Affinity Diagrams: Adding Color to Fuzzy Data

Teresa Tan  

February 18, 2014

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At the start of the design process, it can be difficult for designers to conceive design direction from fuzzy data and requirements. The term "fuzzy data" can have multiple meanings to different people and industries, but in the context of UX Design, it is all the known information related to a project that is nebulous and not yet actionable. Here at Extractable, we often conduct user interviews that give us a plethora of notes and insights to help us understand user needs to inform our design. But even after doing all that research, it can be challenging to organize all the collected data in a meaningful way. As a UX Designer on the strategy/UX team, my colleagues and I find that the best way to handle qualitative data early in the process is to make affinity diagrams out of our notes in order to make sense of all the information.

What is an affinity diagram and when is it appropriate to use?

An affinity diagram is a simple but powerful design and product management tool to organize ideas and data. The process starts off with participants jotting down all their notes onto cards or sticky notes (one note on one card) and placing them together on a flat surface. Then after reviewing all the cards, participants would start sorting and grouping related cards together. Once the cards are sorted, participants can start sorting large groupings into smaller subgroups for further analysis. The ultimate goal of this is to group related information so that it is easily understood and larger stories or overarching themes would start to emerge.

Affinity diagrams are typically used in brainstorming sessions where potentially a ton of freeform ideas get generated. They are also frequently used after contextual inquiries or user interviews when you may have hundreds or even thousands of individual notes.


My colleague Meg and I had to identify design issues with a web tool that was not easy to pinpoint. We decided to make an affinity diagram out of our user research notes in order to help us draw more actionable conclusions in proposing a better redesign.

In our case, Meg and I interviewed five users for qualitative feedback on the web tool. After we were done with the interviews, we took over a conference room and put on some music by Ratatat (helps make the process more fun). We pulled out all the key information from our interview notes onto many sticky notes, which were then transferred onto a conference room whiteboard. Then we started grouping similar sticky notes together into larger categories such as user behavior, comments about specific features, usability issues, and so on. This helped us prioritize sketching design improvements for the most commonly mentioned issues in the user interviews. The affinity diagram also helped us see gaps in the current user experience, giving us opportunities to introduce different design solutions that we wouldn't come up with on our own.

5 Tips for Successful Affinity Diagramming Sessions:

  1. Make sure you have plenty of room: A large surface such as a whiteboard would be great, especially when you start reshuffling sticky notes and adding more annotations later on the board.
  2. Get everyone involved: Encourage participants to read their notes aloud as they place it on the surface. The process benefits a lot from cross-functional teams including stakeholders and allows your team to identify potential issues and which could quickly lead to a discussion of methods to address said issues.
  3. Trust the process: The amount of information generated in a session might seem overwhelming, but after absorbing some of that information, you will start to see relationships between notes that could turn into trends.
  4. Be flexible with groupings as they are arbitrary and completely up to you on how to use and interpret the data.
  5. Last but not least - go crazy with the colorful note cards/sticky notes; they make nice murals for conference room walls.

If you ever find yourself at a loss on how to tackle a design problem, making affinity diagrams is a great way to initiate your team on a project. It will help you see gaps and relationships in the data to uncover new design possibilities.