How to Use Impact Mapping to Elicit Insights and Create Value in Early Discovery Conversations

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A method called Impact Mapping is gaining traction in software development. It helps teams make better decisions. But it can also be used to generate valuable ideas before anything is built – during the discovery phase. In a fierce market, being able to elicit such insights when selling can be critical for winning over a prospect. This is how it works.

If you haven’t heard about Impact Mapping before, don’t worry. After close to two decades, impact maps still aren’t mainstream. That’s a shame since they’re incredibly versatile and powerful. While they were invented by interaction designers and adopted by agile product managers, they can also be used for selling.

While I love how Impact Mapping helps us capture requirements and business goals in a single view, what’s even more relevant to sales are the discussions it fosters.

Even something as routine as a sales discovery conversation; intended to help you discover the client’s pain points, budget, and needs; can be far more rewarding. As a seller using Impact Mapping you will help your client arrive at new insights. That will in turn help position you in their mind as someone they want to work with.

Let’s see how it’s done.

A 6-Minute Crash Course in Impact Mapping

Impact Mapping is an activity that was invented to solve the problem of visualizing how business value is derived from products being used, thereby reducing the failure rate of IT projects.

The naive technical view holds that a feature automatically brings user, and eventually customer, value. As we all know, that’s not the case. A user might request being able to attach a file. After some discussion, the user story “As an editor, I’d like to be able to attach files so I can post files to the web site” will go into the backlog and be built.

But that in itself will in no way guarantee that the feature will actually be usable. It may comply with the requirement in technical terms but the user experience could be extremely poor.

Early IT projects suffered many such problems. Requirements were collected and managed without regard for user needs. As HCI (human-computer interaction) and usability gained ground, it became clearer to more and more people that this didn’t work. Projects done this way didn’t have the desired result. The creators of Impact Mapping argued that impact (or business value) is created when IT products are being used. Impact Mapping was created to visualize that link and to help build products that people wanted to use, hence generating value.

Delivering Value to Stakeholders and Users by Focusing on Goals

Aiming a football at a goal.
Aiming a football at a goal.

Impact Mapping has two premises:

  • If you get to the bottom of a project or product there’s always a higher goal. This is usually referred to as “strategy” or “purpose.” The project is an investment made to achieve that goal. That sounds rather obvious. But you’d be surprised how many IT projects that are done without team members being aware of why they’re doing what they do.
  • Secondly, for that goal to be delivered, someone needs to use the system. No users, no impact, no return on investment. This places UX at the absolute center of critical activities in software development and IT.

In practice, Impact Mapping can be summarized as:

  1. Making the purpose absolutely clear and a point of agreement, not contention, to serve as a northern star.
  2. Create total transparency regarding the metrics used to determine when that purpose is reached.
  3. Clarify the role of usability and user experience when it comes to building impactful software, apps, and websites.

Impact Mapping is an activity performed before, during and after a project. We’ll focus on before in this article but the after part is perhaps the most important. This is when insights from the system being used are fed back to improve it further. It’s also the step that many skip.

Impact Maps Help Steer and Manage Projects Towards Impacts

Impact Mapping Creates Impact Maps: An example of an impact map by Gojko Adzic.
Impact Mapping Creates Impact Maps: An example of an impact map by Gojko Adzic.

Source: Drawing impact maps

Impact Mapping results in a document called an impact map which looks a bit like a mind map. In its simplest form, an impact map consists of:

  • An overall goal, purpose or aim, answering “why are we doing this?”
  • A set of metrics to determine when the aim has been achieved, answering “when do we know we have achieved our goal?”
  • Defined groups of users (sometimes referred to as actors) with shared behavior, answering: “whom are we building and designing this for?”
  • User goals (also called impacts) for those groups of users, answering: “why do our users want to use this website and what problems does it help them solve?”
  • Capabilities (sometimes features or deliverables) that those users need the product to have so they can achieve those goals, answering: “how must we build this website so our users can achieve their goals?”

Example: Using Impact Mapping to Plan a Bus Booking Website

How would a bus company use Impact Mapping to build a better booking experience?
How would a bus company use Impact Mapping to build a better booking experience?

Let’s make this more concrete by considering a fictitious but realistic example. This is based on an example from interaction and service design agency InUse which I’ve simplified. This version is somewhat contrived and very basic.

Imagine that you work for a bus company and you’re about to join the 21st century – that means online booking. The competition is stiff so you strive to do this right. You start by doing enough research to define your aim. After discussing your brand and what your company wants to stand for you to arrive at “Zero-threshold bus journey bookings online.”

You argue that a large share of your customers isn’t familiar with computers and the process must be simple. Your metrics for determine success are the share of searches that lead to booking a trip and the average number of repeat purchases. You also want at least 80% of your users to report that the experience is pleasant and easy so you will use a survey for that.

Since you’re a diligent buyer of IT services, you hire an interaction design agency to do user research. You learn that most of your customers travel for social reasons: to spend time with friends and family. The second largest group do it spontaneously. In interviews, they talk about their goals for traveling. This is the gold you’ve been digging for. With some more user insight work, you learn what capabilities the website must have. With this in hand, your product manager, designers, and development team can start planning the work.

The resulting map could look something like this. Note that this one is intentionally incomplete to keep it simple (click for a larger version):

Sample impact map for a bus booking company.
Sample impact map for a bus booking company.

I’ve based this example on a map by InUse and I strongly recommend you take a peek at theirs. It’s full of explanations that I’ve left out for the sake of brevity.

When It Comes to Impact Mapping, the Process Matters More Than the Deliverables

When it comes to Impact Mapping, the (sometimes meandering) process matters more than the documents produced.
When it comes to Impact Mapping, the (sometimes meandering) process matters more than the documents produced.

It might seem like these maps require quite a bit of research about users to be effective. That’s not necessarily true. Impact Mapping isn’t so much about the map as the process to create it. Impact mapping involves senior business stakeholders, project managers, designers and developers working together. That’s why it’s so interesting even in an early sales stage.

This article is too short to cover the Impact Mapping process in detail. Instead, I strongly recommend picking up Gojko Adzic’s book “Impact Mapping” (paid link) to learn more about how it’s done. My thesis also has chapters on how to use impact mapping in practice. I wrote it partly to serve as a guide for product managers, developers, and interaction designers.

You Don’t Have to “Get Out of the Building” to Get Somewhere

"Get out of the building" is a catchphrase in customer development. Embraced by many startups.
“Get out of the building” is a catchphrase in customer development. Embraced by many startups.

Startups that embrace “customer development” chant “get out of the building.” That’s generally good advice. But it doesn’t mean there’s absolutely no knowledge internally.

In my experience as a consultant there’s usually plenty of knowledge in the building already. Especially at bigger customer-facing businesses. Problem is, it’s often stuck in silos. Those that design and make decisions about customer-facing systems don’t invite those with knowledge about users and clients to participate.

By inviting experienced customer service staff and those who interact with clients daily to the impact mapping process, user goals such as the ones in the example can be uncovered. I’d say just doing this together, even without user research, is way better than not doing at all. You won’t have the full picture but you’ll be making decisions from a much better vantage point than you would without it.

Impact Maps Aren’t Mind Maps

Impact maps are not mind maps.
Impact maps are not mind maps.

At a glance, the impact map above looks like a mind map. But unlike mind maps that are free-form and have few rules, these maps have a structure. Each level of nodes from the center (the purpose) is of a specific type and answers a specific question. This means the map can be used when making decisions throughout the project.

You can think of each level as being connected by why (right to left) and therefore (left to right) respectively. Imagine a developer asking “why do we need polls?”. To find out, they could consult the map. By tracing it from right to left see that it’s a proposed solution to helping users make group decisions.

The reverse also works since you can see “make decisions” and therefore “social travelers” will need “polls.” The beauty of this is that the developer can weigh alternative, perhaps more cost-effective, solutions to the problem that the polls feature was meant to solve: “group decision-making.”

The map can also be thought of as telling a story about the reasons for the project. By following these chains of reasoning, each feature can be explained and understood by anyone.

Impact Maps Bring Clarity and Help Teams Prioritize

I’ve interviewed many specialists about using Impact Mapping. More than one has told me how their colleagues have had epiphany-like experiences once they saw the impact map of the project they were working on. It showed them how everything fit together. In one case, the clarity that Impact Mapping brought helped them cut down their backlog by half. That turned an endless project into something they could finish in the next year.

How to Use Impact Mapping in Early Stage Sales Workshops

There's no Impact Mapping workshop without sticky notes.
There’s no Impact Mapping workshop without sticky notes.

At the beginning of this article, I dangled the idea that these methods can be used for selling. The example above is a scenario that would take place after a decision to invest has been made. The decision would at least be to fund a pilot study. So how can you use impact mapping when you’re trying to win over a new client?

It’s important to remember that we use Impact Mapping at this stage to frame a conversation, not to make a complete analysis. We use the dimensions of the impact map (goals, actors and impacts) as agenda points. The questions asked during this discussion allows you to guide a conversation that establishes trust and rapport.

The outcome we’re interested in isn’t a complete impact map but a prospect that views you as a very interesting person or agency to work with.

1. Impact Mapping Works Best with Qualified Good Buyers

Impact Mapping works best when there's good rapport and everyone brings a good share of humilityto the meeting.
Impact Mapping works best when there’s good rapport and everyone brings a good share of humility to the meeting.

Effective selling is often about shifting the buyer’s idea of what a successful project looks like. That you have guided them to insights and new levels of clarity speaks strongly in your favor. The purpose of this sales activity is to give you a strong positive association. That will increase your chances of closing but also boost your pricing power.

Frequently, “bad” buyers will approach you with an immature or misinformed idea of what they need. They’re different from the buyers you do want. Great buyers know their area of expertise and where it ends. They often present their thoughts with humility. These buyers are grateful to hear your ideas and questions as they know you will only strive to make the result even better.

”Bad” buyers aren’t so modest. They think they have it all figured out and just need the right cog to fit in their perfectly designed machine of a project. We recently published an article about checking prospects for cultural fit. One of the questions was regarding whether they are willing to take your advice. “Bad” buyers don’t.

When dealing with a good buyer, Impact Mapping is a way to talk about their work and shape their vision and idea of success. It’s a way to “help them [buyers] think” (which is something clients value highly). Unlike an open conversation or “brainstorming workshop,” Impact Mapping is a structured way to discuss goals, assumptions, risks, and requirements.

2. Present Your Session as a Planning Workshop

I recommend marketing your sales stage impact mapping session as a two-hour planning workshop. I think it’s wise to go easy on the “strategy” part and instead talk about your workshop in other terms. Everyone wants to be a “strategic advisor” these days and it gets tired.

I recall discussing this with a client, a major company. They said they had plenty of strategists. Their impression was that knew what they needed so they didn’t want to talk strategy with agencies.

In their case, they were wrong. They just didn’t know what they didn’t know. In fact, they’d have a lot to gain from talking to someone who could help them visualize strategy and implementation in a single conversation. But convincing them of that would take quite some effort.

3. Effective Impact Mapping Requires the Right People Mix


It’s important the buyer brings the right people to the workshop. Similarly, bring those of your colleagues who know their area of expertise well.

This isn’t a cheap sales activity and requires an investment of time from the right people. As such, I recommend you reserve it for prospects that are truly valuable and with a high probability of closing. I recommend checking the prospect for cultural fit before investing in a workshop such as this.

4. Don’t Skimp on the Meeting Space

Get a good meeting space. Plan breaks and order water and snacks. Have a whiteboard ready and sticky notes to document what is being said. Build the impact map as you discuss and as suggested by Gojko Adzic (paid link). The impact map will branch out as in the example above. The eventual outcome is often a list of requirements. However, that can be a trap.

5. Convincing the Client That This Is Valuable to Them

There’s a strong chance the client already has a list of requirements. Sometimes this list has been arrived at through proper means: user research and insights. But that’s often not the case. Either case, they likely see no need to revisit something that is “done.”

While the outcome of the workshop can be requirements, it doesn’t have to be. It’s the conversation and the topics covered that we’re interested in at this stage. We’re using Impact Mapping as a way to frame a conversation that supports the sales process going forward.

I suggest trying to understand what the client is looking for. Then you can redesign the workshop for that to ensure those questions are addressed. That’s usually a much more savory prospect to them than you redoing their work in a standing session.

6. Make Sure You Deliver Client Value, Even if They’re Not Paying for It

Knowing what the client values serves another important purpose. Even if they choose not to buy, you will have delivered value and respected their time.

Make sure you prepare the workshop well in advance. Don’t wing this. This is true value and you at your finest. That they aren’t paying for it (yet) doesn’t mean it’s something to be sloppy about.

7. Discussing Goals Using Impact Mapping as a Framework

Basketball hoop.
Basketball hoop.

At the heart of the impact map is the goal. Some refer to it as “purpose” or “aim” or define multiple goals. I prefer one goal for clarity and focus. I’d rather do one thing well and then shift focus than trying to put out all fires at once and run out of water.

Talking about goals can be tricky. They often feel vague and insubstantial. One way to get around that is to discuss the desired outcomes for the intended users instead. Some call these “impacts” and they’re usually easy to recall. Write them down on a whiteboard and ask “why?”. Backtrack to the goal or aim.

Once you feel confident the goal is covered well enough, dig into the metrics. These can be tricky. ”What’s get measured gets done” is an old cliché that still holds true in some ways. As a digital agency or consultant, you will likely know a lot about digital metrics and what can be measured accurately. This is an opportunity to leverage your hard-earned experience.

When you’ve come to some kind of agreement or definition, move on to users, or actors as they’re sometimes called.

8. Actors Make It All Happen

One neat thing about Impact Mapping is that in many situations, you can use it to make decent decisions without doing all the research homework. In an article published a few years ago, some of the originators of the method discussed this aspect.

The gist of the article is that in some cases, you can afford to take a chance and make decisions based on assumptions about users. Many startups operate this way. They forego extensive user research and instead find critical assumptions about users and then build something that tests those assumptions. One person I interviewed referred to it as “throwing shit at the wall and see if it sticks.” Depending on your strategy, this can work.

Regardless, your users or actors take up a key place in your impact map. You should discuss them at length and focus on their behaviors. It’s how they act that matters here, not their choice of breakfast cereal.

Try to understand whose problems your client is trying to solve. This is a great opportunity for you to “think with your buyer” about who these are and ways to serve them. You likely know of technologies or methods the buyer isn’t aware of. Flex your brain muscles!

This discussion will inevitably lead to features.

9. Features Don’t Equate User Needs

Impact Mapping helps you identify features that are low-hanging fruit: offering much value at low effort.
Impact Mapping helps you identify features that are low-hanging fruit: offering much value at low effort.

People love talking about features. As Gojko Adzic notes in his book (paid link), there seems to be a tendency for humans to leap ahead to features. It’s no wonder. Features are fun. They’re easy to talk about without getting into the technical or practical details of making them work.

Impact maps make it abundantly clear how features connect to user goals and by extension, business goals. While discussing features it’s important to make this link clear and try to find the “low-hanging fruit” that brings impacts at a low cost. Similarly, you should question features that cannot be reasonably tied to impacts. They are probably unnecessary.

Many take the position that impact maps should list capabilities rather than features. The project team can then discuss the implementation of features that match those capabilities as the project nears that phase of the work.

The purpose here isn’t a complete analysis but to give the client a taste of what you can do once they’ve chosen to work with you.

10. Impact Mapping Isn’t About Creating the Perfect Strategy

I believe it’s a mistake to view an impact map as a perfect battle plan. Instead, it’s a visualization of assumptions. It tells a narrative and is a way to put the project in a context that everyone can understand. It lets you modify your approach as more information becomes available. To borrow a term from the military, an impact map provides commander’s intent for a project.

It also provides a strategic helicopter view that many projects are missing. I believe many clients experience a sense of comfort knowing that you actively track, manage and follow-up on the resources poured into a project.


What Is Commander’s Intent?

In the US Army referred to as Mission command: “…Also referred to as mission-type tactics, is a style of military command, derived from the Prussian-pioneered mission-type tactics doctrine, which combines centralized intent with decentralized execution subsidiarity and promotes freedom and speed of action, and initiative, within defined constraints. Subordinates, understanding the commander’s intentions, their own missions and the context of those missions, are told what effect they are to achieve and the reason why it needs to be achieved. They then decide within their delegated freedom of action how best to achieve their missions.” – Wikipedia


Conclusion: Impact Mapping Is a Powerful Method to Guide Discovery Conversations That Establish Trust

I’ve used Impact Mapping in many early-stage client workshops over the years. It’s always been a rewarding exercise. You can also plan and prepare these workshops in advance. I have sets of presentation slides that I’ve used several times. Also, the workshop lends itself to a pre-defined format with planned breaks. As an early stage sales exercise, it’s terrific. As a way to discuss the business impact of IT projects, even better.

I hope I’ve piqued your interest in Impact Mapping. I recommend reading a bit more before getting started. Gojko Adzic’s book titled “Impact Mapping” is short and accessible (paid link) and a great start. Gojko has also freely published materials for Impact Mapping workshops he’s performed.

If you want to pick up some tips from the pros who have been doing this for a decade or more, check out my thesis on Impact Mapping and other ways to manage IT projects towards measurable impact. I interviewed some of the best impact mapping practitioners to learn their ways of working. You could call it a guide to the “secrets of Impact Mapping.”


How do you structure your discovery conversations?

Please share in the comments. I read every single one.


Photo Credits


Author: Jakob Persson

Jakob is the founder and CEO of Zingsight, the company behind Bondsai. He's been involved with the web for over twenty years and has previously co-founded and grown a web agency from 4 to 70 people. Jakob holds degrees in media technology and cognitive science. He consults in product design and management, and business development. Jakob is an experienced skier and a learning scuba diver.