What is affinity mapping? UX Question #28

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Michael from Luling, Texas asks: what is affinity mapping?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Michael. This is UX Question number 28 and I am Ben Judy.

What is affinity mapping? Well, it’s a common method used by UX practitioners to group things. That’s it. It’s a fancy, ten dollar term for making a list of stuff and then grouping those list items into categories. You can also call it clustering.

There’s a common cliche of the UX person standing in front of a wall covered in sticky notes. This is that activity. This is what that cliched UX designer is doing. Affinitizing the sticky notes.

There’s no magic, you’re just looking for common themes and grouping stuff.

So it’s easy enough to do. Anyone can do it. But here’s the question: what’s the outcome you achieve by grouping that stuff? What does it enable you to do next?

This may be the poster child for ‘cargo cult’ UX activities. It’s very easy to do affinity mapping because you heard a bunch of stuff said in user interviews and you don’t know what to do with it. So you write it all down on individual sticky notes and you start grouping them together.

Here’s an example. I’ll give you a list of five things: shopping cart, buy now button, item description, product photo, and company logo. Affinitize those five things. Okay, group company logo, item description and item photo together, and call that group Shopping. Then group Shopping cart and Buy now button and call it Checkout. Great. What did you just achieve? What outcome will that lead to, in the context of your UX design project? Why?

Look, there’s nothing wrong with the method. It’s all in how you use it.

It’s a great workshop activity that gives the appearance of progress, even if it doesn’t achieve much. It’s collaborative, you can easily facilitate it, you have tangible artifacts—look at these sticky notes all over the wall!

I would love to somehow tally up all the hours and hours of consulting and agency hours billed to clients for affinity mapping workshops. I bet it’s a hundred billion dollars and it generated ten thousand dollars of actual value.

Again, nothing wrong with making groups from piles of data. But if you can’t explain why you’re doing it and what you’ll do with those groups, there’s a problem.

It’s similar in some ways to another UX activity, card sorting. Typically you do affinity mapping just with the internal team, the product team. Card sorting you usually do with actual users, which maybe is why it’s more valuable.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: How can UX designers prevent user errors?

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