.

The novice researcher found one theme that others did not – “confusion over role definition”. This may be due to the subjective nature of the research. However, only one patient mentioned this, so it may be that the researcher drew on personal experiences, resulting in this disparity in the results. This contradicts the theory that mind mapping can “clear the mind of previous assumptions” (Buzan, 2003).

Qualitative research is a subjective process so it is crucial that the process followed by researchers can be described for others to follow and learn from (Cormac, 2000; Parahoo, 1997). However, mind mapping may reduce the availability of the “audit trail” in qualitative research, not only because of the subjective nature of the data, but also of the methodology.


The themes emerging from this study initially appeared to be rather disparate. However, given that the ultimate goal for any research is to improve services, all methodologies seemed to bring out useful information in terms of understanding this patient group’s perspective, but in a shorter time when mind mapping was used.

The implications for future research on the use of mind mapping are about identifying how it can best serve qualitative researchers by answering such questions as:

  • Is there a type of study best suited to the use of mind mapping?
  • Is mind mapping ideal as an adjunct to traditional analysis, ensuring all themes are identified?
  • Is it methodologically sound for researchers who have conducted study interviews to use mind mapping and/or those with a purely analytical role?
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