Splicing in the affinity gene

a work in progress…

What is affinity? why is it so important in our everyday work? and more importantly, how can we teach and develop this ability to others? How and where can we splice in the affinity gene*?

Affinity has an interesting etymology, drawing on the near (affinis) and far (infinity). Humans are well know for their pattern recognition ability, of which the identification of affinity between objects plays a big part. Affinity ability, or the capacity to identify similarities at different structural levels between objects and systems, can be an interesting way to look at what it is that designers, particularly interaction designers, do.

Affinity is what we do

Card sorting, affinity diagrams, mental models.. these are but a few of the many methods and tools designers use to work out what’s going on in a situation, and what to do about it.

What we do as designers relies a lot on how well we can harness our skills at identifying affinity between objects and the systems those objects create. Many design methods involve some sort of affinity parsing, or search for isomorphic relationships between disparate and unfamiliar objects. These process stages are often described in relatively fuzzy language, closely tied to the context of the process being undertaken. EG: In the Mental Modeling process, Indi Young describes the affinity parsing process in terms of the “one of these things is not like the other thing” game from Sesame Street.

This fuzziness is necessary for a number of crucial reasons: the main one being that identifying affinity is a process of negotiation between the ‘things’ being affinitized and the people doing that affinity grouping. Anyone who’s tried to clump a set of post-it notes together can remember the moment when one note reframes the whole set, requiring existing clumps to be broken down differently. In this way, ‘affinity’ is also a process lens we use to get a holistic view of a situation. Conversely, one way of looking at the many frameworks and methods designers use could be in terms of how they help us focus our affinity ability on different aspects of a situation.

For simplicity, I’ve massively generalized and broken this down into three ways that the affinity ability is used in design projects; affinity seeking, spotting and making. I’ve described these three manifestations of affinity ability using a linear model, with one leading into the other. Of course this is a massive simplification, and I’ve use it purely to frame a complex practice, to highlight the role affinity plays in lots of design processes.

Affinity Spotting

I’ll start with spotting affinity, because this is the most widely understood manifestation of this ability. Sense-making tasks such as card-sorting, mental modeling or analyzing interactions are good examples of affinity spotting. This analytic ability usually works on a set of collected data, identifying groups of elements that share properties or structure. In many cases, like mental modeling or card sorting, the process of spotting affinity between elements also helps to make sense of the larger set of data by implying categories or taxonomies that help us to understand how to further cluster the elements. Its a process that feeds back on itself, and it’s important here to remember that design invokes Herbert Simon’s ‘satisficing’ to set a breakpoint into this potentially infinite loop. (Sciences of the Artificial – p 64)

Affinity spotting sits in the middle of many design projects, as a bridge between researching the situation and changing the situation. To borrow from Simon again, affinity spotting sits between designers using afferent, or sensory channels to gather information about a current situation, and using efferent or motor channels to move toward a preferred situation. (ibid pp 55, 66)

Because spotting is traditionally and most easily understood in terms of affinity, I’ll use it as an anchor to help describe these adjacent processes.

Affinity Seeking

Affinity seeking encompasses activities that help to build a set of elements that can be used to spot affinity. Methods and methodologies including contextual inquiry, ethnography, cultural probes, focus groups, surveys, and even eye-tracking are all examples of affinity seeking.

It may seem strange to discuss research methods like this as activities requiring affinity ability, but the link becomes clearer if we look at these activities as the means to gather a better set of data to spot affinity rather than goals in themselves. In this way, I’m framing evaluation and observation in terms of how they help us ask and answer questions like “how can I get people to want more X?” or, more specifically, “what should people do here, and how can we incite that behavior?”
In framing these activities this way, it is interesting to look at how affinity ability can help us do these kinds of things better.

Many methods talk about the need to distance oneself from the situation, to “leave your assumptions at the door” in order to objectively perceive elements in the situation (behaviors, objects, beliefs, actors) without subjective biases.
It is very difficult to fake objectivity, but that’s what we try to do when we’re affinity seeking. Many methods have been designed to help us fake objectivity and build a data set that satisfices requirements for variety, so we can then apply our natural pattern-recognition software in the spotting phase.

We might look at this faking of objectivity as a suspension of the affinity spotting activity. Turning that part of our brain off, so we don’t bias the outcomes with our previous experiences. Of course this is totally impossible (but that hasn’t stopped anyone before) and it might make more sense to think of this process as a suspension of affinity, while also remembering that not applying something doesn’t necessarily imply its absence. Affinity ability is required to suspend affinity spotting, and therefore affinity seeking can be made better by having more sophisticated understanding and control over how we use our affinity ability.

Some great examples of this are the many permutations that research methods undergo when they hit practice: the ‘guerilla’ and ‘quick’n’dirty’ versions of methods reflecting the pragmatic views of professionals having to do this week in, week out.

Affinity Making

The activities previously described help make designers understand the world, but at some stage they need to put something into the world. This process of creating things that solve problems can be framed as affinity making.
Many people think this is all design does; the creation of artifacts, processes, things that affect a situation in order to move it towards a preferred situation. In many ways this is the part of design that many students sign up for, because it is the only part of design that most people experience.

Making affinity is demonstrated by descriptions of ‘intuitive interfaces’ (affinity with what we know already) or ‘innovative services’ (affinity with perceived opportunities and latent mental models). This is where Arthur C. Clarke’s “magic” happens, and it’s here that we can see the challenge for teaching and developing this ability most clearly. Just look at the myriad schools, approaches, theories, philosophies that aim to enable and augment this ability.

Affinity Seeking, Spotting and MAking

How do we teach and develop this ability

Understanding, Synthesis, Creativity, Design, Innovation, all these zeitgeists work towards the goal of helping people understand and use their affinity gene better. But if this affinity ability is as important as I’ve suggested, and such a huge part of what it is that we do, how can we develop it? How can we introduce, or “splice” it in early? How can we hone and extend our ability to manipulate it?

* apologies to Peter F. Hamilton