An introduction to affinity mapping in user research

User research is key to discovering the inner workings of your users’ minds — their emotional, organizational, informative needs and desires. These are all super important to creating a user experience that is intuitive and meeting your users’ needs in a way that means they feel loved, cared for and considered. All the deep understanding stuff that keeps them coming back!

Qualitative research allows you to collect verbatim data from participants that give insights into why they do or feel things. You can even get into whether ‘Dee’ understood how the website worked or why ‘Andrew’ would (or wouldn’t) revisit the app outside of testing.

Gathering these awesome insights is one step. Analyzing and organizing these is a skill and talent in its own right. And armed with the right tools or methods it can be immersive, interesting and a great way to get under the skin of your users. Let’s take a look at affinity mapping as a method of analyzing this data — as a tool it can help researchers visualize and easily group and theme data.

Affinity mapping is used outside of the UX world and can be done independently, however is a great analysis method to use collaboratively. For researchers, it can be a great tool to collaborate and engage the team and potentially stakeholders. Bringing people together to identify, discuss and resolve user experience issues.

Here we’ll lay out what affinity mapping is, specifically why it’s useful for user research and set out key steps to get you underway.

What is Affinity Mapping?

By definition, affinity mapping is the process of collecting, organizing, and grouping qualitative data to create an affinity diagram.

Put simply it is a tool to group, map, sort and categorize information. A tool where you’ll look at the information and patterns of your qualitative user research and work to group these together to make sense of them. It helps you to find patterns, similar outcomes and insights that allow you to draw conclusions and collate results in a cohesive manner, then report to the wider team in a way that makes sense and provides a clear road to applicable and achievable outcomes.

What is an Affinity Diagram?

An affinity diagram is what you have once you have gone through the affinity mapping process. It is the final ‘diagram’ of your grouping, sorting and categorizing. An ordered visual sorting of insights and information from your user research. And the place to filter or funnel observations and information into patterns and reach final outcomes.

Allowing you to see where the key outtakes are and where there may need to be improvements, changes or updates. And from here a roadmap can be decided.

An affinity map using Reframer by Optimal Workshop

Essentially the mapping part is the process of creating the diagram, a visual sorting of insights and information from your user research. So how do you make affinity mapping work for you?

1. Start with a large space

This could be a table, desk, pinboard or even a whiteboard. Somewhere that you can stick, pin or attach your insights to in a collaborative space. Becoming more common recently is the use of shared digital and online whiteboard tools. allowing people to access and participate remotely.

2. Record all notes

Write observations, thoughts, research insights on individual cards or sticky notes.

3. Look for patterns

As a group read, comment and write notes or observations. Stick each of the notes onto the board, desk or whiteboard. Add, and shuffle into groups as you go. You can keep adding or moving as you go.

4. Create a group/theme

This will start to make sense as more sticky notes are added to the map. Creating groups for similar observations or insights, or for each pattern or theme.

An animation showing cards being grouped using affinity mapping
Create a group/theme using affinity mapping

5. Give each theme or group a name

As more notes are added there will be natural groups formed. Openly discuss if there are notes that are more difficult to categorize or themes to be decided. (We’ve outlined some ideas for UX research themes in another section below.)

6. Determine priorities

You’ve tidied everything into themes and groups, now what? How do you decide which of these are priorities for your organization? Discussion and voting can be the best way to decide what outcomes make the most sense and may have the biggest impact on your business.

7. Report on your findings

Pulling together and reporting on the findings through your affinity diagram process should be key to putting actionable outcomes in place.

How to define research themes

Commonly, user research is digested through thematic analysis. During thematic analysis, you aim to make sense of all the notes, observations, and discoveries you’ve documented across all your information sources, by creating themes to organize the information.

Depending on your role and the type of research you conduct, the themes you create for your affinity diagram can vary. Here are some examples of affinity groups that you could form from your UX research:

  • User sentiment and facial expressions when completing certain tasks
  • Frequently used words or phrases when describing a product or experience
  • Suggestions for improving your product or experience

Wrap up

Qualitative user testing and the resulting observations can be some of the best insights you get into your users’ minds. Filtering, organizing and ordering these disparate and very individual observations can be tricky. Especially if done in silo.

So, draw a team together, bring in stakeholders from throughout your organization and work collaboratively to sort, organize and categorize through affinity mapping. This opens the doors to discussion, buy-in and ultimately a collective understanding of user research. Its importance and its role within the organization. And most importantly the real-world implications UX research and its insights have on organizational products and output.

Originally published at https://blog.optimalworkshop.com on March 9, 2022.

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Optimal Workshop

Quickly and easily test anything from website architecture to design prototypes with our suite of specialized user research tools 🚀