A Beginner's Guide to Affinity Mapping

Design UX Strategy

By Rachel Wendte

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!

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.

“Companies are moving away from simply providing products and services and are instead focusing on how people interact with those goods and services. UX designers are needed to help make experiences positive in any industry.”

Rachel Wendte, UX Design Immersive Instructor, General Assembly Chicago