Research and Insights

A Step-by-Step Guide to Affinity Diagrams: Turning Chaos into Key Findings

User research often yields rich, qualitative data that can have direct impacts on product success and other KPIs. However, it can be difficult to neatly summarize and present findings to stakeholders both internal and external. Furthermore, synthesizing large amounts of data from across a range of methods can be time consuming and requires a lot of effort. One way we overcome this challenge at WillowTree is by creating Affinity Diagrams.

What is an Affinity Diagram?

An affinity diagram, sometimes referred to as the KJ Method, is a visual representation of the relationships between complex and large amounts of data. This diagramming method was originally formalized and labeled by Jiro Kawakita in the 1960s as a business tool for project management and planning. An affinity diagram typically consists of small groups of sticky notes on a whiteboard or wall. The small groups may have high-level labels assigned to them and there may be arrows or lines drawn between the groups to depict their relationship to one another. Additionally, creating the diagram can be done as a solo or group activity.

How to Use an Affinity Diagram

Data Analysis: As a method for data analysis, it is best used to analyze large, qualitative data sets. The diagram can help with synthesizing data from across various methodologies, identifying patterns/themes, and visually demonstrate relationships between individual data points. As with other methods for completing thematic analyses or synthesizing data, affinity diagrams should only be done once all data has been collected. Identifying themes before completing data collection may lead to biased grouping, or prevent different themes from emerging when adding in new data.

Brainstorming: Affinity diagramming as a part of a brainstorming session can be particularly helpful as it can promote creative thinking and team engagement. When using an affinity diagram as a part of brainstorming, notes and ideas should be generated by each participant independently. Once all the notes have been written, appoint a moderator to lead the group in a discussion about how the notes should be grouped together and labeled.

Vision Alignment: As a vision alignment tool, affinity diagrams can facilitate discussions and create consensus among participants. It can be particularly useful in stakeholder meetings or workshops where there is a lack of project focus or alignment on priorities. Similarly to how this would be conducted in brainstorming, each participant should generate notes individually before coming all together to create groups. Once the groups are created, the diagram can be taken a step further by ordering the groups by priority, severity, or any other relevant ranking category.

How to Create an Affinity Diagram:

You’ll need the following materials:

  • Sticky notes
  • Writing utensils
  • Blank wall or whiteboard

In some instances, you may want to have a group of people to participate in creating the affinity diagram, but it is not necessarily a requirement.

For creating a diagram remotely, mural.co can be a great option.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Affinity Diagrams

  • Step 1: Set a specific goal for the diagram
  • Step 2: Record one idea or finding per sticky note
  • Step 3: Group the sticky notes by theme on the board
  • Step 4: Review the groups & themes
  • Step 5: Create sub- or new groups if necessary
  • Step 6: Add group labels & relationship details (optional)

Affinity Diagram Scenario:

When training others on affinity diagramming, I recommend using a scenario that is fairly simple and doesn’t require a high-level of knowledge about the topic. An effective and somewhat silly scenario I’ve used to demonstrate the process of affinity diagramming is, “understand why people watch the movie Twilight”.

Using a popular movie as an example works well because it’s likely that many people have watched or heard about the movie prior to participating in the diagram session. Even if your participants haven’t seen Twilight specifically, it’s extremely likely they have watched movies before and can still contribute from that perspective. Additionally, the movie Twilight itself can be polarizing and produce a lot of interesting and strong reactions. Below, I’ll demonstrate how I used this Twilight scenario following the steps previously laid out. This session involved a group of participants and one moderator using sticky notes and a white board. The notes and board have been replicated digitally as seen in the images below.

Step 1: Set a specific goal for the diagram

Goal: Brainstorm ideas about why people would watch the movie Twilight. To start the session, we have the group watch the movie trailer for Twilight and then the moderator describes the goal for the session. Watching the trailer helps to trigger participants’ memories and provides context for those who may not have seen the movie before.

Step 2: Record 1 idea per sticky note

Each participant spends about 10 minutes writing ideas about why they would watch the movie on sticky notes. At the end of the time limit, the moderator collects all the notes generated and begins the diagramming exercise.

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Step 3: Group the sticky notes by theme on the board

The moderator reads aloud each note and places it on the board. Before placing each subsequent note they ask the group, “How similar is this note/idea to the note(s) already on the board?” While this question serves as a discussion prompt, it’s important not to spend too much time debating or scrutinizing the groupings at this step. The main goal here is to get the notes onto the board and create high-level groups. Additionally, not all notes will fit into a particular group, so it might be necessary to create an “other” category.

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Step 4: Review the groups & themes

During this step, the participants and moderator take some time to review the groups created thus far. At this time you might notice that some groups are overly large and need to be broken up or smaller groups combined. The physical spacing between both the individual notes and groups should also be taken into account at this step. Keep in mind that notes/groups that are closely related should be physically closer while dissimilar notes/groups should be farther apart. The goal of this step is to take a more critical stance on the groups and their physical relation to one another on the board.

Step 5: Create sub- or new groups if necessary

While going through step 4, the need to rearrange things to more clearly identify themes could emerge. Sub-groups can be denoted by color-coding the notes (if possible) or through spacing of the individual notes within a larger group.

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Step 6: Add group labels & relationship details (optional)

Finally, once all groups and subgroups have been identified, the last step involves adding a theme label to each group and between group relation details (if needed). In this scenario adding relationship details isn’t necessary, so we had the group focus on creating theme labels. The labels help summarize the findings and creates a shared vocabulary for future discussion.

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The end result provides a clear set of themes that can then be used to better understand why someone might watch the movie Twilight. The results of this affinity diagram can then be applied in several ways. For example, this can be used as a starting point for areas of interest in future marketing strategies, or given the financial/commercial success of the Twilight franchise investors may use these findings as guidelines for evaluating potential film productions.

How Can WillowTree Help?

In the process of creating user-first products there can often be a lot of noise or chaos, particularly when it comes to conducting research and analyzing data. While the Twilight example is less serious in nature than a typical Affinity Diagram at WillowTree, we still find strong and sometimes unexpected reactions from our product research for clients.

WillowTree’s research efforts are often centered around business-critical digital products for companies, so it is crucial that we are able to effectively categorize and take action on the user data we collect. If you want to take a user-centered approach to your digital products with actionable research, get in touch with our team.

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