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September 2, 2022

How to synthesize research with Affinity Mapping

Lisa Panke



UX/UI Designer & Webflow Developer
Buffalo, NY

Affinity Mapping is a fun and extremely useful tool to synthesize information gathered from user research. This is especially true when you are using Figjam and a bunch of colorful sticky notes in the process.

The ZEAL team is dedicating time this year to building one of its first in-house apps: a web application for the Software Residency. The Software Residency is a program that allows “young” developers and designers like me to learn on the job while being mentored by a ZEAL professional, as well as mentor students from LEARN Academy.

Who are the users?

The Software Residency currently uses Notion for collaboration and data collection. As a resident, I need to review the LEARN curriculum, study articles, prepare curriculum meetings, and fill in evaluation forms along the way to ensure my own progress and support the students. 

Other users include residency coordinators, admins, mentors, and partner companies like Reviewed, who take residents in and teach them on the job. 

To really understand your user and conduct user research, you typically need to recruit participants. Thankfully, to our advantage, representatives from each target group were just a Slack message away. 

To get to know their goals and needs for the application, and learn more about their current frustrations with handling the residency through Notion, we sent them questions in form of a survey. Read more about the survey and how we came up with the questions in our previous post How to understand users with User Research.

How to create an Affinity Map and synthesize the results

Within a day or two, the results came rushing in and it was up to me to identify a method to extract the most valuable information from them. As you can guess, I chose affinity mapping. 

Here are the steps I took to create the affinity map:

Gather your data

Easy! We conducted the survey in Google Forms with individual forms per target group, so data was already collected online.

Read the data and jot it down

I opened Figjam, Figma’s online whiteboard, searched for an affinity map template, and boom, the structure was set. Every target group got its own color, and so I started writing all the essential information including goals, needs, pain points, tasks, and behaviors on sticky notes.

To give me a one-up on the outstanding sorting part, I immediately labeled all notes with words like “GOAL”, “NEED”, or “PAIN POINT”.

Collecting all survey notes

Cluster notes by theme in the first round of affinity mapping

Looking at the sticky notes, it made sense to group them in the first round of affinity mapping by the categories I already created. I grouped together Goals & Needs, Pain Points, things users like about Notion, and their subjective, most important tasks.

The survey included generic questions and more specific questions regarding the weekly/quarterly evaluations and the recruitment process. That’s why I chose to separate the notes vertically into those three categories.

Grouping notes

Step away, take a breather, and then go for round two!

Affinity mapping is all about finding patterns and gaining insights from those patterns. So what were the participants talking about in their surveys? What do they want? What do they need?

In the second round of affinity mapping, I went deeper into what survey participants were saying and grouped notes by topics. I chose the topics based on repetitive information, answers that were alike or aimed at the same point. I not only grouped them but also labeled them as soon as an umbrella term came to mind.

Satisfied? Gather insights. Not yet? Go for round three!

I decided to stop here to gather insights on user needs and feature requests. Usually, coming up with features is handled by the design team during the ideation phase of the project.

However, many of our participants have been part of the Residency for a while and had some really good ideas. Things like bookmarks, calendar/email integrations, commenting, tagging features, and quizzes to determine the progress of a resident all surfaced in our research. So, I listed them right next to the insights.

One of my colleagues even mentioned that he had built a learning application before, which was definitely worth jotting down.

Affinity mapping doesn’t always have to be strict, so don’t be afraid to make it your own thing!

Gathering insights from groups

Collect & translate your insights into user needs

User experience design is the commitment to building a product based on empathy and a deep understanding of your users. My goal with this affinity map was to find out what coordinators, mentors, partners, and residents need the most from a dedicated residency app.

The following user needs stood out:

  1. Users need an efficient and well-organized app that offers information in one place.
  2. Users want scheduled reminders and alerts to keep them informed and on track.
  3. Users want an app that facilitates connection and collaboration between all involved parties of the residency.

By using affinity mapping, I was able to gather and sort through the data, as well as extract the information needed to brainstorm with my team on the features and structure of the app. Read all about it in our next blog post on How to create an Application Map.

More from this Series

  1. Putting Together the Design Puzzle
  2. How to understand users with User Research?
  3. How to synthesize research with Affinity Mapping
  4. How to Create an Application Map
  5. How to Create UI Flows
  6. How to Write Great User Stories
  7. How to Create Wireframes and Prototypes

Photo by Ravi Palwe on Unsplash

This article has been written in collaboration with Sunjay Armstead.

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