When a designer is thinking about ways to create experiences that deliver meaningful and lasting connections to users, it is helpful to consider the notion of our personal affinities and how they affect perception, adoption, and use in the designed world . The term “affinity,” when illuminated by definitions from chemistry and biology, gives us a deeper understanding of the form and importance of these connections people have to products and services. An exploration of what affinity means can lead us to consider new and useful ways of informing design thinking and ultimately help us design with more success.
The Meaning of “Affinity”
In chemistry and biology, affinity has two separate but equally interesting definitions that are both useful when considering how we approach research and design as practitioners.
- The first definition of affinity, from chemistry, is “an attractive force between substances or particles that causes them to enter into and remain in combination.”  The most interesting part of that definition is the notion of a force, or attraction, between elements. Similarly, in the designed world, we are often drawn to a certain design with a natural attraction simply because of its aesthetics and beauty. An inexplicable gravity pulls us toward some designs and creates a true elemental bond.
- A second definition of affinity, from biology, is “a relation between biological groups involving resemblance in structural plan and indicating a common origin.”  This definition also relates to design thinking, specifically in how we often see an inherent similarity between a design and ourselves. Our identity or self-image, as reflected in a product or service, can also lead to strong passions for certain designs.
Affinity in design, therefore, can be summarized as the emotional connection someone feels for a product or service as driven by these notions of beauty and identity. Unlike usefulness and usability , affinity is about unexplained desire or want. It is often irrational, fluid, and intense. Affinity is the opposite of aversion, and affinity is always positive. Along with usefulness and usability, affinity is the third influencer on a design’s success.
Of course, price and access are other factors that drive product and service adoption and use. However, if the price, in addition to features and functionality, between two offerings is comparable, then affinity takes on a greater role. Novelty is another factor that may drive adoption and undercut design intent. While price and novelty do have influence, they are less the focus of design thinking and more in the sphere of strategic marketing.
The Importance of Identity
Before we look at how to effectively research and design with affinities in mind, let’s first explore the notion of identity and discuss why affinity is challenging to incorporate into a design initiative. The role of beauty as a factor in design success needs little exploration; the world’s greatest philosophers and writers, from both the East and the West, have given the notion a deep history of thought and attention,  and the principles and mechanisms of aesthetics like balance, tension, and contrast are well known.
The notion of identity and how it relates to affinities, however, is worth some additional exploration. Identity may be best explored in terms of the self-image we all have, and we can break that down into tenses of time: past, present, and future. Affinities based on self-image come in the same three tenses. Affinity may be nostalgic (past tense) and relate to who we thought we were or a fondness we have for past experiences. It can also be definitive (present tense) and help us communicate who we are and to which community we belong. And affinity may even be aspirational (future tense) and allow us to project who we want to be and our ideals for our future. Thinking about identity in these three tenses helps us to better understand this type of affinity and how it impacts our designs.
A few examples of nostalgic affinity come to mind when thinking about brands and public personas. My brother (in his late 30s, an established English teacher, and pursuing a second master’s at Harvard) has a poster of Walter Payton, the record-holding Chicago Bears running back from the 1970s and 1980s, tacked to the wall of his Cambridge apartment. To my brother, the poster represents a simpler, more innocent time from childhood, when our minds were filled only with pretending we were our sports heroes, jumping over the back of a couch as if it were a pile of Green Bay Packers at the goal linenot with the troubles of adult life, like jobs and relationships. The pervasiveness of Hello Kitty paraphernalia targeted at high-end consumers (the Pink Ceramic Diamond Hello Kitty watch retails at Neiman Marcus for $2,900) is another example of the same nostalgic drive.
Though much has been written about Apple’s iPod, one very specific design attribute of that product line relates to our discussion about affinities, and particularly definitive affinitynamely the distinct white color of the headphones. In addition to the core function of producing sound, the headphones serve an important purpose of aligning the user with a group: forward-thinking technologists. The white headphones are a signifier to all those around of the community to which the user belongs. In fact the iPod was not the first music device to use color distinction as a way of enabling users to belong to a group. The yellow body of Sony’s Sports Edition Walkman in the 1980s served a similar purpose, only that group was communicating an image of healthiness. Definitive affinity is not exclusive to industrial design but relates to other design as well.
Aspirational affinities are also an important type of affinity based on identity. This type of affinity allows us to project who we want to be and our ideals for our future. The online dating site eHarmony is a particularly explicit example in the interaction design sphere. This website and service offers a “compatibility matching system” to help singles project their values system, character traits, and personal interests (all of which may or may not be accurate), with the hopes of finding meaningful romantic relationships. A second example is Twitter and Facebook, which allow us to communicate what we are about to experience. One element of these offerings relates directly to aspirational affinities: The ability to select what we broadcast about ourselvesin contrast to what we decide to censorallows us to project an exact image. The pooling of followers and friends that both Twitter and Facebook afford, and again our control over who we do (and do not) associate with, also helps us refine the image we want to project, based on the inclusion or exclusion of others. All of these services allow us to be someone we aspire to be in a community to which we desire to belong.
But the emotional connections wrapped up in these affinities are very challenging to include in a typical human-centered design approach. This is true for a number of reasons. To start, emotions in general, and often the most important ones, link to past experiences that may be distant and difficult to recall. And even if past emotions can be recalled, they are fluid in form and tone. Language is another challenge in any discussion about emotions. Words have different connotative meanings, which may be exaggerated when two people speak for the first time, as is often the case between a researcher and a study participant. People may simply be uncomfortable speaking about emotions with strangers. Lastly, emotions are abstractions and cannot be easily observed, documented, and shared with a design team like photographs, video, and artifacts can.
Before we can address affinity as a design goal, we must first focus on uncovering people’s emotional connections from a research perspective. Despite the challenges of researching emotions, the good news is there are a number of specific techniques that can help. In general these techniques are discussion-based because of the cognitive, emotive, and social issues tied up in affinities. The traditional observational or ethnographic techniques researchers use are not applicable, because what is being researched is primarily internal and psychological. For the most part, these techniques are also open-ended, as direct questions imply a discussion trajectory, and participants need to define the terms of the exchange. Lastly, to be successful, these techniques depend on the researcher’s ability to build a rapport with the participants so that they will feel safe talking about their emotions.
There are four categories of techniques useful for exploring people’s emotional connections to designs:
Narrative techniques. The first category of methods for exploring affinities involves narrative techniques. Storytelling, where we ask participants to tell a story about an experience they’ve had that’s related to the research inquiry, is one particularly useful narrative technique. It works best when image boardsshowing a collage of relevant objects or scenesare used as a launchpad for the discussion. The participant selects one image and tells a story about it; the selection of that one image (as opposed to the others) indicates what is top-of-mind to the participant and what he or she is most passionate about. The technique gives the participant an easy entrance into a story and absolves them from having to be creative without a starting point; it also helps focus the participant on a single memory or emotion, making the discussion less abstract. When a participant tells a story, it reveals the influences beneath routines, behaviors, and perceptions. Besides uncovering the type and tone of emotions themselves, the narrative arc of the story reveals the structure of the experience and the relationship between emotions.
Projective techniques. A second category of methods for exploring people’s emotional needs includes projective techniques. Scenario building is one successful method. In scenario building, research participants are given an abstract, open-ended scenario onto which they project their ideal experience or outcome. For example, if we are researching senior citizens’ expectations for emergent medical care while away from home, we might offer as a scenario a mythical being (a sprite or a fairy) that can travel at the speed of light (but not through time) and then ask the seniors what they would want the sprite to do. The seniors may tell us about their wishes for the sprite to bring their medical records no matter where they are, or their desires for family members, in addition to their doctor, to be notified, or their need for their exact location to be immediately known to EMTs (emergency medical technicians). This method allows participants to think beyond the constraints of current technology so they can represent their true desires and expectations.
Differential techniques. Another set of research techniques is based on semantic differentials. These techniques link even more explicitly to design action than the techniques discussed here. Semantic differentials are cognitive opposites that are meaningful to people. When organized on 2x2 style boards that represent semantic differentials, images of existing or conceptual designs clustered into distinct aesthetic categories can lead to useful discussions about preferences for design directions. Research participants can easily respond to the style boards and indicate in which aesthetic category they would expect to see a future design and discuss why. The creation of the style boards is best done in collaboration between researchers and designers, since the more meaningful the categories are to designers (with obvious form, color, material, or finish groupings), the more actionable the research will be. To provide initial design direction, the style boards can be created with images of familiar, real-world products. A second round of style boards, this time showing the team’s design concepts, is then presented to validate the initial input.
Associative techniques. The last category of methods includes associative techniques using sensory stimuli as discussion starters. This method can garner very direct input on people’s expectations for the tone of an experience. Research participants react to texture or material samples, color swatches, word cards, or even simple time-based media (like sounds or animations) to draw out stories and subtle, unarticulated emotional connections about all senses. For example, if we are researching mothers’ expectations for post-natal support services, we may show a range of material samples to elicit input. The moms may not just gravitate toward soft, natural materials (like raw cotton) and talk about their concern for their baby’s comfort; rather, they may also gravitate toward strong, rigid materials (like copper piping) and describe their desire for agents to protect their baby’s safety. This technique is not simply about implementing the materials that participants discuss, but rather about giving participants a starting point for articulating the emotions they want to feel in relation to a product or service.
In short, these techniques are successful for exploring affinities because they are based on activities that people naturally do well: telling stories about their experiences in their terms and responding to stimuli presented to them.
Designing for Affinities
Once we have a deep understanding of what incites people’s affinities, we can bring the emotional drivers to the fore of design thinking using a methodological approach . Any approach needs to be couched in the manufacturer’s goals and the designers’ sensitivity and creativity, but we have seen a general method used successfully in product design. The method includes transitioning research findings about affinities into core values, which are to be supported by the design. These core values imply a character or tone (or personality) that the design should present and can be transcribed into explicit design principles to guide design activities.
Core values are the first deliverable we use to transition the results of affinity research into design action. Core values should reflect the goals, needs, and perceptions of the community of use but simultaneously offer direction to future design activities. Let’s go back to our earlier example of senior citizens’ expectations for emergent medical care while away from home. If the senior population’s desired core value is one of authority, then we can start to think about how a design would best support that value. What would make seniors feel like they are being commanded clearly and confidently by an expert? What would make the population believe in the information and instructions being offered? How can the community feel cared for? How can the design solution build trust?
After we extract and distill core values from the research, we can then think about the specific character and tone the design solution should have to accurately reflect the values of the community and help it actualize in the desired way. Character and tone can relate to all aspects of a solution, including industrial design, interaction design, service design, or brand design.
To continue with the same medical example, the character and tone best suited to the seniors may be one of a guardian or protector or chaperone. Discussions about the qualities to be embodied in the design are best had with an integrated team of researchers and designers so that what has been seen in the field, and how those needs might be addressed via design, can be thoroughly understood and vetted. Such collaboration also ensures team members from diverse backgrounds can start to speak the same language.
Next, we can create design principles as concrete and actionable guidelines to represent the agreed upon qualities of the design solution . To be useful, the wording of these principles must ground the abstractness of “character and tone” in clear and memorable language that is both meaningful and inspirational to designers. Here are a few examples of design principles that might support the character and tone of a guardian:
- DecisivenessThe design solution should use a voice (verbal and visual) that is firm and direct, but also calming and reassuring.
- AccuracyThe design solution should provide information that is exact, consistent, and timely to build trust with users.
- DependabilityThe design solution should address as many situations as possible, communicating functionality clearly and continuously to establish confidence with users.
To be successful, design principles must systematically relate to the core values of the community of use and the experience it desires with the given design. Since the wording and tone of these principles are key to their effectiveness, much iteration (and definitely collaboration) will be necessary.
The final way in which affinities are represented in design is, of course, through design action, which includes the traditional activities of early ideation, development, testing, and refinement. Having a record of the process that transfers core values through character and tone to design principles is important; such a record can make design decisions traceable and can reinforce design intent throughout the development process. The record can also facilitate buy-in for the design direction from both internal stakeholders like engineers, prototypers, and developers as well as external stakeholders like client executives, sales and marketing representatives, and distributers.
As important as affinity is in how products and services are perceived, adopted, and used, it is just one element in a design’s success. Usefulness and usability (as well as novelty and price) can’t be belittled or dismissed as factors in how users and consumers select products and services. However, since affinities encompass so much of what is important to us as humans (our ideals of beauty and notions of identity), the importance of affinities should always be considered in design initiatives. A design has the ability to take me back to a place, time, or experience to which I would like to return; it can allow me to be part of a community and can help define me in relation to others in a group; and it can even help me signify who I want to become. For these reasons, affinities, and a methodological research and design process to address them, are important to the designed world and those who are creating it.
1. The physical world as we know it can be sorted into two camps: that which occurs naturally and that which is artificial or man-made. Everything in the second camp has been in some way, to some degree, designed. This camp can be considered “the designed world.”
2. Affinity Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 19 April 2010 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/affinity/
3. In the simplest terms, usefulness can be defined as why we seek a product or service and how it helps us accomplish our goals and objectives; usability means we are able to use a product or service to an effective end, as it was intended.
4. Philosophers and writers who have explored the notion of beauty include Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, William Shakespeare, John Keats, Immanuel Kant, and Wallace Stevens (to name just a few).
5. Most important, affinities must be addressed in all phases of development, including discovery phases when we define the offering, in design activities while we are creating concepts, during validation phases when we ensure we successfully built the correct emotional connections, and finally, in refinement activities when we iterate on solutions and focus the design more precisely.
6. Ideally, design principles have universal application, whether the design solution is to be a physical product, a user interface, a service offering, or a messaging campaign. However, if the form of the proposed solution is known, it may be possible to make the design principles even more grounded, focused, and specific to the development activity. The goal is to focus and inform design but still leave ample space for inspiration, creativity, and the designers’ expertise.
Matthew Jordan has worked in the human-centered research and design industry for 14 years and focuses on balancing user needs with business goals to deliver meaningful and creative solutions. He has worked with a range of organizations, from start-ups to midsize companies and large corporations, and enjoys the interplay of the medical, consumer, technology, and social sectors. Jordan earned a B.A. in language and literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a M.A. in professional writing and communication design from Carnegie Mellon University. He has published articles in MX (Medtech Executive), MD&DI (Medical Device and Diagnostics Industry), Visions magazine by the Product Development Management Association (PDMA), and the annual Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES).
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