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What is an affinity diagram in UX design & how to create one

Last updated

31 January 2023

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In the field of user experience (UX) design, there are many tools that help product teams, marketers, and business owners better organize ideas and data. An affinity diagram, which is sometimes called an affinity map, affinity chart, or cluster map, is a powerful visual tool for organizing and managing pieces of information.

Still another name for the affinity diagram is the K.J. Method, named after Japanese ethnologist Jiro Kawakita, who developed the concept in the 1960s. The purpose of an affinity diagram is to group large data sets and visualize the relationship between them in a way that's useful and understandable.

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What are the benefits of using an affinity diagram?

Organizations use affinity diagrams for several reasons.

  • It's an efficient tool for generating new ideas. A UX team can collaborate, as its members feel free to suggest different possibilities for website or app design

  • They help designers, product managers, and developers gain a wider perspective on the user experience. An affinity map provides a big picture to help avoid getting stuck in a limited mindset of looking at just one or two variables.

  • Allows you to see the relationship between ideas and the need to balance different priorities and values. For example, when designing your app, you may find the need to balance qualities such as speed, cost, and simplicity. An affinity map lets you see these and other variables side by side. 

Affinity diagram vs mind map: what are the differences?

While affinity diagrams and mind maps (or idea maps) share certain characteristics, they are also different. They are both tools that let you brainstorm ideas and portray them visually. 

Mind maps tend to be less structured than affinity maps. With a mind map, you can diagram ideas without putting them into specific categories. An affinity map is more organized, placing ideas into logical categories. However, the process of generating these two kinds of maps can be similar. They both begin with creative brainstorming. In the case of the affinity map, however, the results are structured more formally. 

For example, consider a meeting in which team members are contributing ideas about a new app. For a mind map, you might list all kinds of unrelated ideas about features, competition, security, and integrations. These ideas can be listed in a free-form way and perhaps categorized later. For an affinity diagram or map, you would sort the ideas into categories and see how they relate to one another. Another way to look at it is that an affinity diagram is a mind map taken to another level. 

When to use an affinity map

The following are some circumstances in which an affinity map can be useful. 

Simplify a complex project

Working on a project such as developing an app or website can involve multiple issues and stakeholders. An affinity map lets you visualize all the essential points and implications. 

Make sense of disorganized data

If you have data from various sources, it can be challenging to make sense of it or turn it into an actionable plan. An affinity diagram is a way to organize the data and better understand how you can make use of it.

Limits of affinity diagrams

Like most tools, an affinity diagram isn't ideal for all circumstances. There are some cases in which this approach isn't recommended. With only a small amount of data, it may not be worthwhile to construct a diagram. You may need to accumulate more data first. Or the project may be straightforward enough not to require this tool. If the data you're working with is already sufficiently structured, you don't need an affinity diagram. 

The affinity diagram process

These are the steps to implement an affinity diagram. 

Prepare

You may want to use an existing template for guidance or create your own. If you are doing it for the first time, you'll identify the categories that work best for you. 

Collect data

The easiest way to record ideas, suggestions, or data is to write them down on paper. Sticky notes or index cards work well. There are benefits to writing things down as opposed to typing them on a screen. Research shows that the act of writing activates creative centers in the brain. However, if you need to connect with stakeholders in different locations, virtual sessions in which data is depicted on virtual affinity diagrams are the next best thing to live sessions.

Study notes and group them

The essential characteristic of affinity maps is the way data is structured for better understanding. Once you have your notes, you'll want to group them into categories. Create an appropriate name for each category. Your ability to map out useful categories will improve as you get familiar with the process. 

Discuss the findings

The real benefits of affinity diagrams come out when discussing the results. Depending on how many participants you have and their backgrounds and interests, you may want to separate them into subgroups to discuss particular issues. 

Draw the completed diagram

You can write the results on a whiteboard or chalkboard. Either attach sticky notes to the board or rewrite the content with a marker or chalk. Write the central issue or problem at the top. If the issue has been divided into groups, name each group with the appropriate notes underneath. 

Examples of affinity diagrams for user research

Let's look at how you might put together an affinity diagram for user research for an app that a company is developing. The following are some potential sticky notes that might be suggested.

  1. 45% of users say they strongly prefer free apps and aren't likely to pay for a subscription. 37% are willing to pay for an app that provides value. 18% are undecided.

  2. We could make the app free with an optional upgrade. Or we could have a low-priced tier and a premium version.

  3. Our main competition is App X, which is popular with our target audience. If we want people to use our app, we'll need to introduce features that App X doesn't have. 

  4. Our users consistently respond best to visual ads such as short videos. 

  5. Since our app performs at least two important tasks, should we consider releasing two separate apps?

  6. As we have users in multiple age groups, we need to target different demographics in our marketing campaigns. 

These and other points can be written down. Then you might group certain points. For example, #1 and #2 are both related to pricing, whereas #4 and #6 both relate to marketing. 

How to use your affinity diagram

It's not difficult to create an affinity diagram. The real challenge is making the best use of it. Here are some techniques that will help you sort and understand the results.

Card sorting

Card sorting simply means placing your index cards or sticky notes into relevant categories. Depending on how many notes you have, you may need to create subcategories under different categories. For example, under "marketing," you may have "paid ads," "email marketing," and "social media."

2x2 prioritization matrix

This idea was popularized by Stephen Covey, who called it a time management matrix. You create a box with four quadrants, labeled "urgent and important," "not urgent, but important," "urgent but not important," and "not urgent and not important." This is a simple but powerful way to categorize data, tasks, and goals. You can discard or postpone items that are neither urgent nor important. 

The priority should be "urgent and important." One of the keys is to avoid spending too much time on the "urgent but not important" category. In everyday life, examples of this would be random phone calls or emails. When creating an affinity map, you may come up with items that are time-sensitive but not really important.

Low fidelity wireframes

Wireframes are visual depictions of data or a plan (such as a blueprint for a house or other structure). Low fidelity wireframes are simple sketches that sort the basic ideas or components of your website, app, or another project. Whereas a high fidelity wireframe would include more details, a low fidelity wireframe provides a clear overview. 

Euler Diagram

Euler diagrams are similar to the more familiar Venn diagrams. Both types of diagrams use overlapping circles to illustrate the relationships between sets.  While a Venn diagram shows all possible logical relationships between sets, a Euler diagram only portrays relationships that exist in the real world. 

For example, suppose you had a superset of "Users,” and subsets "Business" and "Individuals." A Venn diagram would portray these as overlapping circles. A Euler diagram, however, would not have them overlap, as they are distinct categories.

Storyboards

Storyboards are used by filmmakers and videographers to outline the shots of a video or film. In this context, cards are arranged in order to display the order of scenes. You can use this concept for an affinity diagram as well. It can be particularly useful to set priorities and create a timeline. 

Work breakdown structure

Work breakdown structure or WBS is a way to break larger projects into smaller tasks. If you are creating a website, for example, you can break it down into pages. For an app, you can map out the steps in creating it or the marketing strategies you will be implementing. WBS is software that automates this process, separating the project into stages and categories. 

Affinity diagrams are simple yet powerful tools for developers and designers

Affinity diagrams are simple analog tools that require nothing more than a whiteboard and some sticky notes or index cards. The process can also be used online to work with a remote team. It can be extremely helpful to apply such an intuitive tool to complex projects. While you can use templates and follow certain guidelines, you will probably end up developing your own unique process for getting the most out of affinity diagrams. 

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