Emergent Themes – APA!

What does it take to get from this –


to this?


It takes perseverance, cooperation, dedication, patience, long hours, and lots of caffeine.

Today Christina and I presented our emergent themes to our client, Austin Pets Alive!. We arrived at these themes through a process called affinity diagramming. Affinity diagramming is a process by which you take individual thoughts or ideas (in our case, quotes from participants in our design research) and group them based on thematic similarities.

At first, we were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data we had to work with, but we eventually hit our stride. Then, at around the half-way point, we had to start breaking groups into more specific themes. This is where our anxiety shot up because it felt a lot like backtracking. Below is a chart that graphically shows our level of anxiety throughout the affinity diagramming process.

Shape 9

Despite high levels of anxiety, we found a few interesting themes that connected into a cohesive story.

The first theme is ‘less-is-more’ if volunteer retention and skill is high. Training is expensive. This is true of both time and resources. The kitten nursery staff is not afraid to let people go that aren’t meeting expectations. 

“People are shocked [when we fire them], but the thing is the kittens’ lives depend on the schedule that we have set up and the policies and procedures we have.”

Sally (line 36)

Already we are touching on the motif of how important reliability is to a life-saving operation, such as Austin Pets Alive!. This connects to our second theme: lack of reliability gets in the way of APA!’s mission. Fosters are key to APA!’s success. However, in most cases, fosters undergo a 1-hour training and are sent home with any number of kittens. If a foster doesn’t uphold their end of the bargain, the staff is forced to take the kittens back and scramble to find a more suitable foster home. This problem bears a heavy opportunity cost: the nursery is slowed in placing kittens with other fosters, which means the nursery cannot intake more kittens from city shelters, which means kittens may be put down. APA!’s mission is to prevent the euthanasia of companion animals. If the nursery is unable to intake more kittens, there is a higher risk that some will be put down. Here is an example of that situation from our data:

“She basically said ‘I work full-time and I can’t feed these kittens every 4-6 hours.’ All this came out because she said she could only weigh them once a day, and we were like, ‘wait, what are you talking about?’ … I don’t know, but we ended up taking them back because – for obvious reasons.”

Michelle (line 130)

Reliability of people is clearly of paramount importance, but we noticed that reliability of tools and processes are similarly important. This leads us to our next theme: It’s easier to stick to the tools and procedures you know. Comfort with tools and protocol can impede peoples’ ability and willingness to adopt new tools and procedures. 

“… if they just kept it in ShelterLuv and everyone knows how to use it I wouldn’t have to go to every department and ask if they could share their master or whatever spreadsheet.”

Frank (line 111)

APA! employs an animal shelter-specific, CRM-style program called ShelterLuv. The goal when the tool was adopted was to make information logging and retrieval easier for everyone in the firm. However, as evidenced by the quote above, the various departments of APA! tend to favor their own system data management. This ties into our next theme: Being stuck in routine slows progress. With moderate turnover, staff members in new positions inherit procedures from their predecessors that they take as gospel. 

“I love our spreadsheets. This is our master spreadsheet … this is like one stop shopping. If I want to know about any kitten I can just look versus having to go to ShelterLuv to look for it.”

Karen (line 30)

The language here suggests that going out of this person’s comfort zone is an annoyance and not a valuable use of time. Part of the reason this practice continues is due to our final theme: The nursery employees lack connection to APA! as a whole. APA!, in our view, feels like a little archipelago where the individual islands interact minimally. Part of this is due to geography, but there is clearly a desire among staff members to feel included in the happenings of other departments.

“This is our vet EOD report from yesterday. I really like this report for a couple different reasons… I think its really fascinating to read the medical stuff, whats going on, and this is for ALL of APA and not just the neonatal department. ”

Michelle (line 57)

Presenting to our client was insightful and it was gratifying to hear them empathize with the themes we presented. Following the presentation, the clients turned to each other and began an exchange of their frustrations that our themes had captured. Although our focus was solely on the neonatal kitten nursery, the client confirmed our presentation addressed problems that were organization-wide. This was a moment of validation in our learning process because it spoke to the value of qualitative data; we were not capturing numbers and statistics so our information was relevant beyond our ‘sample set’. The client was enthusiastic about our utterances and asked if we would be willing to share the presentation with a team of Deloitte consultants studying the whole of APA!.