Using the Affinity Diagram to Organize Ideas

The design process depends on collecting a large amount of information about consumers, markets, and competitions. This large amount of data collected during the research phase makes it hard for a design team to build a connection between data fragments and their own ideas. Many methods have been introduced to visually represent data results from research or brainstorming, such as mind maps and the affinity diagram. Each of these methods organizes ideas in a specific way to make it easier to track the connections and organize them.

The affinity diagram is one of the tools that aims to organize data, ideas, and findings into groups. Each item is written on a sticky note such as Post-its and these notes are sorted into categories. The affinity diagram can be used to achieve the following:

  • Organize data generated from brainstorming sessions and prioritize it
  • Organize data collected from research such as UX research and marketing research
  • Arrange complex opinions and views
  • Understand the correlations between the collected data
  • Encourage the construction of a pattern of thinking about the complex data

It is noticeable that the Affinity diagram is designed to deal with a large amount of information. When there are few collected data, the tool can turn to a time waste because the time required to organize ideas and link them together won’t be compensated for by the small amount of data.

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How to Create an Affinity Diagram

The affinity process aims to gather ideas, opinions, and insights and blend them together. Therefore, it is better to limit the number of affinity process attendees to 5-6 participants to ensure effective results. Before starting the affinity process, the following guidelines should be considered:

  • Don’t talk. The idea behind writing thoughts on paper is to create the chance of thinking and focusing on different ideas and information and make notes about them. Therefore, it is encouraged to write the ideas and hand them to the facilitator without talking.
  • Encourage ideas based on feelings. The process requires the participants to write their ideas quickly based on their feelings and ideas. This helps keep the process moving quickly.
  • Acknowledge disagreement. If one of the participants disagrees on adding an idea under a specific category, he or she can simply move it to another category. This behavior helps build an environment that accepts disagreement between people with different opinions.

After considering the guidelines listed above, the affinity process proceeds based on the following steps:

Step 1: Plan for the Affinity Meeting

It is important for participants to understand what they are going to experience during the meeting regarding the topic and the process. This helps them to be prepared with ideas and information. This step helps to reduce the preparation time during the meeting.

Step 2: Generate Ideas

This step includes generating ideas and writing them on sticky notes. The participants write any thoughts or information down, with each idea or piece of information on a separate note.

Step 3: Display the Ideas

In this step, all the sticky notes are placed randomly on a whiteboard or table. No organization is required at this point. The figure below shows how the ideas are placed randomly with each idea on a separate sticky note.

Affinity diagram
Using the affinity diagram to brainstorm problems that face start-ups. Step3 write the different ideas

Step 4: Sort the Ideas into Groups

In this step, the ideas are organized into groups defined by the relation between the ideas. So, once one group is created, the team starts to create another group of related ideas and the process continues until the ideas are all organized into one of the groups. Some ideas may not fit in any of the groups, in which case they are added to a special miscellaneous group. The ideas in the figure below were organized based on their relation to each other.

Affinity diagram
Step4. organize ideas in groups.

Step 5: Add Headers

After creating the groups, the team names each group and creates a sticky note with each group name. These are known as the header cards. One or two groups can be organized under a super group header which follows the same rule as the group headers. The figure below shows the header added to each group of ideas.

Affinity diagram
Step 5. Add header to link related groups.

Step 6: Draw the Affinity Diagram

Once the headers, super headers, and groups are created, they are organized on the board and the team starts to review the relations between groups and modify the diagram when needed. Once finished, the affinity diagram is a single document. The final look for the affinity diagram should be something like the example below.

Affinity diagram
Step 6. the final look for the affinity diagram

While the affinity diagram can be created using sticky notes, pens, and whiteboard, there are affinity diagram tools that can be used to create the diagram online.  These tools help organize ideas and save them in digital form to share with the rest of the team. These tools include the following:

The affinity diagram helps teams to go beyond ordinary thinking patterns and try to explore new connections between complex ideas by visually linking the related ideas in groups. The affinity diagram can help reduce the time wasted in meetings because the participants can write their ideas and organize them rather than talking about and discussing their thoughts.


Rafiq Elmansy

Rafiq Elmansy is the founder of Designorate.com, author, and design and innovation consultant. He is an affiliated faculty teaching design at the American University in Cairo. He holds a master degree in Design Management with Distinction from Staffordshire University, UK. He has more than 17 years experience in the field of UXD and interaction design, and his books are published by John Wiley, O’Reilly Media and Taylor and Francis. He is also a contributor at the Design Management Review. Rafiq is a jury board member for the A'Design Awards, Poster for Tomorrow, and Adobe Achievements Awards. His design artwork was exhibited in many locations including Croatia, South Africa, Brazil, and Spain.