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How to Get the Most out of Maps in Your Organization

I’m a service designer, and I love maps. Most of us really do. As storytellers and problem-solvers, maps are an important tool in our designers’ toolkit, popular among businesses who care about optimizing the customer and employee experiences. But, despite their ubiquity in business and design, the full value of maps often goes unrealized. Why? Well, because mapping is often misunderstood and sometimes organizations invest far too much time and effort in the wrong types of mapping activities.

In my 15 years of consulting experience, I’ve seen far too many glossy customer journey maps be cast aside by the very product teams for whom they were intended to support. I'm not alone in this observation, as my friend and colleague Susan Bartlett can attest! Chatting recently, we shared our observations, gleaned from our first-hand experience consulting in the pharma and financial sectors. Where did we land? Well, we've often noted how much time and effort goes into creating polished journey maps that never really get used in the organization. (Surely, not the outcome the creators were hoping for!) A shocking number of these maps are created without ever having really spoken to a customer! Escalating further, we've even noted instances where maps had become the symbolic center point of fierce interdepartmental turf wars. In this scenario, a central group or hub (market research or transformation for example) wants to “own” the core customer journey, requiring different lines of business to align to the central map they have defined. This is where the conflict erupts, as each line of business wants to instead tailor that journey map to suit their specific needs. For them, aligning to a single enterprise map can feel a lot like trying to navigate a city with a globe. Consequently, one of two things might happen; the map goes fallow, or additional energy is diverted from real problem-solving work as factions attempt to negotiate a compromise.

Now, some degree of centralization and standardization within a business is helpful, but where mapping is concerned, it’s a trap! The process of making a map is, in the end, about making choices to simplify real-world, nitty-gritty complexity and emphasize important relationships to enhance understanding. The interesting thing about maps is they are fit-for-purpose. Herein lies the root of our conflict; teams often conflate maps that are made as communication tools with those that are made as problem-solving tools. Each is based on very different assumptions, created for very different purposes. The main purpose of the communication map is to align the organization to a shared vision, but this type often crowds out the second, and arguably a more important type of map. The problem-solving map is made to visualize information in a way that helps teams clarify a problem space and find solutions; we make these maps to get the job done.

Consider Susan's analogy. In her view, maps that are made as communication tools are much like those that are printed inside glossy cruise ship pamphlets. They leave out a lot of detail and complexity but do an excellent job at helping you to understand why each stop along the way is so important and what makes the overall experience so special. In an organization, this style of map helps teams across silos anticipate how they might collaborate to deliver a more seamless and coherent customer experience overall. Conflict usually begins when these artifacts are treated as the be-all and end-all. Certainly, some people on the cruise will never need a map more detailed than the one in the brochure, but the captain and crew on the bridge might be understandably frustrated if someone presented the brochure map as a solution to their problems!

The good news is that it’s relatively easy for teams and organizations to get more out of mapping. Our shared view is that many different types of maps can and should peacefully coexist within an organization. The central team should abstract away the nuances of each individual business line or product to emphasize commonalities that can be propagated across the business and contribute to a coherent customer experience. Conversely, each individual line of business should abstract away elements that aren’t salient to their services or products, and emphasize the touchpoints that are moments of truth for their customers. When there are contradictions between the two, everyone should avoid defaulting to a declared standard.

Over time, teams should have all kinds of different maps, and for the most part, they won’t fit together to form a coherent whole. That’s totally okay! Consider this: I own a road atlas of India and an Ontario wine region map. Nothing ties these two maps together except that, I am a person who has driven the highways of India (another story, for another time), and in the summer, I like to ride my bike through wine country! Both maps have served me quite well but in quite different contexts.

Similarly, teams should invest less time overall developing and maintaining beautiful, polished maps. For the teams who are solving problems day-to-day, the act of map-making itself delivers far more value than the final artifact. This feels like sacrilege, and I write this as a designer who has delivered more than her fair share of gorgeous maps, with lovely graphic design (obviously), printed extra-large on high-quality paper. The truth is that most of the time, we should be making, rough, low-fidelity maps, with sticky notes and markers, or on a Google spreadsheet. The mapping activity shouldn't be reserved for designers either. Rather, the whole cross-functional team should roll up their sleeves and get involved! To map is to think; to make connections, to understand, to prioritize, and to decide. The audience for these maps is limited to the team of people directly working on the project and their usefulness expires once the project is done.

Last, the customer journey map is not the only thing that teams can or should visualize! Don’t get me wrong, the customer journey map is an important tool; it brings our stakeholders’ end-to-end journeys into plain sight, highlighting the highs and lows that people experience as they interact with an organization and its offerings. But there are other genres of maps that are also quite helpful: a stakeholder map or ecosystem map can help you understand the important players, their relationships, and their exchanges of value in a system. A service blueprint visualizes how the organization delivers the customer experiences from the perspective of processes, technology, approvals, and customer interactions. These are only a few examples, and there are many different types in the service design and UX toolkit. Teams should explore the full range, and invent new ones by adjusting base templates and frameworks to suit their specific needs.

In summary, maps are flexible, versatile tools that can help organizations deliver great customer experiences, but it’s important to understand the key characteristics and distinctions between communication and problem-solving varieties. Don’t let the value of maps go underleveraged! Encourage prolific map-making, aiming to generate as many maps as needed to solve a challenge. Resist standardization; adapt your map to suit whatever purpose, challenge, or context you are working with. Bear in mind that most should be treated as temporary thinking tools; they’ll be ‘scrappy-but-not-crappy’, made by and for small teams. While maps as communication tools still have an important place in the organization, teams need to be choosy about when to invest in these maps, aware of their limitation in actually getting the work done! It's my hope that these quick tips might help you and your teams get more out of your mapping, and that your partners throughout the organization might come to love maps as much as we service designers do!


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