The Knewton Blog

Our monthly newsletter features edtech and product updates, with a healthy dose of fun Knerd news.

Design Sketchstorming: Solve Big Problems Quickly [VIDEO]

Posted in Knerds on April 5, 2012 by

Here at Knewton, we’re growing fast. It sometimes seems as though new teams form and change almost every day. Everyone here has awesome, intelligent, useful ideas, and when we start a new project we want to get everyone’s input — without taking too much time out of the day.

It’s a hard problem, as anyone who has tried to aggregate opinions from a lot of people can probably appreciate. Our latest solution? With the help of our Interaction Design team, Martin and Kajal, we’ve implemented a process we call sketchstorming (also known as Affinity Diagramming).

Not only is sketchstorming a productive process, it’s also a lot of fun. Watch the video below, then read on for Martin’s detailed walk-through of the process in case you want to try it out yourself.

Let us know in the comments if it works for you!

Affinity Diagramming: A Guide

by Martin Highley

Why affinity diagramming?

Affinity diagramming is a great way to get a group of people with disparate skill sets to generate a large number of ideas. It helps include as many points of view in the product definition process as possible, so all the needs of the team are accounted for. Affinity diagramming also allows a team to categorize ideas and identify themes of solutions.

When should you affinity diagram?

When you want to:

  • Define information architecture
    • e.g. Identify navigation themes
  • Make sense of user research
    • e.g. Find patterns of use cases, scenarios, tasks, etc.
    • e.g. Find behavioral and motivational patterns
  • Analyze product evaluation data
    • e.g. Make sense of and prioritize user testing results from multiple reviewers
  • Clarify product definition
    • e.g. Organize brainstormed ideas about what your product should do and how it should do it.

What you’ll need:

Problem statement:

A key part of any successful affinity diagramming is making sure that you have a well-crafted problem statement — that is, a brief statement of the issues/requirements for which you are trying to solve. The problem statement should be informative enough to give participants something to work with, without stifling creativity by being overly prescriptive. This can be a delicate balance, so it’s worthwhile to go through the rough exercise of crafting a few problem statements at differing levels of specificity before picking a middle ground.


  • A large wall (to post ideas on)
  • Pens (Sharpies are great because it is easier to read notes from a distance)
  • Post-It notes and large Post-It pads (large pads give room to be visual with ideas)
  • Tape (the Post-It notes have an unfortunate tendency to fall off the wall)


A list of guidelines to direct the process. Here are the guidelines we use:

  1. Defer judgment: Let ideas breathe. Worry about feasibility later.
  2. Encourage wild ideas: Push past the literal, easy, solution and encourage other people when you see them doing the same.
  3. Build on the ideas of others: When talking about an idea that someone has try avoid “no but…” and instead use “yes and…”
  4. Stay focused on the topic: Try not to diverge from the problem that you are trying to solve. Time can be tight and every second you are off topic is a second where a new idea is not being presented.
  5. One conversation at a time
  6. Be visual: Nothing gets an idea across more quickly than a sketch.
  7. Go for quantity: Dig deeply. The first few ideas you have while feasible will lack originality. Get them out of your system and you will come up with some truly magical stuff.

How to go about affinity diagramming:

The set-up (5 mins):
Here is where you state the format of the affinity diagramming exercise, the guidelines to follow, and the problem statements you will be ideating around.

Idea generation (15 mins):
During this time participants silently write down ideas (one idea per Post-It). As this is going on, participants can stick their ideas on the wall in no particular configuration.

Categorization (10 mins):
During this time team members approach the wall and collaborate to group similar ideas together into categories.

Discussion (30 minutes):
The groups runs through the ideas, building on them as appropriate. This is where the guidelines come in handy. Having them written on the wall is a good way to keep people focused; you can point to them at any time if the discussion starts getting out of hand.

Next steps:
Record all of the ideas in each category and distribute that document. I like to have photographs of each category to accompany the written list so that none of the visual work gets lost. We use Google Docs which lets participants comment on the list of ideas. You may find that people refer to other companies or features to explain their ideas. This is invaluable information, so make sure you record each reference so it can be used in a competitive analysis later. Finally, use this document to begin the product definition process.