How to use affinity diagrams to organize your work

Co-workers in an office use affinity diagrams to organize their work.

As a team leader, you’re tasked with helping your staff members reach their maximum potential while guiding your organization toward simultaneously achieving measurable, positive results.

On top of that, you have to organize, manage, and process huge amounts of information. From data collected via surveys to the latest concepts developed during brainstorming sessions, it can be all too easy to get lost in the seemingly endless sea of information.

Fortunately, there are a number of excellent project management techniques and tools you can use to bring structure to your processes and put your organization’s data to work. One of the most popular methods is the practice of affinity diagramming, a simple yet effective tool that might just be exactly what you have been looking for to sort through all your information and keep your team on track.

You might have heard of affinity diagrams, but you may also be looking for more information on how to use them to better organize your ideas and plan your work. In this article, you’ll learn what an affinity diagram is, how it can be used to organize data, and, most importantly, how you can incorporate it into your planning processes.

Specifically, this post will cover:

What are affinity diagrams?

Affinity diagrams are used to generate, organize, and consolidate information about a process, problem, complex issue, or product. They are visualization tools that allow managers and their teams to express their raw ideas without conceptualizing them into fully thought-out processes or plans, and they are primarily used to document and structure the concepts developed during a brainstorming session.

An affinity diagram provides a means of organizing large amounts of information collected on various topics. For instance, it can be used to consolidate survey or research study results, as well as user feedback.

The goal of affinity diagramming — or “affinity mapping,” as it’s also called — is to cluster similar concepts together to make large amounts of complex work more manageable. These diagrams can be created in person using a large board or wall and sticky notes. Teams can also develop virtual affinity diagrams using digital tools.

Now that you understand the broad definition of affinity diagrams, let’s take a deeper dive into the process of affinity mapping.

The affinity diagramming process

The process of creating an affinity diagram will be similar, regardless of whether you’re working in person or online. Either way, you want to generate ideas, write them down, sort them, and then discuss the findings with your team. There are two major differences between in-person and virtual affinity diagramming — the tools used and the meeting location.

Naturally, in-person affinity mapping requires you and your team to gather in a physical location, such as a conference room, and use tangible tools. The virtual alternative is more appealing to remote and hybrid teams, as everyone can contribute to the session using digital diagramming tools.

Let’s take a closer look at what is involved in creating an affinity diagram. The process is broken down into the following four key steps:

To create an affinity diagram you need to record, sort, categorize, and prioritize.

1. Record

Once you’ve gathered your team and kicked off your affinity diagramming session, it’s time to begin recording ideas or pieces of data. In this case, assume that you and your staff have chosen to host an in-person affinity mapping meeting and use Post-it notes to record ideas.

In this scenario, each team member would begin presenting ideas or pieces of data. As the team leader, you’d be tasked with writing down the concepts on the Post-it notes. It’s vital that only a single idea or data point be listed on each card.

Each card will then be added to your affinity diagram. There’s no need to organize them in any particular way at this stage — just make sure that each note or card is visible. Continue brainstorming ideas and recording data points until your team runs out of steam. Don’t cut them short, even if your board starts looking a little crowded.

2. Sort

The goal of the second step in the affinity mapping process is to group all of your notes based on similarity. Start by having your entire team look over the ideas they generated during step one.

From there, collectively begin moving the notes so that similar ideas are clustered together. For an ecommerce team, as an example, there might be ideas regarding site navigation, the checkout process, how to filter products, and mobile friendliness.

One important thing to keep in mind is sound. Some teams prefer to sort in silence so that they can really focus on the process, whereas others choose to confer with one another to ensure that everyone is in agreement throughout the process as to what groups each idea should be placed in. Experiment with both methods to discover what works best for your team.

After the sorting process, your affinity diagram should look much more organized. Most of your cards should have made it into a group, though there may be a few outliers. Still, don’t feel obligated to force every card into a category if it doesn’t belong there.

3. Categorize

Once you’ve sorted most of your unique ideas into groups, it’s time to give each of these clusters a name. Discuss the ideas present in each collection with your team and come up with a concise name that best summarizes the theme of that group.

There’s more than one way to tackle this stage of affinity mapping. If you prefer, you and your team can create a couple of categories before sorting starts. You can also create categories as you go, but make sure to call out the name of the new theme to your team to keep everyone on the same page.

No matter how you decide to categorize, the outcome should be the same — groups of similar ideas are now indexed under headings that represent the main idea or theme of that batch.

4. Prioritize

Now that all of your information is organized and categorized, your team should be able to see some trends take shape and begin to formulate a strategy based on the results.

It can be a good idea to designate a team member to present each grouping. That person will share the individual items within the cluster so everyone has a clear picture of how the ideas on your board are categorized.

You may also want to gather some after-action feedback from your team. Find out what may have surprised them about the information gathered during the session. Insights like these can help you better understand how information is disseminated among your team — and they may even reveal some collaboration or communication issues that you didn’t know existed until now.

Finally, prioritize the ideas or groups that your colleagues believe are particularly important to the success of the project. There are several different tactics you can use to prioritize groups. Some teams vote on each idea and mark individual cards with dots to signify how many votes they receive. Alternatively, points can be assigned to different ideas based on how important they are to the team.

Affinity diagrams help teams sort information gathered during research or brainstorming. Grouping similar concepts together helps teams visualize data in an organized fashion.\

When and how to use affinity diagrams

Affinity diagrams are useful when your team has a large amount of data to process, especially when that data covers a wide variety of topics.

For example, take the question, “How can we improve our product?” This question could have many answers, and each could have a series of actionable items nestled within it, all of which need to be fully explored. Tackling large, complex goals like these is the perfect opportunity to use an affinity diagram.

How you use the information gathered from the affinity mapping process will largely depend on your organization and the type of work you’re trying to accomplish. Generally, you and your team should come away from your affinity diagramming session with a better understanding of which projects or ideas are most important. You can use that information going forward to address the highest priority projects first and keep your staff focused on the most value-driven objectives.

If your team is facing a more specific, narrow-focused problem, affinity mapping may not be the most sensible tool available to you. In such situations, other project management methodologies like kanban may be the better fit. For instance, if you already know that site navigation is impeding the user experience, develop ideas for remedying this issue and create a detailed to-do list with your kanban board.

Start organizing your ideas with affinity mapping

It’s clear that affinity mapping is an excellent way to organize ideas and set direction for your team. But you might now be wondering how to begin incorporating such a useful strategy into your planning and brainstorming processes.

First, you’ll need to choose a location for your affinity diagramming activity, such as a conference room, online meeting room, or large office. Next, gather the necessary tools for affinity mapping, such as:

After you’ve picked a site for your session and acquired the right tools, select the focus of your affinity diagramming exercise. For instance, decide whether you’re looking to solve a specific problem, brainstorm new ideas, or analyze the results of a survey. Once you know the “why,” you can then schedule a meeting with the necessary team members.

Boost productivity with Adobe Workfront

As you can imagine, the productivity of your affinity mapping sessions hinges on a key factor — having the right tools in place. Creating an affinity diagram and managing complex projects is much easier with Adobe Workfront, a collaborative work management solution that can help integrate your people, processes, data, and technology for better results across the organization.

By optimizing and centralizing digital projects, cross-functional teams can connect, collaborate, and execute from anywhere to help them do their best work.

To learn more, take a Workfront product tour or watch the overview video.