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Does this situation sound familiar to you—lost in a sea of information, unsure of where to go next, or how to use that information to further your goals?
If so, an affinity diagram might help you get out of that situation. After all, even the greatest ideas need organization in order to move forward.
If you’re interested in taking your ideas from abstract to action, keep reading or jump to any of the following sections:
An affinity diagram is the product of affinity mapping, a visual method of organizing a large set of ideas into groups based on common themes. The goal of this exercise is to make a disorganized or intimidating amount of information more accessible and actionable.
Affinity mapping is useful any time you’re looking to consolidate a large amount of information or ideas into clear categories. However, there are a couple common use cases where affinity diagrams are most often used.
The most common use of an affinity diagram is to organize the insights gained from a brainstorming session. It’s all too easy to have a productive, inspiring brainstorming session with lots of great ideas generated, only for no action to be taken from those ideas. That’s where an affinity diagram can help.
With affinity mapping, you can organize ideas from a brainstorming session into groups based on which ideas are conceptually similar to each other, and then give each group a summary statement that describes its main idea.
For example, if you just finished a starbursting session, you have a list of different questions related to the topic of discussion. With an affinity diagram, you can group like questions together to consolidate ideas and take next steps. Or maybe you did a gap analysis and want to synthesize ideas to help you form better action plans to fill the gaps you identified.
We could go on, but you get the idea. There are many brainstorming techniques that produce a wide variety of ideas—ideas that affinity mapping can be helpful in organizing.
Categorizing ideas from a brainstorming session helps you process those ideas, so you can gain insight into possible solutions or next steps. It also makes it easier for you to communicate those ideas and insights to others, especially those who weren’t involved in the brainstorming session themselves.
Product teams will often use an affinity diagram during the requirements phase to organize research or feedback from users into user stories. This might help them gain insight of their target audience in order to pull out actionable details to use in design thinking.
But any type of team can use an affinity diagram to organize research or feedback, not just product and UX. You can use it to help create an action plan to solve any sort of problem.
For example, maybe your team is having issues with a certain process or tool. You could ask them for feedback and then use an affinity diagram to organize that feedback into next steps that you can take to solve the problem.
Affinity mapping is useful here for the same reason it helps with brainstorming organization—for processing, communicating, and acting on key ideas.
Affinity mapping and mind mapping or cluster diagramming may seem very similar at first glance, and in some ways they are. Both visualize ideas based on a common theme or themes.
However, mind mapping is a brainstorming method in itself, because it allows you to start with a theme, expand upon that theme, and generate further ideas related to it.
Affinity mapping, on the other hand, will almost always be a sort of sequel to brainstorming. When creating an affinity diagram, you should not start with predetermined themes and come up with ideas that fit those themes. Rather, you should look at information you already have and organize it based on common elements that are naturally present.
The process of making an affinity diagram is not usually complex. You should be able to do it in a session or two, though it may vary based on the size of your pool of information. The more information there is to organize, the longer you can expect it to take. Here’s how to do it.
If you just want to organize research or feedback that’s already available to you, then all you need to do is pull up that information. Similarly, if you’re organizing ideas from a brainstorming session, pull up your notes or your diagram from that session.
There are some situations where this step may differ. Sometimes, you might incorporate affinity mapping as part of the original brainstorming session, like a bonus session. Here’s an example of what that might look like.
Let’s say you are analyzing a problem that’s occurring within your team or organization. Give all team members the opportunity to contribute their thoughts and ideas by whichever brainstorming method you choose. These ideas will make up your pool of information to organize. Then, once everyone is ready, move on to the next step together.
After everyone has shared their ideas and insights, or you’ve retrieved the information that you already have, begin to organize ideas or data points based on common themes.
Start with just a few and see if they have anything in common. Are they talking about the same kind of issue or theme? If the answer is yes, place them in a group together. If not, then separate them, letting each one start its own group.
As you continue sorting through ideas, place each one in the group it seems to have the most in common with. You can color-code the groups if this helps you sort more easily.
Some teams like to do this exercise with sticky notes on a wall or a whiteboard. That can be a fun and interactive way to make associations, but if that method isn’t available to you, then dragging and dropping sticky notes on a Gliffy diagram will work just as well. Plus, you’ll have a digital record that you can refer to at any time. No more worrying about taking a bad picture or not being able to read your own handwriting!
During the process of sorting, if you find that you’re seeing duplicate ideas, feel free to delete the duplicates. However, be careful about what you delete. You don’t want to quickly dismiss ideas that could be helpful, so try to keep as much as possible.
This step may not be relevant to every team. However, if you’d like, you can choose to prioritize groups after all ideas are organized.
For example, if you’re analyzing the cause of a problem and one of the themes that has emerged likely has a bigger impact than the others, you can make that group priority number one so it’s addressed first.
Or, if you’re a UX team analyzing research and see that one group of insights relates to something that greatly affects your users’ experience with the product, you could prioritize that and make sure it gets addressed right away.
Product teams who use affinity mapping as a feature discovery approach can also determine how to prioritize features that come out of a brainstorming session by creating an impact map, which helps them focus on the features that provide the most value.
The ultimate purpose of affinity mapping is to take your information and make it more actionable. So, now it’s time to take action — or make a solid plan, at least. There are many project planning or strategic planning templates that you can use to take your ideas from concept to reality. Choose the one that works best for you and plan away!
Don’t have a wall to spare or an excess of sticky notes? No problem — you can make your affinity diagram using online diagramming software like Gliffy. Fill out our template and use it to organize all your amazing ideas. Our sticky notes are unlimited 😉
Click here to open template >>
An affinity diagram is both simple and powerful. With the help of this guide and the support of our online template, you’re well on your way to creating your own and taking your ideas from concept to concrete.
Sign up for a free trial of Gliffy to jump in to affinity mapping today. Plus, our diagramming app for Confluence is now free for up to 10 users!
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