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The many faces of Impact Mapping

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In this article Ingrid Domingues describes how an Impact Map develops, how it can be used, how you may find new solutions to well-known problems and much, much more. Sit back, read, and find out about the many aspects that this communication tool covers.

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Impact Mapping is a technique used to explore, discuss, and evaluate the impact of a digital service. It can be used for:  

  • Outlining an idea.
  • Communicating a project where a digital service is developed.
  • Describing an existing service.
  • Evaluating and choosing solutions.

Outlining an idea

When you need to work on an idea, Impact Maps are excellent for focusing a discussion. This first draft of an Impact Map is solely based on the understanding of business impact and the needs that people already have. Therefore, the first draft is usually in the form WHY-WHO-WHAT, since grouping users by demographics is the everyday way to speak about them. It is always better to start outlining in the more mature WHY-HOW-WHAT form, if that is possible. However, they both represent assumptions of user behavior.   

This first draft Impact Map can be completed with minor preparations. Three things are needed:

  • A fair understanding of the business and its operations.
  • Some idea of the new service and how it serves the business.
  • A workshop where business managers are coached into creating this first Impact Map.

When the idea is transformative for the business, some structured pre-work is great, for example by making a Business or Service Model Canvas. When the idea is to enhance an existing business or service, less preparation is needed. A bit of research about the business and its performance, plus a few interviews with managers will do.  

This initial Impact Map will give an idea of the scope and input for research activities. Which users should you meet and interview? Which problems are already known? Which contexts of use are you addressing with the new solution? Are there user needs that are not addressed by the initial idea?

Communicating a project 

Impact Maps are excellent for communication. When an Impact Map has been purged of assumptions and detailed by defining user behaviors, it is great for discussion within the project team, as well as with managers and decision makers outside the team. 

A first draft of the Impact Map is based on assumptions. The next step is to do research on user needs, learning about situations, activities, thoughts and behaviors in relation to the new service. By doing this research you can define a more rigorously based Impact Map in the form WHY-HOW-WHAT, giving an excellent foundation for innovative user experience design and project management based on impact. It makes it possible to find new solutions to well-known problems. And it reveals business opportunities for needs that have been underserved. 

An Impact Map grounded on user research will give a great understanding on what is needed to make people like and use the new service. It contains descriptions of their behavior, grouped into different Users and prioritized. The priority is making it clear which behaviours create the most impact, thus giving the very best starting point for designing good solutions and managing the project. 

An Impact Map based on research is used for testing and evaluation from day one. It contains metrics that will guide the design work and are the basis for evaluating prototypes and designs. Along the way, when design suggestions are tested and we learn more about the fine details of user needs, the metrics are refined. From the tests you will also learn more about user needs, and the Impact Map can visualise all you learn about users and their needs. By the end of the project, the Impact Map will include everything that is needed for the product manager/owner to follow up on the new solution's impact on users and business.

The agile software delivery community made a version of the Impact Map, where user behavior is defined by what the service provider wants users to do (more of, less of, or stop doing), instead of describing real user needs. Describing desired user behaviour is well suited for the first outline and gives good direction for research. The agile community advocates that this initial Impact Map should also be used during development for designing, planning and evaluating a project. If the project is managed in a true build-measure-learn way, and if trying out prototypes includes proper user research, that could work out nicely.

However, omitting research on user behavior during pre-development will create a need for more development cycles than otherwise. And—even more serious—you might miss possible unknown user needs, needs that could have even greater impact. Also, a WHY-WHO-WHAT Impact Map lacks prioritization, since it is impossible to prioritize demographic groups. This makes the Impact Map less suited for outlining and planning development work when there is a limited budget.  

Describing an existing service

Impact Maps are first and foremost communication tools. The Impact Map explains the desired impact of a certain service, describes how this impact is created by users, and which capabilities the solution must have to satisfy users in all possible contexts. 

The assumption behind Impact Maps is that any service exists to fulfil a purpose for the business that provides it. If that is the case, an Impact Map of the service will be the perfect tool to maintain the service once it is launched. It offers guidance to choose which functionality, content or visual design parts need to be upgraded and also in how this should be designed in order to create the desired impact. 

Impact Maps can be created in a development project. That will be a perfect way to help the team provide a service that delivers the intended values. 

Impact Maps can also be developed in hindsight, for an existing service. Usually, there is documentation on users and functionality that can be included in an Impact Map based on demographic users, their work tasks, and functionality. When this is all in place, take time to define impact and capabilities for the service. And take that to the level where the product owner can use the map for the daily work of prioritizing what to spend time and money on. We used this way of working with one of our clients; they could discard one third of all change requests, and thereby saved more than one man-year of development time.    

Evaluating and choosing solutions

The purpose of the Impact Map is to make sure that the designed and developed solution meets expectations on impact, that the solution will support users in the intended way, and that the expected business impact will achieved. One of the most important capacities of Impact Maps is that they provide strong means for testing solutions used by its intended users in realistic contexts. 

In other words, Impact Maps make it possible to evaluate any given solution, to see if the solution meets the expectations of users and if it leads to the desired impact for business. This is the core capability of Impact Maps, which makes them a tool in the development process—to judge design solutions. 

It also makes Impact Maps the perfect tool for evaluating off-the-shelf systems. With the Impact Map it is possible to evaluate how systems perform in use, and to rate their ability to create the desired impact.

More about Impact Maps in these articles: The Birth of Impact Mapping and The Evolution of Impact Mapping.