Affinity Diagrams

The 8-month MHCI Capstone project has started a little over 3 weeks ago and we are well into the research phase. The biggest portion of our research is Contextual Inquiries and before that all happens, its good to know who you plan to interview and what is it that you want to learn from the interviews. I’ve found affinity diagrams to work very well for this process.

The main purpose of affinity diagrams in Contextual Design is to organize a wide range of ideas that are produced from brainstorming, usually in a group of multiple people. All the ideas are written on post-its and put up on the wall and everyone can group the ideas as they want. This is usually a process including discussion so that everyone understands each other’s ideas and there is a level of consensus in the grouping. An important thing to remember is that groups of ideas should be small, usually not more than 4-5 items. Also, group descriptions or group names should be descriptive phrases, not vague, general words such as “task management”, “search”. This all helps people think carefully about how they group the items. The following images show an example of how many ideas slowly create groups and become organized.

Another aspect of affinity diagrams that I’ve found to be very valuable is that they help the participants to understand different perspectives, create a common understanding and naturally come to a consensus, even without making decisions or compromises. Everyone thinks they all have different ideas and that the ideas conflict, but as you actually describe and share your thoughts, everyone realizes that they aren’t actually so different.

This has actually been proved in both of the two Contextual Inquiry focus setting meetings that I’ve had until now. Before creating the affinity diagram, everyone has different ideas on what to focus on and what we want to achieve from the CIs. But once everyone writes out their thoughts on “What do you want to learn from the CIs?”, shares the ideas, learns others’ different perspectives and realizes all the things you haven’t thought of before, all the participants have a much better understanding of each other and naturally achieve a pretty good consensus of the CI focus. We’ve found this to be one of the most valuable and rewarding parts of the whole process.

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