May 1, 2023
Impact Mapping: Ultimate Guide for Product Teams
As a product team, it's essential to know what you're building, why you're building it, and what impact it might have. But keeping everyone aligned and focused on the same objectives can be tricky. Even though most teams take time every month or quarter to define their strategic objectives, they still often find themselves drifting away from their original goals. It’s no surprise that one of the challenges many product managers complain about is lacking strategic direction.
That's where impact mapping comes in. Impact mapping is a strategic planning technique that helps teams identify their objectives, the behaviors they want to encourage, and the impact they hope to have. In this article, we'll explain what impact mapping is, how it can help product teams become more outcome-driven and why it’s a great tool for creating and maintaining strategic direction.
What is Impact Mapping?
Impact mapping is a visual tool that helps teams connect their key deliverables (e.g. features, products, experiment) to their main objectives, by focusing on the impact these deliverables can have on certain actors (i.e. users, customers). The key is ultimately to think about the customer behaviors that you need to influence in order to drive your outcomes. Impact mapping is often a collaborative process that involves stakeholders from different departments and helps to align everyone on the same goals. At its core, impact mapping helps teams answer the following questions:
What are we trying to achieve?
Who do we need to help in order to achieve it?
What behaviors do we need to encourage?
What do we need to build to encourage those behaviors?
One of the benefits of impact mapping is that it can help teams stay focused on the outcomes they want to achieve rather than just delivering outputs. It helps teams avoid the trap of building features without understanding the impact they will have on the end-users.
Why is Impact Mapping Important for Product Teams?
As mentioned above, impact mapping is a key tool for helping product teams become more outcome-focused instead of output-focused. Where outputs are the features and functionalities that a team builds, outcomes are the results that those features and functionalities aim to achieve. Teams that are solely output-focused often find themselves building products and features without fully understanding how they might impact their user’s experience and thereby the main business goals. And in an environment where good prioritization is the key to success, focusing on outcomes is crucial to avoiding building features that users don’t actually need – something that still happens too often, with studies showing 80% of features struggling with adoption.
Impact mapping helps teams understand the impact they hope to have with their product by defining their outcomes and then working backward to identify the outputs they need to deliver to impact those outcomes. It’s an exercise that helps teams avoid the "build it and they will come" mentality by forcing them to think about the behaviors they want to encourage and change and the impact those changes will have on their goals before they start building anything.
When Should You Use Impact Mapping?
If you’re having trouble prioritizing your backlog and roadmap, impact mapping can be a valuable tool at any stage of the product development process. You can always reverse-engineer an impact map based on your current roadmap to sanity-check whether what you’re working on actually impacts your objectives. That said, impact mapping is particularly useful during the earlier stages of product discovery, because an effective impact map can save you time and prevent you from pursuing ideas that won’t be impactful. If you’re working on defining your objectives and understanding the customer context, an impact map is just another tool that can help you connect the dots.
Impact mapping can also be useful in situations where teams are struggling to align on the same objectives. It can be shaped as a collaborative process that involves stakeholders from different teams to get everyone aligned on the same goals and priorities.
The Role of Outcomes vs Outputs in Impact Mapping
As mentioned above, outcomes are the results that a team hopes to achieve with their product (often formulated as a desired change in user behavior), while outputs are the features and functionalities that a team builds. Outputs are necessary to achieve the desired outcomes, but they should never be treated like the end goal. Products and features should always be built to have impact on a specific outcome, and it’s crucial to understand that outcome before any outputs are defined.
Focusing on outcomes rather than outputs is critical for product teams because it helps them stay focused on the impact they’re trying to have. It's easy to get bogged down in building features and lose sight of the big picture. Impact mapping helps teams create focus and understand whether and how every output they define contributes to a key outcome.
How to Create an Impact Map?
You can create an impact map on your own but it is often most impactful when done collaboratively with other stakeholders and teams. Here are the steps to creating an impact map:
Step 1: Define the Objective (The ‘Why’)
The first step in creating an impact map is to define the objective. What is the goal that you hope to achieve with your product? The best objectives are specific and measurable and reflect the larger strategic goals within your business.
Step 2: Identify the Actors (The ‘Who’)
Once you've defined the objective, the next step is to identify the actors whose behavior you need to change in order to achieve it. These can be different types of users, personas or segments that play an active role in the success of your product or service. For more holistic impact maps, you can also take into consideration other external actors such as stakeholders within your company.
Step 3: Define the Impact (The ‘How’)
The next step is to define the impact you hope to achieve. What is the change in ‘actor behavior’ that you need to encourage in order to achieve your objective? This is the connecting line between your outputs and your outcomes because it focuses on how you want to impact your user’s experience and how doing so ties back to your goals.
Step 4: Align the Deliverables (The ‘What’)
Finally, you need to ideate and align your deliverables to the impact you defined. This is often the easiest part because chances are you already have a huge backlog of ideas to choose from. The key here is to identify which deliverables can help drive the change in behavior among your actors to have maximum impact on your objective.
Impact mapping example: increasing the average cart value for an e-commerce store
Imagine you’re a product manager working at an ecommerce company and your main goal is to to improve the average cart value at checkout. Your impact map would look as follows:
Objective: Increase Average Cart Value
Actors: Existing customers, new customers
Impact: Customers add more items to their cart, customers purchase higher-priced items
Product recommendations based on previous purchases or browsing history
Cross-selling and upselling techniques at checkout
Discounts or promotions for customers who purchase a certain amount
Personalized email marketing campaigns for high-value customers
A/B testing different pricing strategies for products
In this example, you can directly see how the deliverables link back to the goal and how there are distinctions between the potential actors and the behaviors you can influence. These variables are always present in any product decisions, but it’s with tools like impact maps and opportunity solution trees that you can see the nuances that ultimately could determine the success of your new products and features.
The difference between impact mapping and opportunity solution trees
A question that often gets asked is what the difference is between an impact map and an opportunity solution tree. Both opportunity solution trees and impact mapping aim to drive outcomes for product teams. They share many similarities, and it's likely that the idea behind opportunity solution trees was originally inspired by impact mapping. However, there are some important differences between the two techniques.
Impact maps are high-level and focus on the bigger picture, identifying the overall goal and the potential impact of your product and feature ideas on the business. The ultimate goal of impact mapping is to see the connections between your deliverables, the changes in behavior you’re looking to encourage within your actors and the objectives you’re trying to reach.
Opportunity solution trees are more tactical because they are more granular and aim to zone in on the problems you need to be solving for your users. Similarly to impact maps, opportunity solutions trees also start with an outcome, but instead of explicitly identifying actors and impact, they identify and prioritize the key opportunities (i.e. customer problems) that need to be solved in order to drive the outcome. In opportunity solution trees the idea of ‘actors’ and ‘impact’ are woven into the outcome itself, which is often formulated as a desired change in user behavior.
An example of the granularity within opportunity solution trees is that you will often break down your opportunities into sub-opportunities – smaller problems that are more manageable and actionable.
Essentially, impact maps and opportunity solution trees are similar and offer the same sorts of benefits. While impact maps are high-level and more useful for creating alignment across different teams, opportunity solution trees are better for product teams that want to dive deeper into an outcome and the customer problems they need to solve.
→ Use Reveall to automatically generate opportunity-solution trees and other types of maps. Get a free trial here.
Impact mapping is a valuable tool for product teams because it helps them stay focused on the outcomes they want to achieve rather than just the outputs they deliver. By using impact mapping, teams can ensure that every product or feature they build has a clearly defined impact on the right actors and the ultimate objective.
Impact mapping is a collaborative process that is most effective when it involves stakeholders from different departments, helping teams align around the same context and goals. It's a valuable tool for product teams that want to navigate the endless influx of ideas and become more outcome-driven.