Affinity mapping (or affinity diagraming, po-TAY-to po-TAH-to) is an exercise that finds underlying themes and trends in research. The map at the center of this exercise is tactile, easy to edit, and oftentimes the largest physical artifact you’ll show a client. Depending on its scope, you could see the map stretch across an entire hallway or room, truly showcasing — if nothing else — an impressive quantity of paper that’s been dedicated towards serving the client. If you decide to make a map at home, you’ll need a wall, sticky note collection and pen, as well as a buddy to keep you from going too crazy moving pieces around by yourself. Here’s a photo of pal, Jason Caragan, demonstrating how it’s done during a recent client project.
Wow! That’s a fun and colorful post-it collection, but what does it all mean?
For details on the specific insights THIS affinity map produced, you can follow this link. Jason, Joanna Yuanjing Guo, and I were able to walk away from this map a little wiser because 1) every one of the sticky notes in the photo above contained one of the following:
and 2) we didn’t conclude our mapping after our first round of categorization. Affinity maps require multiple perspectives and patience. We can only call our map successful if we’ve moved its pieces around enough to develop a new picture. In other words, while our first round of groupings might categorize “apples” with “oranges” because they’re both fruits, we need to continue shuffling these pieces until more hidden insights emerge.
If this sounds a little crazy, it’s because it is. I’m certain many of the conspiracy theorists in my inner circle could be experts at affinity mapping. I could easily point to Charlie Kelly’s deranged Pepe Silvia diagram as an affinity map that should have asked for more input from others, but this post will probably be more successful if we analyze a case that actually follows mapping steps correctly. Join me as we head back in time to 1991.
*time travel music*
Step 1: Assemble data and categorize
Silence of the Lambs features a team of FBI agents struggling to uncover the identity of wanted serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Had the FBI hired a UX designer in 1991, they might have identified the subpar affinity map at the core of their investigation as the cause for this struggle. Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford has excelled at assembling newspaper clips, autopsy reports, and graphic victim photos, but he’s done a poor job moving these pieces around to uncover hidden insights. When we’re first introduced to the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, they’ve done little aside from connect the obvious: What do his murders have in common? He skins them. The victims are obese white women. Bodies were found in this area in West Virginia. etc. etc.
Step 2: Ask for input from others and recategorize
Crawford recruits the untested Clarice Starling for the case, and the two of them provide us with exchanges that simulate the benefits of sourcing outside opinions on your affinity map. In the exchange below, Starling offers many insights Crawford probably already knows as a tenured FBI agent, but also includes one he might not.
Clarice Starling concludes that Buffalo Bill will continue to claim victims because she’s able to see a narrative in the victim photos and — for a moment — empathize with Bill’s journey. She can see the improvements in his craftsmanship and understand the pride this must bring the grisly artist. This exchange proves Starling’s ability to contextualize, but only us a limited glimpse of her skill. Our affinity map has barely improved from its baseline. While both Crawford and Starling have a strong understanding of the killer’s incidental effects, they’re ignorant about the killer’s needs, motivations and context, and are therefore handicapped in their search for his identity.
Step 3: Repeat step 2 until satisfied
Ultimately, it takes a killer to teach Starling how to fully empathize with one.
In the scene above, Hannibal Lecter establishes that he’s looking at the same affinity map as Starling (“I’ve read the case files, have you? Everything you need to look for is right there in those pages”) and teaches her to look for the nature behind the action instead of the action itself. Once Buffalo Bill’s needs are established (“he covets”), the context becomes apparent (“we begin by coveting what we see everyday”). Starling takes this wisdom back to her affinity map and notices that one of their categorizations — the locations of victim bodies — has overruled the more significant fact only one of the bodies was weighed down in a river where the others were not. She uses this outlier to assume Bill wanted that body to be found in that spot to distract the Feds from his actual location. She concludes this victim must have lived close to Bill (“what we see everyday”), goes to that victim’s hometown, and — dun dun dun-AHH — finds the killer.
It’s possible Hannibal Lecter is the most evil character you’ve ever rooted for, and that’s kind of the point. He teaches both Starling and the audience how to understand the nature of a killer. It’s this understanding that eventually helps Starling crack the case.
Clarice Starling found hidden insights in her affinity map by seeking help from others and reshuffling her categories. Now go build your own, just be sure you work with patience, a couple of aspirin, and a lighter subject matter. I promise most affinity maps delve into more pleasant material.