April 28, 2014 by Amanda Visconti

Affinity of ideas: Using an affinity wall to map out my digital dissertation

An affinity wall (diagram, chart) is a technique I picked up while doing some contextual inquiry consulting as part of my information master's. It's a way to take a bunch of separate ideas and visually map out how they're related (thus, "affinity"); this helps your areas of focus (or paper section headings) rise organically out of an overview of all the things you want to cover, rather than being pushed onto the ideas from the top down.

The dry-erase board before I started (in the corner are topics I'd need to cover at the end of the project, after user testing). The dry-erase board before I started (in the corner are topics I'd need to cover at the end of the project, after user testing).

I first used affinity mapping to figure out how a system (tech support ticketing software for a nursing department) actually worked, mapping my observations from being embedded in a workplace environment, instead of just relying on interviews and staff views on what they thought was going on. Now, I'm using it to figure out how all the things I want to think about and say as part of dissertation project can come together in one scholarly journal article. (Note that photos are deliberately small, as I'm not completely comfortable with posting a detailed outline of an eventual journal article.)

Post-it notes grouped by topic on the affinity wall dry-erase board. The first grouping of topics on the affinity board.

A close-up on the topics I drew out of my affinity groupings. Text version at end of post. A close-up on the topics I drew out of my affinity groupings. Text version at end of post.

How to Make an Affinity Wall

The technique is simple: get a couple packs of post-it notes and an empty wall or board. Write down one idea per post-it, only using a few words (if you need more, you should probably break the thought into more post-it notes); you can use different colors of post-it if you want to keep track of some factor such as whether the idea came from an interview, an observation, a Twitter conversation, or a book. Once you've written everything out, start to group things together in ways that make sense, without trying to impose some pre-decided groupings on the ideas.

The final affinity wall, with post-its grouped by topic and ordered within those topics. The final affinity wall, with post-its grouped by topic and ordered within those topics.

Affinity Wall to Journal Article

The actual dissertation deliverable for this article is only a polished draft; we're not tying its acceptance or publication into the evaluation process. I'm expecting to write sections that won't be submitted when I share the piece with a journal, so I tried not to think about whether there would be enough space to cover a topic in the final article; in the paper I share at my defense, I'll just flag any sections that will drop out before sending the article to a journal.

The affinity wall also covered content I needed to write that wouldn't fit in even the longest article: things I needed to think through via writing and research, and content I want on the site (e.g. a short background on Joyce and the writing of Ulysses, a moderation policy, and addressing the IP rights of site users). I bracketed on the side of the board any topics that would only appear as written content on the website not in the journal article) or for pieces I could only write after my user testing. This left me with nine main sections of writing and thinking that I can work on right now as I'm building the website. Once those nine topics were chosen, I was able to arrange the post-its beneath the headings in an order that makes narrative sense.

Tackling the Writing

My next step will be to mark every post-it that I've already begun to address. The point isn't to cross things off a list once I've blogged about them once. Rather, the wall lets me make certain I'm spending time thinking about all the major sections of the project; I mark a post-it note once (one diagonal line across) when I've thought and written enough about a topic that I've produced a blog post, and twice (making an X across the post-it square) when I've done enough work that my writing on the topic is ready for pulling into a draft of the journal article.

Here are the nine main sections I ended up with, in case they're hard to read on the photos (Again, these are deliberately non-zoomable as I'm not completely comfortable with showing the world a detailed outline of an article I'll be working on for the next year):

  1. Lit review and project precedents
  2. Speculative experiment to practical outcome
  3. Dissertation format and methodology
  4. Tech decisions
  5. "Edition"? (addressing what an edition is and if my website is one)
  6. Metaphors for participatory editions (e.g. my post on classrooms as participatory editions)
  7. Inclusivity
  8. Accessibility
  9. Learning from existing online communities (e.g. my post on what digital editions can learn from Reddit and StackExchange)

I successfully defended my digital humanities doctoral dissertation in Spring 2015. The now-available Infinite Ulysses social+digital reading platform is part of that project; come read with us!