By Oisin Kearns, ARCH Research Assistant.

“How can I use an affinity diagram to create personas?”

AKA.. “we’re going to need a bigger wall!”

This was a question we recently found ourselves asking when in the process of designing patient personas to help steer a client’s design goals. Affinity diagrams and personas are User-Centred Design (UCD) techniques which tend to precede UX design. Affinity diagrams can be great for organising ideas and visually identifying patterns, while personas can be excellent tool to help designers and developers empathise with users. Yet how easy is it to transition from one technique to the other? If you’re new to UCD techniques or UX design the answer simply is strenuous and time consuming. Being the pragmatic researchers that we are here in ARCH we’ve recorded our learned lessons from every road blocking issue that arose from our experience in using these techniques. Following this blog’s approach we hope you can avoid time consuming pitfalls and help steer your data into being useful and meaningful to those looking to use it.

Affinity Diagrams

Firstly, affinity diagrams are an excellent mapping tool to visualise your data in order to see patterns and themes that arise. Grounded in qualitative data, the diagram can be a key feature in a product’s design lifecycle as it shows users a group’s thought patterns, pain points, concerns and potential service needs.

Affinity Diagram

Conducting our own affinity diagram, we followed the 10 steps to best practice to constructing affinity diagrams from the Interaction Design Foundation’s guide:

The process sounded simple and straight forward, but after finishing a project using the diagram we can confidently say the process is a lot more complicated at certain points. We’ve learned that if proper steps and principles aren’t taken in both the starting and transitionary phase to persona creation, one can easily lose themselves in the vast amounts of data the method generates. This will make the transition to a persona quite a painful experience. The following are learnings we found crucial to shaping our own diagram and allowed us to transition to creating personas.

Preparation is Key!

  • Deductive not Inductive

The qualitative approach used to analyse our interviews was grounded in the data rather than existing theories. Using the persona template (as explained below) to guide our analysis would have made this process more straightforward.

  • Work in a Group

Constructing the affinity diagram was the most time consuming aspect. This is not a method to work on individually. We had three people working on the diagram’s creation which included: preparing the wall for the diagram (detailing out the wall space to be used and rearranging post-its), placing the coded post-its on the wall and reviewing each post-it’s position and assigned code. Working as a team helped us save time.

  • Find the widest wall possible and use a ladder!

When choosing our wall, we had to look for a quiet room to – avoid traffic – where we could keep the windows shut – to avoid post-its falling and losing their position. Initially, I was sceptical that we needed such a wide wall, but mid-way through our diagram creation we realised: “we’re gonna need a bigger wall…” As data formed, new clusters developed and kept spreading out. Space is vital!


Post-it Construction


  • ID your Post-its

Post-its will fall down off the wall, so keeping track of who the post-its belonged to was critical. We placed an identifying code on the post-it to allow us to easily track who it belonged to and place it back in its correct spot on the wall.

  • Assign each participant a colour

Reviewing our post-its we found those with multiple colours got muddled in with other ones and made it harder to locate them on the wall. Keeping each participant to an identifying colour made it a lot easier to see a participant’s line of thought.

  • Simplicity and Context are key

Understanding what was said on the post-it sometimes got confusing. Adding multiple points or generic messages to a post-it blurred its key message and forced us to constantly return to the transcripts for reference. By placing one specific idea per post-it, as well as giving the contextual quote allowed us to keep the post-its simple and easy to follow.

  • Reflect on your Research Question

Engrossment into the data can make one lose track of the initial research question. To overcome this, we should always ask ourselves: ‘does this relate to our research question?’. If it doesn’t, simply move on.

Affinity Diagram Implementation

  • Find your Sub-Themes

Initially we coded only 3-4 interviews and followed the Interaction Design Foundation’s 10 step guide. This allowed us to identify the arising sub-themes early. We then went back to our remaining interviews and coded them towards the arising themes. This allowed our post-its to be more focused on certain themes.

  • Work in Silence

Following the 10 step guide, we found the process extremely slow as the research team debated over every post-it created and its place on the wall. To counter this, we agreed each researcher was to work in silence to place their post-its under the theme they thought it fell under. If a certain idea wasn’t clear or didn’t match up to the predefined theme that was okay, we left it as a standalone for a new possible sub-theme to emerge.

  • Discuss Post-it Positioning / Avoid Repetition

Once all post-its were placed, we began going through each post-it discussing why we placed it under a certain theme. This allowed us to discuss whether the idea covered on the post-it matched appropriately to the theme on the wall. Duplicates were removed where more than one post-it covered the same idea.

  • Organise your Diagram

After completing the 10 steps and reviewing our diagram with all of our themes and sub-themes, it was a jumbled mess. It was impossible to follow an individual participant’s line of thought or which clusters were emerging more dominant.

Affinity Diagram 2


Rearranging our diagram, we started by placing the participant’s identifying codes down the blue line (far left hand side), while placing our overarching theme codes along the red line (horizontally).

Affinity Diagram 3

This helped us navigate and identify themes on the diagram much more easily. Furthermore, it helped us to simply identify an individual participant’s thoughts on the assigned themes, as well as showing themes that were most prevalent.


Transitioning from Affinity Diagram to Persona 

Creating our personas we used the Interaction Design Foundation’s 10 step persona guide:

When transitioning from our affinity diagram data to personas we hit a brick wall. The affinity diagram brought a vast array of social dimensions to the process which allowed a deeper understanding of the participants, yet personas are a top layer representation of participant demographics, attitudinal and behaviour information. We tried to let the data speak for itself through seeing correlating relationships between emerging attitudes and behaviours, but it simply didn’t work. Participants whom we deemed polar opposites in attitudes kept matching up in their strategy behaviours and did not give us a clear consistent narrative glue to base our persona types upon.

Getting around this issue, we consulted a colleague who suggested we form our persona types based around a simple principle:

‘What is the underlying task that participants are trying to get done?’ or more simply: ‘What is the job to be done?’  (Wunker 2017)

Applying this principle to the participant’s strategies unveiled what they ultimately wanted to achieve. Furthermore, the principle helped us to reveal more precisely the individual pain points for why participants were implementing those strategies, and clearly identified our different persona types. After overcoming this stage, the personas just about wrote themselves.

Persona Construction

We organised our participant’s into their persona types and noted which group they fell under on our affinity diagram in order to further visualise and navigate our data. We could now clearly see each persona group types’ frustrations, concerns and motivations.

For constructing our personas we used the following template:

Filling in the template’s ‘motivations’ section we used Intercom’s ‘Job Stories’ approach. The easily allowed us to bring both context and causality to each participant’s answer:



When utilising this tool, we found subcategories emerging from our persona types. This allowed us to create further persona types and further refine and develop the other personas.

Involve the Persona Users in the Process

Consider the design team’s roles, perspectives, responsibilities as well as goals in order to present the persona data more meaningfully. Remember it is them who will be interpreting and using the persona to help shape their products or business strategies.

When creating our personas we invited a member of the company’s design team to participate to help us translate participant-insights into achievable design goals. This allowed him to have a more in-depth understanding of the different persona types. Furthermore, involving a member of the design team in the process also allowed us to understand how they might interpret the personas and how to best design them.



In short, approaching persona creation using affinity diagrams gave us a wealth of data on our participants. Yet transitioning between the two methods can be quite the arduous task. If preparation and the above considerations along with utilising the ‘Jobs To Be Done’ principle are followed, persona creation can be a smooth and enjoyable process. Involving the persona users (e.g. designers, developers) in the creation process is also very important. The goal of personas is to help one empathise with the user’s goals, needs and behaviours. Empathy we found is not created by just reading the persona, but actively engaging in the data and the persona creation process. Doing so allows the development of more targeted solutions and a greater understanding of who you are designing for.


Wunker, S., Wattman, J., & Faber, D. (2017) Jobs to Be Done: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation, New York, Amacom.