The Affinity Diagram is a key tool in organizing qualitative data to see the patterns and themes of the people you interviewed. Often people ask how did we find the dimensions of the @Work Experience Framework. The answer is build an affinity! All of our field research is organized in this way by a group of multiple people. It is an inductive bottoms up process that lets us open our minds to see new aspects of experience. If you want to understand what is really going on in people’s lives go talk to them and then build an affinity. When you are done you will see what is going and and you can then use it to drive ideation.

See the thoughts of Larry Marturano  below and check out this time lapse of one of an InContext team building a 1200-note affinity in about 12 hours… well, you’re seeing about 500 notes of it, anyway. The entire diagram filled three other walls in addition to the two you see here.

I have a confession for you all: I’m an affinity junkie. I mean, I LOVE building the affinity. It’s almost pure induction, one of the pillars of Design Thinking. It’s physical and tangible and can be a little bit manic at times, perfect for a hyperkinetic person like me. And best of all, this is usually where our client teams first start to get “aha!” ideas—these are the most gratifying moments in my already fantastic job.

I’ts cool to see it all come together like this. You can see the team going through all the classic stages of affinity construction. There’s the Universal Excitement of the Blank Wall, where everyone is energized by and excited by the prospect of creating meaning out of a stack of 1200 individual pieces of Contextual Inquiry data. There’s the Descent Into Chaos, where groups of two or three or ten notes forms, gets broken apart and reforms again, as the team groups and regroups the data into clusters that have common threads. This is the part where I have to talk people who like a lot of order off their psychic ledges as they leave their comfort zones—others who thrive on chaos usually dive in and are more natural here. There’s the Trough of Despair, that special moment where it doesn’t look to anyone like anything meaningful can possibly emerge from the seemingly endless random groups of data.

Then, lo and behold, Order Emerges! Here, it’s the chaos types who sometimes struggle mightily, as detailed inquiry is exercised to create really good blue, pink and green notes to capture the essence of the individual groupings. In the video, you can see the structure emerging, bottom-up from the individual data points, as the larger patterns reveal themselves. Sometimes my client teams feel it’s almost a kind of magic—in the end game, the patterns seem to emerge quickly and through the discussions, the participants really own the data, the analysis, and the ideas that flow freely as a result. Whether you’re new to affinity or an old hand, I’d love to hear about your experiences—leave me a comment below or drop me a line.