What is affinity mapping in product discovery?

12 min read
July 17, 2023

The point of product discovery is validating your product idea and creating a product that meets your users’ needs.

A successful product discovery process is by design intensely collaborative.

Affinity mapping is a technique in product discovery that facilitates both collaboration and data analysis between the members of your discovery team.

It also allows you to quickly identify patterns in the data about your users you’ve collected during discovery.

If you’re a product manager working on product discovery, affinity mapping could be a useful tool for stimulating collaboration within your discovery team.

Now let’s discuss in more detail what affinity mapping is, the benefits of using it during discovery and how to lead an affinity mapping session.

What is affinity mapping in product discovery?

Affinity mapping is a synthesis technique in which you thematically analyze data and ideas by grouping them in clusters.

In simpler terms, affinity mapping categorizes research data or ideas based on similarities, i.e. affinities, between the various data points.

Organizing the data you’ve gathered into clusters based on affinity will help you recognize patterns in the data and gain deeper insights about your users.

Affinity mapping can be a useful technique for categorization when coming up with product ideas as well as during your regular brainstorming sessions.

In product discovery, it’s most useful when analyzing the qualitative UX and user research data you’ve gathered.

qualitative vs quantitative research

As pictured above, qualitative research is focused on exploring ideas and interpreting your users’ thoughts and feelings about your product.

Unlike quantitative research, which can be objectively measured and analyzed, qualitative research has to be approached with more nuance.

It seeks to answer the “why?”, i.e. why users hold a certain opinion about your product.

By categorizing that data into clusters, affinity mapping can help you uncover insights and identify user pain points.

An affinity mapping session needs 4 simple ingredients:

  • Sticky notes
  • Sharpie/pen
  • Blank whiteboard
  • Participants in the session

Of course, you can also lead a session remotely, as there are a number of free affinity mapping templates available online.

The best way to do it remotely is to use a real-time collaboration tool like Invision’s Freehand canvas or Figma.

Benefits of affinity mapping during product discovery

Now that we’ve talked about what affinity mapping is in product discovery, let’s talk about some of the benefits of using it during the discovery process.

The three key benefits of affinity mapping during product discovery are:

  • Facilitating brainstorming and ideation
  • Encouraging collaboration and open communication
  • Helping with data analysis and pattern recognition

Let’s break down each of these in more detail.

Facilitates brainstorming and ideation

We’ve already mentioned that a successful product discovery process should be intensely collaborative.

Brainstorming and ideation, i.e. idea generation, are key elements that make collaboration happen.

Ideation is also one of the phases of our product discovery process and affinity mapping is a part of that process.

Affinity mapping helps your discovery team generate ideas to improve your product.


You can use it to facilitate a brainstorming session about feature ideas from your discovery team.

Let’s say you’re thinking about which features to add to your fitness app.

Your team might come up with features you could add to your app, such as:

  • Integration with existing wearable devices
  • Pedometer
  • Heart rate monitoring
  • Sleep tracking

These feature ideas can be the starting point for your affinity map.

Affinity mapping will help keep your brainstorming and ideation sessions organized.

Your discovery team will be able to quickly generate feature ideas or other ways to improve your product.

It’s also an iterative process, meaning that your affinity map is continuously updated throughout the product discovery process.

So, your team’s initial affinity map of feature ideas for your fitness app will be updated with qualitative research data from your users.

This’ll help you validate your feature ideas and help you decide which features you should prioritize.

idea validation benefits

Affinity maps are a visual representation of the results of your team’s brainstorming and ideation sessions.

Visually representing and clustering your team’s ideas provides structure for your brainstorming and ideation sessions, increasing their utility and effectiveness.

Encourages collaboration and open communication

Product discovery is a strongly collaborative process by design.

Affinity mapping sessions encourage your discovery team to collaborate and openly communicate with each other.

Without open communication and collaboration between team members, your product discovery process can’t be successful.

This is especially important because a good discovery team should be cross-functional.

As members have different skill sets and expertise, cross-functional teams are particularly vulnerable to miscommunication and misunderstanding

cross-functional team

Affinity mapping sessions are a good way to foster a collaborative mindset and encourage open communication between your discovery team members.

Let’s say you’ve just started product discovery and are brainstorming in an affinity mapping session about which features to add to your product.

Your UX/UI designer might propose a complex feature that would require a lot of work to make from your engineers.

If that’s the case, the engineer on your discovery team will be able to communicate that it would be challenging to implement that feature.

Both of these ideas should be put on the board as separate points and by the end of the session, you’ll know if that feature idea is worth pursuing at the moment.

Since affinity mapping is an iterative process, if your user research confirms that your users want that complex feature, you simply add that research data to your existing affinity map.

This’ll help you make the decision on whether or not you should add that feature to your product.

The key to managing a cross-functional team are the 3 Cs, as pictured below.

the 3 Cs

Affinity mapping sessions are a good way to develop all 3 elements within your team which’ll increase the chances of your product discovery succeeding.

Helps with data analysis and pattern recognition

One area where affinity maps are particularly useful is analyzing qualitative user research data.

The point of product discovery is to create a product that fulfills your users’ needs.

To do that, you need to identify your users’ pain points i.e. the problems that they face using your product.

User research is indispensable for understanding your users’ pain points.

Affinity maps are a handy way of helping your discovery team notice patterns in your research data.

This then helps your discovery team quickly identify which problems bother your users the most.

That’ll allow them come up with features that solve their pain points and meet their needs.

affinity map

source: Medium

Pictured above is an example of an affinity map analyzing user research data for a meal kit service.

Just by looking at the affinity map, you can immediately identify patterns in the data:

  • Their users are health-conscious
  • They value convenience
  • They have busy lifestyles
  • They’re active on social media
  • They want options to accommodate dietary restrictions

This type of data is invaluable when designing a product that meets your users’ needs.

Being able to identify patterns in your research data is crucial for gaining deeper insights about your users.

You’ll be able to see exactly which features your users want your product to have and which of their needs are unmet.

Affinity mapping helps you do this quickly and efficiently while also bringing your whole discovery team up to speed with the results of your research.

How to lead an affinity mapping session during product discovery?

Now that we’ve discussed what affinity mapping is and its benefits during product discovery, let’s talk about how you can lead an affinity mapping session.

There are 3 main steps to a successful affinity mapping session:

  • Setting clear objectives for the session
  • Organizing and leading the session
  • Analyzing the results

Let’s break down each step in more detail.

Set clear objectives for the session

A prerequisite for a successful affinity mapping session is that your product discovery team has a clear understanding of the session’s objectives.

Having no clear objectives will leave your team aimless and the affinity mapping session a waste of their time.

That’s why it’s important to set clear and understandable objectives about what you want your team to achieve during the affinity mapping session.

A handy framework to set those goals is the SMART framework.

SMART goals

As pictured above, SMART objectives are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

For example, if you’re organizing an affinity mapping session at the start of your product discovery process, your objectives for the session could be:

  • Deciding which 3 features are must-haves for your product
  • Coming up with additional ideas for features and functionalities
  • Setting priorities for the rest of product discovery

If you’re analyzing user research data, your objectives might be:

  • Identifying user pain points
  • Determining which features your users use the most
  • Validating whether or not your users need your product
  • Creating user personas

Regardless if you’re generating ideas or analyzing research data, clear objectives during an affinity mapping session will provide structure and direction for your team.

This’ll make the sessions quicker, smoother and more useful.

Organize and lead the session

Once you’ve set your objectives, it’s time to organize and lead the affinity mapping session.

Before you start the session, you should first ensure that everyone involved has the tools they need for the session.

If you’re doing an in-person affinity mapping session, make sure everyone has enough sticky notes and functioning sharpies.

If you’re doing a remote session, confirm that everyone has access to the tool you’re using to create your affinity map.

There are 4 key steps to an affinity mapping session:

  • Write down ideas/user research data points
  • Review and cluster similar ideas together
  • Add titles to the groups
  • Tweak your finished affinity map

The first step to creating an affinity map is writing down the ideas your team generates or the data points from your user research.

If you’re brainstorming and generating ideas, you should foster an open and inclusive environment where everyone can openly present their ideas for your product.

Hearing diverse perspectives can uncover fresh takes on a particular feature, the design of your product and a number of other elements of your product.

product discovery

Learn more about our discovery process →

App development starts with product discovery…

Make sure all the ideas your team has generated are written down and placed on the board, regardless of your personal opinion about them.

Once they’re all written down, you can begin reviewing the cards and clustering them together based on similarity.

This is the most important part of the affinity mapping process and it’s imperative that you cluster them correctly.

If a card doesn’t fit with any of your categories, leave it on its own.

affinity map

source: Elegant Themes

Once you’ve clustered all of your cards together, add a title for that group, e.g. user pain points, so that everyone has clarity on what each cluster represents.

Pictured above is an example of what a finished affinity map looks like.

The final step is tweaking your affinity map – you can add a problem statement or a particularly insightful comment or idea from each cluster to give more context for analysis.

Analyze the results

The last step is analyzing the results of your affinity mapping session.

If you’ve done it correctly, you should be able to extract insights and recognize patterns in the data points you’ve mapped.

Let’s say you’re mapping out qualitative user research data.

Once you’ve clustered your data points together on an affinity map, you’ll have a clearer idea of what you need to improve, what your users like about your product and even if there’s a need for your product.

Going back to our fitness app example from earlier, some common user pain points you might uncover are:

  • Difficulty sticking to a workout routine
  • Busy schedules and time constraints
  • Lack of clear goals
  • Difficulty with creating meal plans

After you’ve identified their pain points, you’ll have a clearer insight into which user needs you should prioritize meeting with your app.

For our fitness app it would be wise to implement:

  • Progress tracking
  • A scheduling tool to help them plan their exercises
  • Tailor-made nutrition plans based on their goals

Affinity mapping helps you visualize your research data and the ideas you generate, making it easier for your discovery team to draw deeper insights and determine patterns.

Ultimately, this helps your team better understand your users, how to meet their needs and generate ideas on how to make that happen.


Affinity mapping is a helpful technique for enhancing your product discovery process and improving its chances of success.

It also helps give structure to your discovery team’s collaborative sessions and your qualitative user research data, helping you gain actionable insights to better understand your users’ needs.

So, what exactly are the benefits of affinity mapping during product discovery?

The key benefits are:

  • Facilitating brainstorming and ideation
  • Encouraging collaboration and open communication
  • Helping with data analysis and pattern recognition

But, how do you lead an affinity mapping session?

To summarize, the steps are:

  • Setting clear objectives for the session
  • Organizing and leading the session
  • Analyzing the results

If you’re interested in learning more about different aspects of product discovery, check out our other blogs on that topic or read about our product discovery process.

Written by

Karlo Mihanovic

Tech Advisor

Related articles