Affinity diagramming is a popular model of charting and mapping in modern times, and I liken it, in some ways, to Venn diagramming in the fact that it groups and interlocks things by their collective interests and contexts. It’s a simple process, and best served for social thought exercises and training, and in some cases, it can work quite well.
Affinity diagramming, at its heart, affinity diagramming is the process of creating several items containing issues pertinent to the overall topic at hand. Then, the items are placed in groups, based on their shared contexts. In some cases, a second set of items, those being linked attributes, are also created, to form the clusters around.
Still further cases allow for multiple copies of each item to be created, and initially, one specimen of each one being placed into sorting. This allows for an item to later be added to other clusters if it’s seen as good context.
Now, how is this useful in UX, and what are some best practices for engaging in it? Well, affinity diagrams are a good way to organically lay out related concerns so that you can see what affects what during a user experience, and determine what needs to be worked on in conjunction with what else.
Now, as far as good practices, many people will say you should always use paper for this exercise, but I don’t necessarily agree. There’s nothing wrong with paper, but I don’t see it as a must. A dry erase board or some other kind of communal writing surface could work just as well.
What I’d like to see is a social program that allows collaborative diagramming by this model. Some things to consider is encouraging one note at a time be placed, that the individual hosting this be present for all alterations, and to encourage everyone to contribute.
Be sure to bear in mind that the groupings can be somewhat arbitrary since this is harnessed chaos, and as such, data from this should be interpreted fairly open-handed, this isn’t as precise a diagram as other visualizations you’ve dealt with professionally.
Another thing to consider, especially with something as delicate as UX, is to do the diagram several times, recording each one, and maybe organically blending them into a solid pattern that’s the sum of revelations in each instance of diagramming.
I know that sounds preposterous, but multiple recursions with an integrated result are the best way to get solid data out of soft practices like this, and in UX, you need to do everything in your power to eliminate margins of error in pretty much everything.
The added benefit is that this encourages outside thinking, teamwork and communication, and the social nature of this kind of thought exercise is a good way to motivate innovation as well as improve engagement as it’s kind of a loose game, too.
Affinity diagramming is useful in many cases, UX being one of them. If you were expecting deeply technical explanations of why it applies to UX so well, I hate to disappoint you, because there’s nothing technical about how this technique applies to any field.