Rachel Wendte, Author at General Assembly Blog

Using Affinity Mapping to Organize and Synthesize Initial Research

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Every great design begins with great research. By using techniques like user interviews, contextual inquiry, and competitive analysis, user experience (UX) designers have the opportunity to learn about user pain points, motivations, and preferences in a very personal way. But tracking all of that data and finding patterns can be difficult, especially when trying to navigate a long text document or pages of handwritten notes. That’s why UX designers practice affinity mapping.

An affinity map, also known as an affinity diagram, gives designers a complete picture of their early research process. It is a physical, tactile, and editable design artifact that’s invaluable for showcasing trends, themes, and areas of opportunity for discovery and improvement. With just a few tools, you can create a visual representation of large amounts of data that will help to inform your future strategy.

Tools for Creating an Affinity Map or Affinity Diagram

Creating an affinity map is easy. All you’ll need is some paper to write ideas, writing tools, and a surface to mix, match, and move your notes around. A few tools that will help you build these maps are:

  • Sticky notes: If you Googled “affinity map” right now, you’d find photos upon photos of sticky notes with designers clustered around them. These are the crux of your map. They’re the right size to write down bite-size pieces of research, and they’re easy to move around and group together to show research themes and related findings. You’ll go through more of these than you think, so stock up! Minis will be too compact to write on, so go for the standard size or slightly larger.
  • Markers: Pen and pencil can be too light to read, especially if you’re building a map with a team. Markers help make sure everyone can read all of the ideas — whether they’re right next to the map or a few feet away.
  • A large, flat, writing surface: You’ll need a large enough area to post a bunch of different sticky-note thoughts, but also add additional observations that provide context to your research. These could be themes you see emerging, questions you want to follow up on in additional research, or brainstorming ideas. Large dry-erase boards can work, but most designers I know prefer to stick up large-scale Post-its on the wall.

Step 1: Mapping Ideas on Your Sticky Notes

Your initial research can come from a lot of places: in-person interviews, observations you see of users interacting with a current product or service, internet searches, and surveys. All of this user data now needs a place to go. Enter the affinity map! Being able to separate data out into moveable blocks (like sticky notes) will allow you to get a better scope of the qualitative and quantitative data you’ve collected. The first step is to write out all your research findings on your trusty sticky notes. You can group together like information later, but for now you just need to get it out of your head or your notebook and into this new working space.

Things to jot down may include:

  • Statistics and other key facts: These could be from your own data collection, surveys, or secondary research. Chances are some of these numbers and research-backed facts will help to reinforce some of the more subjective observations you’ve collected from in-person interviews.
  • Personal observations or insights: What has jumped out at you as you’ve navigated your research? These “aha” moments could be the beginning of some deeper insights and point the way to future exploration. Add them in now and thank yourself later.
  • User quotes: User interviews give you tons of information — hooray! But the pieces of interviews that can actually be used to inform your future design are buried in bits and bobs of small talk, tangential stories, and relevant, but not crucial facts or observations. Don’t give up! Read through your notes as though you’re reading an essay or novel. If a sentence jumps out at you, that’s a green light to jot it down.

Step 2: Grouping and Categorizing Concepts for an Affinity Map

Now that you have a small mountain of sticky notes posted around you, get to grouping! Group user quotes that highlight similar issues or opportunities together. Statistics that all fall in the same area of research should go to together, too. As your groups start to solidify, annotate with a marker on your paper or whiteboard to begin to put notes in broader categories.

A few tips to help your organize your groups and categories:

  • Your first categories are probably not going to be your final categories. Don’t be afraid to move sticky notes around to areas where it doesn’t look like they belong; you may find a relationship between two disparate user issues that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
  • Take photos. Paper gets crumpled, and sometimes sticky notes flutter to the floor and are stepped on by an unsuspecting coworker. Document your process so that if you do have to put it back together at one point, you won’t be starting from Square One.
  • Ask for input. Once you feel good about the organization of your map, have another person (either from your team or someone else) take a look. Are they finding the same patterns you did? If they’re not, it might be an indicator that you’ve narrowed your research down too much. Always start broad before you focus too intently on one area. The design process is iterative, and your affinity map may be, as well.

Affinity Mapping at General Assembly

At GA, we encourage learning by doing. In our part- and full-time UX design courses, we introduce affinity mapping as a way to organize and synthesize initial research from user interviews. Students then use affinity mapping techniques to find patterns and key observations to guide the rest of their process.

As the course continues and research gets deeper, affinity maps become even more important as a way to keep track of data. By establishing the practice early on, students have a solid foundation in this skill and can move confidently forward. Happy mapping!

Ask a Question About Our Design Programs

Meet Our Expert

Rachel Wendte is a designer, content strategist, and marketer who teaches the User Experience Design Immersive course at GA’s Chicago campus. She is passionate about communicating design for connection, and uses her skills in client management, user research, and strategic thinking to craft meaningful solutions that are user-friendly and aligned with client goals. Before learning UX, she worked as an arts administrator and social media consultant.

Rachel Wendte, UX Design Immersive Instructor, General Assembly Chicago

Personalization: 3 Ways Digital Marketing Can Speak to your Customers

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When was the last time you went through your mail? No, not your email inbox. Your physical, real-life mail. How much of it was relevant to you? I’m going to take a guess and say that around 90% of the material you found was impersonal, generic, and maybe downright bothersome. But log onto the internet and suddenly you’re inundated with content that seems tailored to you. Where a one-size-fits-all method still tries to succeed in physical marketing materials, smart advertisers are using their money and energy to grab you where you’re spending the most time: online.

From sponsored Instagram posts by a brand you may be interested in, to email subject lines that tempt you to come back by adding in your first name or a specific call to action “just for you,” the lines between pleasantly browsing and unsuspected marketing are blurry. Where, as users, we think of the internet and our social media channels as a way to catch up with friends, see what our relatives are doing on vacation, or share updates about our lives, brands see this space as prime real estate to catch our attention and convince us to buy a product or service.

For digital marketers, catering ads to users on social media is a smart move. When it comes to buying products, people most often trust the recommendations of family and friends, and, according to Nielsen, if they see the product on social media, they’ll at least consider taking action from that platform.

The landscape for personalized marketing is competitive — but with considerable payoff for brands that do it well. A study by marketing platform HubSpot notes that advertisers utilizing social platforms with paid ads are seeing startlingly high returns on investment. The popular morning newsletter theSkimm, for example, used Facebook’s lead ads to drive more signups, which led to a 22% increase in lead quality. There are many factors at play here, including a popular brand (versus one that’s lesser known) using ad space, and engaging with users on a platform they’re already familiar with, but it could work with smaller brands as well.

With a user base as large and active as Facebook (the same study counts 1.18 billion active users as of September 2016), marketers would be remiss to not consider implementing strategies on this more personal channel. The challenge is how to make a brand or product visible on a platform that’s already saturated with competitors vying for consumer attention. Savvy brands are utilizing personalization tactics to make their marketing stand out, and you can do the same.

A Brief History of Personalization in Marketing

The early days of digital marketing were similar to our mailbox example: Marketers tried to create enticing messaging that was general enough to be used on multiple parts of the internet. You’d run into the same banner ad many times over the course of a few days of browsing, and perhaps at some point thought, “This doesn’t relate to me at all.”

Geotargeting — pinpointing a user’s location — somewhat helped to address this by making regional sidebar ads more common and eliminating the extra headache and ad spend for marketers. With location as a driving force, marketers could spend time and money where their users actually were. Thanks to Google Analytics and other ad tracking tools, marketers could learn not only where their leads were from, but also from which kind of page they landed from, giving early insight into potential interests.

With the advent of social media, though, digital marketing exploded. People quickly started sharing personal data every day, sometimes without realizing it, including foods eaten, places visited, and entertainment enjoyed, complete with their own personal ratings. Social giants like Google, Facebook, and Instagram began to gather all this data as a compelling way to get marketers to spend money on their platforms and reach more targeted leads.

However, gathering consumer data is just the start. Knowing what kinds of people to market to is one thing, but knowing how to market to them is much more important. You can know any number of stats about your customer, from their age range, to gender breakdown, to how much money they make, but your customer is not merely a statistic, devoid of personality or motivation. Unless you speak to your potential leads as people rather than numbers, your personalization efforts will fall flat. It is the combination of informed statistical analytics and targeted content marketing that will lead to purchase conversions, and ultimately, brand loyalty.

Personalization Strategies for Digital Marketing

Once you’re armed with the statistics about your audience, you can better create a content strategy that will resonate with them. Below are a few content strategies you can use to make your marketing more personal, along with how to use specific data points to strengthen the message.

1. Ask customers for feedback. Fans love to interact with the products they love. The cosmetics brand LUSH is particularly known for using its social pages to drive conversation by asking for opinions, personal anecdotes, and ideas for new products or customer service initiatives. Once you have a good understanding of your user, consider nontraditional calls to action that will drive engagement.

For instance, instead of posting, “Like us if this is true for you,” share your update and say, “Tell us about a time where [XYZ scenario] applied to you. We may feature you in a future post!” By both asking for personal stories and showing how those stories may impact their future, customers will build trust in your brand and be motivated to contribute.

Data to watch for: engagement. Keep any eye on any post where you specifically ask for feedback and monitor engagement, including likes, comments, and shares, and promptly respond to or acknowledge comments. The more active a post is, the more likely it will stay in a prime spot in someone’s newsfeed, and the more likely that a relevant (but currently disengaged) user will see your content. This also shows current users that your brand is actively listening and responding to questions and anecdotes, and that you’re not just asking to appear interested.

2. Tell stories. There’s a good chance your product or service has helped you or your team at one time or another. Show your users how you are like them by tying in how what you do has affected you personally to create accountability and familiarity with your users. Employee testimonials are a great way to accomplish this, and show users that you as a company truly believe in your product. The online clothing retailer Modcloth uses employees to model its products. Potential customers can see firsthand that the company stands behind what it does — because it puts its people at the center.

Data to watch for: location. Take a quick glance at where in the country (or in the world) your customers are viewing your content, and if it’s appropriate, tailor your stories to a certain geographic area. I live in Chicago, and for the past few months I’ve been seeing sponsored posts from Smirnoff about how its vodka has ties to the Second City. While telling about its history, the company asked readers to share stories about their favorite cocktails and bars in the city (Smirnoff or not). By sharing the brand’s story and encouraging others, people throughout the Chicagoland area were talking about their favorite places to grab a cocktail, and users were interacting with one another in a genuine way. Smirnoff got to enjoy the increased brand awareness and the benefit of highly engaging content — some commenters even said they were going to give Smirnoff another try, after years of loyalty to other brands. Would they permanently switch? Maybe not, but the online experience was interesting enough to make them think differently.

3. Be conversational. Consider your product as another person your customers interact with on social media. Instead of “selling,” think of “sharing.” This automatically positions your word choices as more conversational and less toward conversion — but the difference in tone will be apparent to your customers. By offering advice or a recommendation as opposed to pushing a product (at least not directly), you’ll increase rapport with your audience in a way that’s natural and unforced.

Data to watch for: age range. Recommendations or advice are much better tailored when you know the age bracket you’re speaking to. BuzzFeed content verticals like Tasty (for food and cooking) and Nifty (for money-saving DIY projects) are great examples of this. Some of the language Tasty uses when it posts recipes and tips may come off as too trendy or informal for certain age brackets, but the content speaks directly to its most engaged audience, which happens to be a younger group. Similarly, if your product is aimed at a more mature demographic, be cautious of using slang to entice younger users. Not only will you drive away your core user base, but you’ll confuse the base you’re trying to attract — because they associate your brand with other language. If your metrics start to shift, however, you can adjust the tone and see how it performs on a post-by-post basis before you make a more permanent pivot.

Personalization in Digital Marketing at General Assembly

In GA’s Digital Marketing course, on campus or online, we cover personalization when students learn about content marketing strategies. By combining content marketing know-how with skills in social analytics and key performance indicators (KPIs), students discover strategies for creating marketing pieces that resonate, connect with audiences, and will drive sales and engagement. Throughout the curriculum, students learn about real-world examples of marketers who do this well, and get a chance to practice the skills as they relate to their own or future businesses.

Ask a Question About Our Marketing Programs

Meet Our Expert

Rachel Wendte is a designer, content strategist, and marketer who teaches the User Experience Design Immersive course at GA’s Chicago campus. She is passionate about communicating design for connection, and uses her skills in client management, user research, and strategic thinking to craft meaningful solutions that are user-friendly and aligned with client goals. Before learning UX, she worked as an arts administrator and social media consultant.

“Giving students the information they need to succeed and providing tools to turn their ideas into solutions is powerful. Combined with input from career coaches and industry experts, GA students are well rounded and strong.”

Rachel Wendte, User Experience Design Immersive Instructor, GA Chicago