The missing piece to your product management puzzle...

...visualizing the user experience

Posted by Jim Morris on January 1st, 2017

It's not enough to just talk about the user experience. Most people walk away from such meetings with different understandings. Making a picture takes these conversations to the next level of understanding. It's hard to leave the room with different expectations when the map is staring right at you.

User experience mapping can fill in the missing puzzle piece User experience mapping can fill in the missing puzzle piece.

With the right team members, you can create a useful user experience map in one session and refine it from there. You can use this map as a resource for all of your future product planning. You can rely on it to place new ideas into the user context. You can socialize it amongst your management, stakeholders and engineers to increase buy-in. When ideas don't fit the user experience map, add them or put them in a distant parking lot. Too many ideas just get added to the bottom of the backlog to appease stakeholders. Use the map to educate and focus your stakeholders. It will make their ideas even better and make them a more useful part of the product creation process.


In one client meeting, we were discussing the sending of location-based messages to users (?). But users weren't reading the messages. The original premise of the meeting was to understand why users weren't reading the messages. As we mapped the user experience, we realized the steps involved in just getting the app to "see" the bluetooth location beacon were actually preventing messages from ever arriving in the first place. Having the lead engineer in the meeting helped the team dive down into the exact steps for the user map that seemed to be causing the issues. By the end of the session, it was clear that it wasn't the content of the message to blame (our initial hypothesis) but actually the mechanism for getting the app to see the bluetooth location beacon. Among the many issues getting location-based messaging working, we encountered a non-trivial amount of users who told us that they didn't even have bluetooth turned on so that they could save battery (even though the type of bluetooth used in location services uses less than 1% of battery). In this instance, the map focused the team on the most pressing need. It wasn't the sexiest need to work on but it had to be solved before they could move on.

In another client session, we were trying to figure out why users were not using the company's chat application to connect and communicate with their experts. Users had previously interacted with these experts in person or on the phone. The team hypothesized and had some research saying that users thought both of those mediums transmitted more personality and trust during the conversation than chat. There were a lot of great ideas to solve this gap of personality and trust with chat but it was hard to know where to start. How did these ideas fit in with the user's needs and journey? While we made the user experience map, especially as we mapped the activities before the chat started, we teased out that perhaps users just perceived chat to be less personal. So ideas were separated into two buckets: one for "Chat seems impersonal" for folks who hadn't tried chat and "Chat is impersonal" for folks who had tried chat and disliked it. It turns out that the majority of the ideas from the team centered around the "Chat seems impersonal" concept and so we chose that idea on which to do further Product Discovery. In this instance, the map helped categorize ideas and shape how the team thought about the user need. When future suggestions and ideas were made about chat, the team could concretely separate them into before and after having used chat. In that process, they educated their colleagues in how to think about the user journey.

Make shared understanding, not war

Make shared understanding, not war Image Source: Derek Huether's blog

So as you're getting closer to making a user experience map on your own remember that it's key to create the map together. Many product managers or UX designers do this important work in a vacuum. Don't just make presentations to your colleagues, get them involved in the product process itself. Creating a user experience map as a group exercise is a safe, non-confrontational (generally) way to generate buy-in along the way and make the resulting product or feature better. It also reduces conflict later in the product process which can arise if you try to do big reveals of functionality to un-socialized stakeholders.

Contrary to popular opinion, the team doesn't even need to be in the same room. I frequently facilitate these sessions remotely with remote team members.

Doing this work in a group setting does get messy. But the messiness is the beginning of coalescing different opinions. Having a product manager, UX designer, lead engineer and a domain expert in the session at the same time will generate shared understanding and buy-in at the same time. And best of all, the product team will learn, learn, learn about their user while achieving the nirvana of collective or shared understanding about your user.

Very few of the teams I work with take the time to do this exercise even though the alternative is just assuming everyone is on the same page. Instead, they rely on shared documents or even worse, verbal or non-verbal (ie, not discussing at all) communications of the user experience. Jeff Patton said it best..."Shared documents are not shared understanding" his book User Story Mapping.

What the map does for you

Convincing What the map does for you...helps you find the treasure

Product managers must bring the whole company together in support of the ideas that they're developing with the engineering team for end users. Too often, they gather this support after the product is developed and just about to go to market. They need to develop buy-in beforehand by socializing the product ideas and by incorporating feedback along the way. Walking colleagues (and even clients) through the user experience map stimulates their creativity and focuses the discussion on the user needs rather than just the boss', the team's, or the client's favorite ideas.

If an idea comes to you and it can't be located on the user experience map then it could be an off-topic idea. Some of these off-topic ideas can be used for growth opportunities but they will apply to different users and different use cases and may not be in the sweet spot of your company's focus.

What the map tells you

The map creates a horizontal funnel for the user journey (most of my maps are created in a horizontal left-to-right format). It fits the funnel analogy since there will be more people starting the journey than reaching the goal. So the left side of your map is generally full of "top of funnel" ideas and the right side of the map generally has "bottom of funnel" ideas. The "top of funnel" ideas often have the most impact on a business since it drives more users through existing flows, leveraging previous software products.

How to get started

I've refined this process as I've worked with my clients. Check out my step-by-step visual approach to creating a user experience map. There are instructions and an example map. This approach actually builds a user experience map with the Product Manager as the user and the process of making the map as the map. Think of it as a user experience map for user experience mapping.

Summary: Every team learns something new (usually many things) about the user experience when they make a map together. This is a missing but truly required piece of the product management puzzle.

You can view the slide show for this article on it's own page here: A Visual Approach to User Experience Mapping

Inspirations for this blog post