Affinity Diagrams Bring Order to Chaos: An Affinity Diagram Template and User Guide with Examples

Affinity Diagrams Bring Order to Chaos: An Affinity Diagram Template and User Guide with Examples

Understanding affinity diagrams might be easier if you think about a tangible example in your daily life. Let’s say you plan to build a desk for your home office. You watch some how-to videos online and make a shopping list of project supplies. Then you decide which ones are necessary (lumber and tools) and which ones are over budget (extra fancy drawer pulls). Before you shop, you rearrange your list according to store departments: hardware, power tools, painting supplies, etc. That way, you won’t have to backtrack through the store to grab something you missed.

If this describes the way you handle home projects, congratulations! You’ve already made an affinity diagram. Drawing an affinity diagram essentially means taking a long list of items and grouping them visually into smaller lists to better manage your project.

Colocated development teams often do affinity diagram work on a wall or whiteboard, using dozens or hundreds of sticky notes. For remote or hybrid teams, Whiteboards’ Affinity Mapping template helps you sort large pools of data, draw important connections, and take practical action. 

Affinity Estimation template on Whiteboards.io
Affinity Estimation template on Whiteboards.io

Taking next steps is easy because Whiteboards syncs robustly with Jira, meaning any of your virtual sticky notes are just two clicks away from becoming Jira issues. Create Jira issues from sticky notes, import existing issues to the whiteboard, and manage issue details just as you do in Jira. Everything syncs instantly across platforms.

Try out Whiteboards’ visual collaboration tools for free today. Keep reading to learn about affinity diagrams and get practical examples of how to use them with your team.

What is an affinity diagram? 

Affinity diagrams are a method for taking large amounts of information and finding useful ways to categorize it. Affinity diagram categories arise organically as the team draws intuitive connections among the various data points. You might use an affinity diagram when you need to:

  • pinpoint important themes from an in-depth project retrospective
  • brainstorm features and design elements to create an exciting user experience
  • identify and troubleshoot common work impediments based on team input
  • transform group brainstorming into a cohesive vision statement or action plan
  • consolidate feedback from multiple sources for a balanced bigger picture

Affinity diagrams can help anytime you’re processing a lot of input that doesn’t easily resolve into predetermined categories. They can also help you view the same data from multiple perspectives to make surprising connections and spark new ideas.

What are the benefits of affinity diagrams?

The exact affinity diagram objective varies with the application, but the general benefits remain the same. Affinity diagrams help teams:

  • break down complex situations rigorously using all the available data
  • experiment with grouping ideas along different themes for a fresh perspective
  • discover important relationships among scattered concepts or issues
  • avoid fixating on certain details at the expense of the larger picture
  • foster creative brainstorming space knowing your ideas will be organized later

The affinity diagram process works in the reverse order of most business planning tools. Instead of sorting small pieces of data by established categories, you’re using that data to develop the categories themselves. This ground-up process supports creative problem-solving and drives innovation.

How do I use an affinity diagram template?

Follow these five steps to create an affinity map for any application.

Collect your data and start a team video chat. Add the Affinity Mapping template to your online whiteboard to begin the process.

1. Define your challenge, topic, or area of research.

What data set are you exploring, and what’s your objective? A phrase or sentence will do – for instance, “examining customer feedback for future Product X development” or “sorting employee input to improve interdepartmental communication.”

2. Add your data to sticky notes.

Use different-colored sticky notes to group your various information streams. Depending on the application, the colors might represent individual team members, whole teams, marketing research channels, or other inputs.

Pro tip: Do data entry on the template asynchronously before the group session to save meeting time. When the team gathers, all the information is on the affinity diagram template and ready to sort.

3. Group your data into themes. 

Drag sticky notes to the “Clustering” field to start grouping them. Let the data guide the process. Check out our affinity diagram example list below to see how affinity clusters might develop in different brainstorming scenarios.

4. Decide which topics to explore further. 

Discuss your affinity clusters in terms of action steps: further research, features priorities, workflow improvements, etc. Find consensus or take a vote to determine which ideas you’ll pursue.

5. Prioritize your ideas on a Value/Effort matrix.

Assess your proposed action steps according to the value they’ll bring and the effort involved in implementing them. Identify easy wins, big bets, incremental steps, and money pits. Refine your ideas and take action. Convert sticky notes to Jira issues, and your plan is instantly live in Jira.

Affinity Diagram Examples

Brainstorm creative applications with our affinity diagram example list.

Read these five affinity diagram example cases for ideas on how this process might help your team do robust data analysis that leads to practical solutions.

1. Analyze customer feedback using an affinity diagram.

Use an affinity diagram to consolidate and prioritize qualitative feedback from multiple channels. Gather raw data from all your end-user inputs, for example:

  • social media comments
  • online product reviews
  • individual end-user emails
  • targeted customer surveys
  • in-depth focus groups

Assign a different-colored sticky note to each information source. Every team member takes one or two sources and enters helpful feedback on individual sticky notes. Skip vague online user comments like “I love this product!” but include input with substance, such as “The ordering process was too complicated.” To avoid redundancies, add a quantity to show how many users gave essentially the same feedback.

Start to group input across sources. Perhaps the comments organize themselves neatly according to product features. Or your categories might reflect customer emotions in different instances: delighted, confused, frustrated, neutral, satisfied, etc. Or maybe you’ll group features and functions another way: user favorites, wish list items, complaints, dealbreakers…

Study your clusters. What themes emerge? Where are you exceeding expectations, and where are you falling behind? What are your key product development growth points?

You might also gain valuable insights from your color-coded sticky notes. How are they distributed across clusters? Do different information channels capture different types of feedback? How can this inform your future data collection?

You can use a similar affinity diagram approach to sort large-scale beta testing feedback for final product improvements before a big release.

2. Envision better product solutions with affinity mapping for UX design.

Start brainstorming your next new product or feature design with an affinity diagram. Find rich data sources to mine and study them creatively.

For instance, when creating a new app, you might draw inspiration from relevant, successful products. List your top two competitors, another one or two that are rising fast, and a couple of apps that are winning big with different but related products. Each team member explores one app as an end user and records their honest reactions.

Describe any details that strike you: energizing color schemes, smooth navigation, well-written copy, exciting bonus features – any aspect of design or functionality that speaks to you as a user. Record one or two dozen specific reactions, using just a word, phrase, or short sentence for each. Don’t overthink it; just live inside the end-user experience.

Let’s say you have a six-person team, and each person lists two dozen reactions. You now have 144 data points about what makes this type of app attractive. Start grouping the data to see what ideas emerge.

Run the same data collection exercise using a diverse group of stakeholders outside the design team and make a second affinity diagram. How do non-designers experience the same products? What can you learn by studying the overlap and disparities between your two affinity diagrams?

3. Try an affinity diagram with visual elements for graphic design.

Affinity diagrams aren’t limited to connecting concepts verbally. When you’re designing a new product or overhauling an existing design, images inspire the process. Use an affinity diagram as a collaborative visioning board for mixing and remixing colors, shapes, textures, fonts, and other design elements to create something fresh.

Each designer brings 15-20 images that speak to them in any way about the product. These can be photos, diagrams, logos, illustrations, doodles, typographical elements – anything that holds a design clue or conveys a mood. Add the product vision to the whiteboard for reference during the brainstorming process.

Each team member draws from the larger pool to create image clusters that feel complementary for any reason. Use a sticky note to add a single word that describes a general mood or particular design element that attracts you to the grouping:

  • mood: cozy, energizing, reassuring, bold, ancient, gritty, oceanic
  • texture: feathery, jagged, rocky, fluid, coarse, shiny
  • shape: bubble, leaf, spiral, amoeba, teardrop, pyramid
  • pattern: mosaic, tessellation, branching, web, geodesic, splatter
  • movement: stretching, resting, wrapping, fading, overflowing, reflecting
  • color scheme: high-contrast, grayscale, old photo, desertscape, two-tone

Borrow a visual element from another cluster by copy-pasting it into your own. Add a word to someone else’s grouping based on what jumps out at you. Each team member creates several visual clusters, then the members discuss them in turn.

Select a pool of moods and elements that feel aligned with the product vision and each other. Create a group of words and images to serve as the springboard for your product’s visual design.

4. Optimize knowledge management systems with affinity mapping.

Storing virtual information for quick, intuitive retrieval is essential to smooth project management. With documentation distributed across multiple platforms and numerous files and folders, good digital housekeeping is a must. 

If your information storage process has gotten haphazard, use an affinity diagram to design a better knowledge management system. Address documentation quality as well as organizational structure in one focused house-cleaning session.

Assign different colored sticky notes to each team – UX/UI design, testing, programming, marketing, research, etc. List all the types of internal documentation your team creates or regularly needs access to. Be thorough! Choose a common symbol to add to any sticky note where a team identifies a documentation weak spot: the information is stored inconsistently or in a suboptimal location, unnecessary permissions are required, or the documentation itself is sometimes hard to understand.

Group together similar types of documentation to visualize who needs access to what. Or, arrange clusters by platforms where the documentation is currently located.

Examine the “weak spot” symbols in your clusters and discuss solutions. Reorganize your data to form intuitive clusters reflecting where information will be stored. Then create hierarchies within each grouping to refine the storage process.

5. Run an affinity mapping retro to solve common team roadblocks.

Use an affinity diagram at your next Sprint retrospective to troubleshoot workflow impediments. For homework, each team member keeps a running list of every frustration or roadblock they encounter during the current project or Sprint.

Include small but annoying issues, for instance, “I spent 5 minutes looking for X documentation” or “I had to contact so-and-so because details on task Y weren’t clear.” Also, record vague sentiments: “I feel like X team isn’t on the same page as us” or “tasks like Y seem like unnecessary busywork.”

At the retrospective, team members list all their observations on sticky notes. Start by clustering together any exact matches, then add closely related issues. Emerging themes might include documentation, communication, tools, and processes. Or perhaps your main problems are communication ones, so they end up sorted by who’s exchanging information: design ↔ development, marketing ↔ development, testing ↔ design, etc.

Discuss each grouping and look for easy wins. Where can you upgrade a tool, streamline a process, or implement more consistent practices? Experiment with proposed solutions during the upcoming Sprint. Revisit your affinity diagram during the next Sprint Retrospective to assess your progress.

Affinity diagram next steps in Whiteboards

An affinity diagram leads you out of chaos and into order so you can take clear and decisive action. It is also a good idea to add affinity diagram to the list of retrospective ideas for remote teams, fostering continuous improvement. Use the Affinity Mapping template to discover and vet new ideas, then execute your plan without delay using Whiteboards’ native two-way Jira integration. Convert sticky notes to Jira issues, assign them to users, and edit issue details – all without leaving Whiteboards. Your work syncs automatically in Jira for a smooth transition to the new plan.

Try Whiteboards for free to get over 100 Jira-friendly templates that are supported by powerful diagramming and communication tools. Bring order to chaos with a visual collaboration process that integrates seamlessly with your Jira project management.