It’s Week #3 of the UX Design class I’m taking at The Starter League. After covering top visual design techniques and research methods last week, we dove right into affinity diagramming, user modeling, and product vision. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, I promise.

Affinity Diagramming

We left off last week’s recap with some field and survey research tips. Research is critical in the field of UX because, well, the most important thing is people and how they interact with the world, and thus, whatever it is you’re trying to build. Once you conduct the research, though, you have to somehow parse through all of the data you collect.

That’s where affinity diagramming comes in.

Affinity diagramming is the technique of taking a bunch of separate “items”—like statements made by users during field research, observations made by researchers, data points collected from surveys, etc.—and grouping them together in a way that allows you to see emerging patterns and trends.

Let me back up for a minute. In class last week, we broke up into teams to pursue startup ideas that we could test. I got lucky with a team of five other really bright classmates. We all love the idea of getting people to do more acts of kindness, so we’re exploring ways to create something that will produce that end result. Over the weekend, we did field research, asking people for their thoughts on human kindness, as well as barriers and motivators for doing kind things for strangers and people we know. Between the six of us, we collected a ton of data. How on earth were we going to figure out what it all meant?

That’s when affinity diagramming became my best friend. Here’s the basic process:

  1. Take a bunch of Post-it notes and write one note on each one (a “note” here can be anything from demographic info, a data point, a field research response, a researcher observation, etc.).
  2. Put all of the post-it notes up on a board or wall.
  3. Start grouping similar notes next to each other.
  4. Once groups start to form naturally, start labeling those groups to provide even more structure. If some of your post-its belong to more than one group, just write duplicates and place them in all of the groups they fit into.
  5. Do your best to keep the number of notes per group to 2-4, if you can.

Based on the field research we did, here’s the affinity diagram my group created (plus, one of my teammates being funny):

photo (3)

I know you can’t read all of those little post-its, so let me give you an example. One of the questions we asked in our field research was, “Do you believe people are inherently good?” We split the answers up into groups. While initially we may have just paid attention to the number of “yes” and “no” answers, by using the affiliate diagramming technique, we learned that about half of the people we surveyed gave us a “yes, but…” answer. Meaning, they said “yes, people are inherently good,” but also made a note about the constant battle people face between good and evil. A fascinating finding that we may otherwise have missed.

Identifying Your User Base

Of course, one of the main objectives of research is better defining your current or potential user base. There are tons of factors to keep in mind and account for when understanding your pre-existing or future user base. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Demographics (i.e. age, gender, location, income, etc.)
  • Environment and usage trends (i.e. use location, use time, tool context, frequency of use, loyalty, etc.)
  • Values and attitudes (i.e. media, activities, needs, desires, etc.)
  • Knowledge and tasks (i.e. product knowledge, competitive awareness, duration, order, method, etc.)
  • Roles (i.e. titles, responsibilities, training, relationships, interactions with others, etc.)
  • Goals (i.e. short-term, long-term, motivation, success outcomes, pain, etc.)

So, how do you go about defining your user group?

There are a bunch of different ways. You can identify the most important attributes of your users based on business and/or product goals. You can also define them through field observation and user interviews. One other way is to define profiles, personas, segmentations, or mental models. We’ll get to the latter right now.

What is a User Model? 

User models are otherwise known as “audience segmentations.” They are most useful when you’re demystifying who your actual user is, looking to remove design politics, and grounding a shared understanding across a design team.

Here are four common visual tools that are used to help researchers identify and focus on their primary users:

  1. Quadrants
  2. Profiles
  3. Personas
  4. Mental Models

Here’s a bit more about each one of these tools, along with how and when to use them:


Quadrants work well when you have an audience that engages in a similar activity or pattern of behavior, and you want to better understand the nuances of how they differ. Here’s a very basic example of what a quadrant model looks like:

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 12.07.01 PM

This chart is based on two major characteristics: average age and percentage of user group that is female. Within this quadrant above, you can see the researchers plotted out various types of games played, based on these two major characteristics of age and gender. The quadrant user model is an easy way to visually assess a few different key characteristics so researchers can see what service or product options might work best for their user group. This model doesn’t tend to work when you have multiple, distinct roles or personality types amongst your user group.


Profiles provide researchers with the next level of detail. They tend to focus more on the specific behavioral differences and/or roles that people take on in certain scenarios—like, say, while playing a video game. Game designer Tracy Fullerton came up with a list of 10 major types of game players:

  1. The Competitor – plays to best others, regardless of the game
  2. The Explorer – curious about the world, loves adventure, and seeks to traverse outside of both physical and mental boundaries
  3. The Collector – acquires items, trophies, or knowledge
  4. The Achiever – plays for various levels of achievement; “ladders” and “levels” in games highly incentivize this type of player
  5. The Joker – doesn’t take the game seriously, plays for the fun of playing, and potentially really annoys those competitive players
  6. The Artist – driven by creativity and design
  7. The Director – loves to be in charge and direct the play
  8. The Storyteller – loves to create or lives in worlds of fantasy or imagination
  9. The Performer – enjoys putting on a show for others
  10. The Craftsman – wants to build, engineer, or puzzle things out

I’ve got to tell you—when I first read this list, I wasn’t sure if it was about game characters or real-life personalities. I suppose we all fall into at least one of these categories, whether we’re playing a video game or just living out our lives. So if I’ve learned anything from UX design so far, it’s that we basically behave like virtual game characters in real life. Sweet.

If you’re curious about game design and want to learn more, here’s a fantastic, in-depth resource guide to game creation, written by Fullerton.


Now, personas start to get even more detailed.

A persona is a fictional character that you create to represent your users. You shape this user persona based on the knowledge you accumulate about your user base through interviews, ethnographic research, observations, and the like. Personas go beyond demographic characteristics and general personality traits. They may also contain insight on users’ goals, motivations, frustrations, pain points, common activities they engage in, tasks they commonly complete, and various roles they play. Here’s an example of what a persona might look and feel like:

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 12.34.19 PM

It’s a basic visual example, and only one type of how you might visually convey a “persona.” But, based on the image above, you can get a general sense of this woman’s general demographics, interests, common activities, and perhaps a bit about what’s important to her. Yeah, I’m looking at you, StartupRiot stickers. (By the way, I found this image here, amongst an amazing collection of other persona images.)

This is an extremely valuable visual research assessment tool because, let’s be honest—knowing your user’s demographic information or general personality isn’t always going to get at the important stuff you need to know, like what aggravates or motivates your user base. If you want to create your own persona, here’s an interesting chart we used in class to get you started:

Screen Shot 2013-01-28 at 7.57.31 PM

Mental Models

 Mental models are probably among the most drilled down versions of visual user models. This model comprises an affinity diagram of user behaviors surrounding a particular topic. It represents all of the nitty gritty details of how someone actually thinking about that topic. Essentially, a mental model is a diagram that represents the thought- and action-process that’s used to achieve a set of goals in a narrowly defined scope. Here’s an example of a mental model that might be used by a consumer packaged goods (CPG) company:

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 1.21.19 PM

The benefit of creating a mental model for a CPG company is that researchers can very clearly see what thoughts and actions (top half of the chart) a user goes through during a particular process (in this case, how a user spends the first few hours of his or her day), as well as the products they might use during that process (the bottom half of the chart). Based on this mental model, if I were creating a new product—like a microwaveable meal—but learned that most people only have snacks and beverages in the morning, I might think twice about branding it as a morning-use meal. You can see why this type of user model is valuable—drilled down details for drilled down insight.

Here’s a great article on mental models if you want to learn a bit more about them.

Product Positioning

The last thing we talked about in class this week was product positioning. After you utilize user models to help you determine your user base, you should figure out what it means for your startup. Product positioning is a great way to create a cohesive “voice” for your company, connect with your brand and audience goals, and set yourself apart from competitors be defining your unique fit into a particular market. Here’s the product positioning template we used in class:

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 1.35.00 PM

This is a great tool for companies that have determined their target user base, and want to clarify the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of the business—for clarity both inside and outside of the organization.

If you just started following along now, you can catch up on what I’ve learned so far about UX design:

Starter League UX Design: Week #1

Starter League UX Design: Week #2