cool stuff.

Affinity Mapping

The craft of surfacing themes

Dedicating time for you and your team to distill the research collected will produce the insights needed to power the next steps in your product's development.

Updated June 15, 2019

Without effective deadlines, research activity could continue forever, but research alone won’t help determine the actionable steps your organization should take next.

Like competitive analysis, affinity mapping injects a natural pause in the cycle of research to begin the distillation of what has been discovered and the discussion regarding what should be done.

Affinity mapping helps illuminate themes that would otherwise be trapped in the data collected. Whether on your own or within a team, the practice of breaking the data out into a form that can be easily interacted with forces everyone involved to review the information from a fresh perspective. While this exercise can be conducted alone, it is best experienced as a team as a group dynamic naturally begins the process of building consensus around a problem that should be solved.

If you’ve done the research, all you need to conduct an affinity mapping session are a few office supplies, space to display your findings, and time.

Getting started

Affinity mapping is the reason that the lowly post-it note has become the unofficial icon of User Experience design. UX is often visually stereotyped as a group of designers huddled around a post-it note covered wall. While we both know that there is much more to design than this one moment, if you’ve ever visited a startup or tech incubator, you’ve seen this stereotype reinforced as we tend to leave behind wall-after-wall of post-it notes. Not that I’m complaining — I personally respect those little colorful squares as an incredibly valuable indicator of potential success for our projects, companies, and clients.

It’s time to gather your data and anyone who assisted in the process to begin!

Surface observations

The first step in when creating an affinity map is the act of transferring information from your various notebooks and spreadsheets into a form that is easier to manipulate.

This is where a massive stack of post-its will come in handy.

On each post-it, write down one observation, fact, or quote that was important. It does not matter if this fact appears multiple times, in fact, you should count on that likelihood. You’ll have a step later for pruning everything back, so just focus on getting all the essential information surfaced.

A couple of suggestions to make this easier on everyone.

First, if you’re going to use colored post-it’s, try to do so with a purpose. If you only have a few people in the room, consider using the colors to denote who is making the notes. If you have multiple teams, use the colors to indicate where the information came from. Yellow for stakeholder interviews, blue for competitor research, etc. If no logical breakdown for color is possible, make sure everyone knows that the post-it color carries no meaning. This will allow people to focus on getting their information on the wall.

Next, use markers/sharpies for writing on the post-its. You want people to be able to read the notes from a few feet away, so be sure to write large enough for people to read from a distance.

Finally, set a time limit — particularly if you are working with a large group. You won’t be posting every observation to the wall, only the items that are of particular importance. A time limit forces people to begin the editing process naturally. As you’ll see in the next step, if someone later discovers they forgot something important, it still has a chance to be discussed.

Concept grouping

Once you’ve finished the initial task of surfacing your observations, it’s time to begin the task of surfacing themes. If you are working with a group, be sure to allow time for the team to review the board before consolidating the information further. You want people not only to feel like they are part of the process but also to take in the scope of the work that has been performed to date. No matter how much time you’ve had to dedicate to data collection, you probably have more than you realized.

As the research lead, you or a product manager should lead the next step as you begin grouping the information into common concepts or themes. You can start this process at any place on the board, but make sure you have enough room to begin creating new categories for information.

Start by taking a single post-it and creating a category for it. For instance, if the note says something about ‘forgotten password’ perhaps the group is ‘profile settings’ or ‘security.’ As you’re making these categories, you’ll sometimes receive additional information from the person who created the note — be sure to hear them out and add detail to the post-it as warranted. As more notes are reviewed, you’ll sometimes find new categories and supporting concepts that belong to existing groups. You’ll continue this process of review and grouping until you have worked through all the items posted.

Groupings Source: newpragmatic.com

Now that your information has been modified to reflect common groups, open the floor for discussion with your team. Make sure to timebox this portion of the meeting so that you don’t run out of time and be sure to call upon people specifically if you find one or two voices dominating the conversation. As stated in Conducting Meetings, making sure everyone feels welcome requires effort and encouragement.

Create action items

Not every concept that forms a group will produce an actionable task that your team can act on. The groupings will occasionally serve as cautionary guard rails to provide your project with a moral compass to protect customers from abusive actions witnessed in other platforms. Other clusters may produce obvious actions like “must solve for offline usage” or “desires private wishlist,” which map directly to potential user stories.

After the action items are created and your group has wrapped up the meeting, it’s time for you to take steps to document the gathering properly. At a minimum, you want a photographic account of the wall of post-its groupings for later review and a document housing the action items that the meeting produced. Some organizations will carry this activity further and build a sharable diagram, like the one displayed below, to create an artifact that can be referenced by the team.

In the grouping example shown above, three clusters appeared among the items listed. Hours, Pricing, and Services were the topics that resonated most from the research performed.

Now you compare what you have been tasked with doing against the data that has been collected. With a mandate like “improve the quality of the customer experience,” not everything observed is actually something the client will want to act on. Lowering prices is likely to make any customer happy, but if your client serves a high-end market, price alone isn’t expected to make a dramatic difference to their customer regardless of competitive positioning. However, providing tools to better communicate with the customer would be a fantastic way to provide better service.

Some of the first action items emerging from this example could be:

  • Provide the customer with a smooth online booking experience.
  • Allow staff to alert customer when pet is ready easily.
  • Simplify pricing options for easy decision making.

Guidance like “improve quality” is always vague. Only proper research will determine what you might be able to do to meet that challenge.

You and your team will often refer back to this step in the process as the discussions around your project are just beginning. Having your research and decisions memorialized in a form easy to consume builds credibility for you and your work as people shift on and off the project over time.

Exercise

As illustrated in this chapter, Affinity Mapping is the latest in a series of information distillation exercises. By identifying the common themes that have emerged from your research, you provide yourself a strong foundation to begin building and testing possible solutions.

While most Affinity Mapping exercises conducted in a workplace are group activities, this exercise can be conducted as solo session because you have collected a vast amount of data on your own. Instructions on how to move forward in either scenario are supplied below.

Workshop session

You’ll be using a Figma template as the shared location for collaboration. Please make sure that all of your session participants are working on the same file. This becomes a large solo exercise if everyone is working on their own copy of the file.

To prepare for the session, you will conduct a pre-workshop review of the following assets:

  • User Interviews
  • Competitive Analysis
  • Stakeholder Interviews
  • Observational Research

From each of the items listed above, you should produce three observations (12 in all) that you will post for review during the workshop. There will be more work to do, but it will be performed as a group during the workshop.

Before the session, add these items to your Program Journal and post your Journal in the #Feedback-Loop channel for review.

Of note: You may notice some of your secondary observations being posted as primary observations by your peers. Resist the urge to change your previously chosen items. We’ll have a conversation about those items and that discussion can’t happen if everyone succumbs to the draw of groupthink.

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Solo practitioners

It’s not uncommon for designers to create their own affinity maps, mainly when working on small teams or as solo entrepreneurs. The key is taking time to review the data collected and acknowledge the themes that surface.

Like the workshop participants above, you will conduct a pre-workshop review of the following assets:

  • User Interviews
  • Competitive Analysis
  • Stakeholder Interviews
  • Observational Research

Unlike the workshop participants, you can immediately progress to the Figma template. Once you have made a copy of the file for yourself you can begin surfacing your observations. With only the data you have gathered to provide content, there is no need to limit yourself to the top 12 observations. Be exhaustive with the items you post, but cap yourself at 30 minutes.

Once you finish posting your observations, you should begin grouping common elements together until three-to-five themes emerge. From these themes, construct action items that will be used in upcoming user persona and user stories exercises.

Update your Program Journal with a link to your Affinity Map and the action items you produced in this exercise. Post your Journal in the #Feedback-Loop channel for review.

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