Let’s Talk Maps and Mapping

Interested in mapping services, ecosystems, stakeholders and beyond? Join us as we explore how other disciplines approach mapping and what we can take away as design researchers and service designers.

We have been thinking a lot about system maps and mapping recently and more specifically about how much we take the practice for granted in the field of service design and design research. Ecosystem maps, service blueprints, customer  journey maps and the like have become so commonplace and accepted as tools of the trade. Simply buy the books and be on your merry mapping way. 

Of course we all know that it is not that simple. Those new to the field might think that a service blueprint is the result of a solo two-hour worksprint. And while this might sometimes be possible, good service blueprints are more commonly the result of many interviews, hours of desk research, group conversations and feedback sessions with an array of stakeholders. They are developed iteratively, and often collaboratively, through a sensemaking process that seeks to understand different layers in a complex system from multiple perspectives. Even upon delivery, one is often not satisfied; the process could go on forever. 

Some of the system mapping ‘tools and templates’ widely used in the fields of service design and design research from This Is Service Design Doing (left; source) and the DIY Toolkit (right: source).

Mapping is hard work

The processes of user journey, stakeholder and ecosystem mapping are much the same. The first iterations you will make are more like sketches: a hypothesis of what you think the system looks like with the limited knowledge available to you at any given time. The map might look quite vague and general, and you realise there are many gaps to fill. After conducting early interviews, the map starts to morph as you notice you overlooked a step in the process, or perhaps a stakeholder who you thought was peripheral actually plays more of a crucial role. Then it dawns on you, after speaking to both users and organisational stakeholders, that the system looks completely different from their respective perspectives. Which perspective do you map? How much detail do you provide? Should you make two different maps?  

It is at this moment that you realise that everything is a lot more complicated than you initially thought. You scrap your various draft maps, thinking ‘this can’t be right’, ‘it’s too complex’, ‘the system/service/journey is too dynamic to map’. But it is actually these moments of doubt and uncertainty that are the most important in the process. The process of mapping is as important as the map itself- and sometimes even more so. 

Perhaps we are making it harder for ourselves

But we often fall back to thinking that maps should all be as close to the ‘truth’ as possible right away- that the most accurate visualisation of the system in question will just magically appear as proof that we have ‘figured it out’; we have been able to make chaos digestible in the form of clear, boxed steps, clean lines of interaction and exchange, and a smooth process from start to finish. We might throw in a few loops and squiggles to indicate significant divergence or unpredictable behaviour, but for the most part we present order and clarity. The messy drafts are binned, and the conversations around them become distant whispers, if not forgotten altogether. 

To get to a final, ‘delivered’ map (if such a thing exists) requires a lot of research and analysis, in addition to many tough decisions. Ultimately, mapping is hard work. But I think we make it harder for ourselves by not embracing the process, and having a dearth of language with which to understand, speak about and overcome the challenges we face. We can also do better in communicating maps and mapping to clients and stakeholders, so they too can embrace the inherent uncertainty and value in the process with us. 

There’s a lot to learn from mapping in other disciplines

Luckily, service designers and design researchers aren’t the only people who do a lot of mapping. Systems visualisation is something practiced across disciplines and there is a lot we can learn and appropriate from various fields. Concepts like projection, selection, generalisation, and deconstruction taken from cartography are all quite relevant to our process, for example. The concepts of drafting and axonometric projection, from architecture and engineering, help articulate the iterative process of moving from abstract visualisation toward more precision. And the idea of nested systems from ecology helps us understand and conceptualise how systems are embedded in and interconnected with one another. The list goes on. Looking further afield not only helps us appropriate useful frames for our own processes, it helps us to define and articulate what is unique and distinct when it comes to the process and outcome of mapping in our field. 

Looking to how other disciplines, like cartography and architecture, describe their mapping processes might help shed light on how we can better think about and communicate the practice in our field. Concepts like projection, selection, generalisation (illustrated left: source) taken from cartography are all quite relevant to our process, for example. The concepts of drafting and axonometric projection (illustrated right; source), from architecture and engineering, are also relevant.

How can we learn, adopt and adapt?

As service designers and design researchers grapple with more systemic issues, and subsequently must understand, make sense of and map more complex systems, we need to sharpen our tools, methods and language. Visualising complexity is one of the key ways that service designers add value, and it is something that sets us apart. How can we further add value? Over the coming months, we will be sparking (and in many cases continuing) a series of conversations around this topic with colleagues and peers over informal cups of coffee and in more formally organised workshops. We hope to explore topics like: 

  • What can we learn and appropriate from mapping processes in other disciplines? 
  • How can we better embrace uncertainty and tension throughout the mapping process? 
  • How can we better integrate various perspectives in our mapping process and the final deliverable?
  • What is the relationship between documentation, analysis and visualisation?

We also hope to collect stories of maps and mapping from peers in our field and on its fringes. We are particularly interested in those who have been more experimental in their mapping, exploring approaches like:

  • Mixed-media and interactive maps and mapping
  • Speculative mapping and maps
  • Mapping as storytelling
  • Layering quantitative and qualitative data

We aim to keep sharing our learnings and questions via posts and events, and ultimately hope to compile another STBY publication (alongside Viewfinders and Pioneers) on this topic. So if you are interested, watch this space and/or get in touch!


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