Did you ever experience going over your grocery list but as you got further down your list you realize you missed out on some important things? Or have you experienced lining up at the cashier to pay, but you forgot something?
Before you know it, you've gone back and forth a lot of times. wouldn't be easier and more efficient if you had grouped your grocery list into categories?
Well in this article, Affinity Mapping for Organizing Your UX Research, we will discuss how affinity mapping helps you organize things into themes or categories for better and more efficient UX research findings.
This article will also cover the following subtopics:
The affinity diagram is a great way to make sense of and organize a large volume of mixed information such as facts, ethnographic research, ideas from brainstorming, user feedback, user needs, insights, design issues, and many others to just name a few.
The affinity diagram, also known as affinity mapping, clusters information or data in an organized manner, which makes it one of the most valuable methods to employ during your design process.
In short, affinity diagramming or affinity mapping helps create and synthesize information and insights. Therefore, it makes sense that they are used in many phases of design thinking, including the define and ideate stages.
Well, affinity diagram and affinity mapping are both considered the same, let us properly define and compare the differences between these two terms:
What is affinity mapping?
We sometimes refer to affinity mapping as affinity diagramming as well since this is a process where we conduct or create a collaborative sorting or the process of creating an affinity diagram. In short, it’s a process where you gather qualitative information or data about users and group them by categories.
Affinity diagram starts by gathering information about the users through usability testing, user surveys, observation, or methods to collect user feedback. Once this information is gathered, you’ll need to write out each idea or organize these ideas using movable cards, like sticky notes. You’ll need a large space (or online whiteboard) where you can create, stick, organize, and rearrange these ideas.
What exactly are we trying to achieve when we rearrange these ideas into sticky notes? There is where we use an affinity diagram.
What is an affinity diagram?
An affinity diagram, sometimes also known as a cluster map, is created to organize information. This is the output of affinity diagrams. It helps organize information into groups or similar items and is very useful when it comes to analyzing qualitative data or observations.
Understanding your users’ needs make sense for UX research can be complicated since you have several sources for collecting customer insights and feedback, which is most of the time beyond usability tests such as support tickets, customer service chats, interviews, etc. However, these data don’t reduce to a number or statistic that can be measured against a KPI. Therefore, making qualitative data actionable can be difficult, not to mention ambiguous.
With the help of an affinity diagram, design, research, and product teams are one step closer to synthesizing qualitative data from multiple sources into one, actionable visual.
How to create an affinity map
Affinity diagrams generally have three basic steps, and you can tweak each one to fit your own style and need.
Write down every data point or idea on a separate sticky note then stick it on a wall.
Pick up sticky notes one by one and group related notes into clusters.
Reflect and discuss the created themes and categories, including how they affect the next steps
Affinity diagrams can be useful as a group activity or individually. Below are considerations when it comes to who should be involved in the mapping process:
Affinity diagram is well suited to teamwork because it’s physical and interactive, and many people can participate at once. Members of the team learn things kinesthetically by writing down, picking up, and physically engaging with sticky notes. This is a great activity to immerse designers and stakeholders in UX research through holding quotations and observations in their hands.
Another advantage of affinity map to teams is more members means more perspectives. The diversity of knowledge and backgrounds a group brings can provide a vast range of creative insights or better ideation. You might want to capitalize and include cross-functional team members when it comes to synthesizing the research.
While affinity diagrams are quite an advantage to teams, it can also be valuable for individuals as well. As an individual method, it is considered a relatively quick way to pull out insights from research notes. It can also overcome the tendency to favor certain narratives, or what is commonly known as confirmation bias.
Physically (or digitally) spreading out and grouping all the research notes, you can observe and look at everything with fresh eyes, which can open up space to draw new connections that you hadn’t seen during the actual research.
Most of the time, an affinity diagram is also thought of as an in-person activity because of the added value that the movement and physical aspects bring to the table.
You may also want to utilize several great tools for digital affinity diagram. In this article, we mostly designed the affinity diagramming process as physical activity, but you can easily adapt these steps to a digital context.
Affinity mapping for synthesizing research
Synthesizing qualitative research findings and analyzing ideas in the early stages of design ideation, are two of the most common uses for affinity diagrams.
To fully understand how to synthesize qualitative research (like user interviews, ethnographic observation, or usability testing) using an affinity map, let’s have an example scenario:
Supposed you are a designer for a delivery app and you’ve conducted user interviews to identify the user pain points as well as the future needs that users have with your product. Let’s imagine for example that you already conducted eight interviews and completed detailed notes for each. The next step is putting everything together and finding out the patterns across all your user interviews.
Step 1: Write all the data points on sticky notes
Always remember that every comment or quotation from each interviewee is a potential data point. So go through each of your notes and write down anything that stands out as important, putting each on its own sticky note.
Avoid discriminating at this point. The goal is to get several sticky notes on the wall. Also expect that the more you place on the wall, means the longer it’ll take you to sort them. Depending on the timeframe and how thorough you are, you can find the balance that works for your project.
Step 2: Group together similar sticky notes
Grab one sticky note, read it, and put it in one place. Grab another note, read it, and then figure out of the note is related to the first one. If it is, but the second note alongside the first note. Otherwise, put it further away to start a new cluster. If you’re working with a group, be sure to give people a clear time frame and do this sorting together as a group.
To figure out how each note is related to one another, the decision is heavily dependent on you. There is no right or wrong answer in this case. The goal of this activity is to draw connections. But keep in mind that you need to find connections that might be of value to you.
As you sort notes into clusters, feel free to write headings for each cluster on the wall or with a different color sticky note. Feel free to change your mind and regroup notes as you go.
Step 3: Extract insights and plan the next steps
This step is very important. The goal is to use your sorted sticky note wall to answer questions and drive your thinking. One best way to work on this is to continue sorting. You might group your clusters into larger ones or if you started with more general categories, you might break them down further into more specific subcategories.
At each stage of the sorting, make sure you discuss or reflect on the patterns you’re seeing and how they relate to your research questions. Always write down notes, questions, and ideas for further consideration. It is better to take pictures of your wall and you also want to consider translating the map into a document that you can share with other team members or stakeholders.
Affinity mapping for ideation
Let’s have a look at how to use the same tool to gather and organize design ideas in the later stage of the process. We can use the same example scenario above.
For example, the research synthesis made it clear that the users’ biggest pain point is having no way to inform the delivery man of the changes the users wanted to request when it comes to their deliveries. You then decide to gather the UX design team and for an ideation session to come up with the app’s features that solve this particular pain point or problem.
Step 1: Write all your ideas on sticky notes
Give the members of the design team a time limit, around a maximum of 5 minutes, just to write or sketch their ideas. Each idea should be written on a different sticky note or index card. The idea can take any form, meaning it may be low fidelity wireframes, a diagram of a user flow, or just a quick phrase that conveys the idea. As soon as the time is up, ask everyone to post their ideas on the wall.
Step 2: Group together similar sticky notes
Spend some time at each idea and sort them into groups or categories based on the themes that you find useful. Be creative in sorting your ideas and identify the key ideas that emerged.
Step 3: Extract insights or patterns and plan the next steps
Discuss with the design team the most viable ideas based on the ideas that were drawn. It is important that you also raise concerns and talk through them. Prioritize and select the ideas the design team wanted to go with in more detail moving forward. You can decide through votation and using markers, and stickers, or let each person weigh in on which ideas should be carried forward or given priority.
We have discussed that affinity mapping is a UX synthesis method that’s valuable to teams. However, doing it as an individual also comes with a lot of advantages, most especially when it comes to categorizing research insights and overcoming confirmation biases.
Affinity diagramming can help view things with a fresh perspective and open newer avenues.
Additionally, affinity diagramming is a great way to bring attention to a lot of usability issues and design challenges. It also creates a common ground for people across all types of backgrounds and expertise.