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5 ways affinity mapping can supercharge your user research

By Louis Pattison - 20th April 2021

Affinity mapping is one of the most common methods for synthesising user research, and for good reason. When it’s done right, it’s an effective – and, whisper it, actually quite fun – way of transforming the raw material of user interviews into deep, actionable insights. 
 

What is affinity mapping?

For the newcomers in the room, what is affinity mapping? At its most simple, it’s an activity in which you take observations gleaned from interviews, get together with colleagues and stakeholders, and group them by theme.

You don’t need anything special in the way of equipment. If you’re in an office, you can do it on a clear wall with some colourful post-it notes. If you’re working remotely, you might use a visual collaboration platform – here at Zaizi, we use an “online whiteboard” known as Mural. All you need is people, insights, and an hour or so spare and hey presto - you’re ready to go. 

The process of affinity mapping is pretty straightforward. Does this insight you’re looking at fit with another insight or insights? If so, put them together. If not, place it alone and move onto the next one. But as you continue, you’ll start to see clear themes emerge. Midway through, you’ll be at a stage where you can start to identify trends. It’s helpful to do these as ‘I’ statements. 

For instance, in a recent Zaizi project with a government client, we came up with the following “I” statements. 
“I am protecting my brand”
“I’m worried about the way the internet is evolving”
“I want to know more about upcoming legislation because I need to prepare”

The idea isn’t to come up with solutions - not yet, at least. The idea is to get a clear view of what your users think, how they behave, and what they really need. 

Here are five reasons that affinity mapping is the perfect tool to supercharge your user research. 
 

1. It’s a great way to weigh the research 

It’s often said that there are two types of data - quantitative data (think: numbers, graphs, survey results) and qualitative data (think: quotes, transcripts, recordings). 

Affinity mapping deals with the second, the qualitative kind. But in a sense, affinity mapping is also a bit of a numbers game. As you collect and group insights, you’ll begin to see certain hotspots form around certain topics, or particular words or phrases. You should pay attention to these high volume areas. They will help you understand the main preoccupations of your users and help prioritise what’s most important when it comes to addressing their needs.  
 

2. You can bring stakeholders on the journey

A big challenge on any design project is helping stakeholders understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. Unfortunately, they’re often busy people and expecting them to join for long user research sessions is usually unrealistic. 

Affinity mapping is a time-efficient way to give stakeholders a taste of the research and get them involved in forming insights. It can help them put themselves in the users’ shoes and develop a fuller understanding of the problems they need to tackle. One thing’s for sure: put them face to face with the juiciest quotes and they won’t forget it. 
 

3. Many hands make light work

Moving post-its around isn’t exactly a back-breaking activity. It’s more effective - and more fun - when you’re doing it as a group. Inviting people with different specialisations and interests - such as subject matter experts or stakeholders - might give you different perspectives on the data. 

And leave a good amount of time to discuss what you’ve done afterwards. Affinity mapping should spark discussions. By approaching it as a conversation, you might uncover new or unexpected trends.
 

4. It helps you spot unexpected links

As your affinity map gets bigger, interesting things begin to happen. Some post-its might fit into more than one insight, and can sit as a ‘bridge’ between insights. Some insights might sit together as a cluster of their own, which you can summarise with a higher-level category.

Or you might notice that people use particular words or phrases when they're talking about certain subjects - terminology that you can make use of in your design or content. Don’t be afraid to reshuffle the map if something bigger is emerging - an affinity map always evolves.
 

5. It helps you step back and not “solutionise”

It’s common to come out of a user research session fizzing with thoughts about bits of information - “that user said they wanted a video, so let’s make a video!” But it’s important not to get ahead of yourself and craft solutions before you’ve got a full view of the problem. 

By stepping back and letting the affinity mapping process do its work, you’re more likely to come out with strong insights that you can then build into How Might We’s, personas or problem statements.

Do affinity mapping right, and you’ll soon be at a point where the solutions write themselves.
 

Get in touch if you would like to know more about how we undertake user research when it comes to building digital products
About the author: Louis Pattison
Louis Pattison is a content designer at Zaizi. A former journalist, editor and copywriter, he got the user-centred design bug in 2019 and decided to take the leap full-time. He has worked on many commercial and government projects and is particularly interested in the point where user research and content meet.