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Amanda Billark

Amanda Billark

Experience Designer

How to Visualize Experience Maps in 7 Steps

The research is finished but now what? How do you effectively communicate the data?

You could give a presentation, write a lengthy report, make a detailed spreadsheet, or summarize the data into something resembling a flow chart. All of these methods will work in capturing the data, but are any of these methods going to allow the artifact to stand alone, communicate research insights effectively and be used to their maximum potential? Probably not.

I’m sure anyone would agree that reading an extensive report or diving blindly into a spreadsheet of data is not only daunting but mentally exhausting. An in-person presentation is a great way to communicate research findings but is less effective once you step away and your client is left only with your slide deck. Experience map templates provide a good start at capturing high-level data but aren’t emotionally engaging and have little to no visual hierarchy. This can be problematic as it doesn’t communicate the importance or priority of the information you are reading, or how to put research insights into action.

Over the last few years at Akendi I’ve been involved in several experience mapping projects that involved large research studies that resulted in a whole lot of findings and data. My role in these projects was to determine how best to communicate this information to our clients in meaningful and highly usable ways so not only would they be able to easily understand research findings but more importantly, identify opportunities and know what to do with them next.

It seems like everyone’s talking about experience mapping these days but it’s hard to find good examples of how to visualize them effectively. I’m talking maps with clear visual hierarchy, engaging design and a walk-up-and-use functionality and so I was inspired to write this list of tips for anyone tasked with the same challenge.

Here are 7 steps for visualizing experience maps:

1. Know the Goals of the Organization

As a designer, our first instinct is often to dive right into sketching and designing but I suggest doing a bit of homework and planning first. Before the first attempt at sketching, you should know the goals of the organization and what they hope to use this map for. Is it to capture and create more awareness of their users’ end-to-end experience? Is it to hone in on pain points of the experience as a tactical tool for improvement or innovation? Is it to inspire an organization-wide cultural shift towards user-centred thinking? This is the most important question to ask at the start of any experience map visualization project as it will immediately focus your efforts so you aren’t spinning your wheels the wrong direction and ensure you’re creating a useful tool for your client.

 2. Know Your Audience

It’s important to know the map’s audience so you can begin to strategize the amount of data and how you will go about communicating it. For example, if it’s to be used as a tool for internal teams who have intimate knowledge of a product, they may not need as much of a background or detailed explanation of what phases or tasks their users flow through. The map might get more into the finer details of the experience (i.e. details around how personas differ from one another in performing these tasks, their unique pain points, etc.) as this audience is more likely to have a longer attention span and may enjoy diving deeper into the finite details – using it as more of a tactical tool to improve the work they’re doing.

On the flip side, if your map has a broader audience (i.e. the whole organization) you’re going to want to take a different approach. For this audience, I’d suggest a more high-level communication approach. As a whole, this audience isn’t likely as invested in the finite details and facets of the experience and so it’s best to communicate high-level findings and opportunities instead of diving into the nitty-gritty details. Since their attention span for interpreting the map likely isn’t as long and their understanding not as intimate, a highly visual story is best for this audience so the map can be scanned, read and understood at a glance.

If your audience is both broad and focused (ie: it’s being shared across the organization but also used as a tactical tool for researchers and designers) you may want to combine tactics and use very strong visual hierarchy, so the map can both be scanned at a glance by the wider audience, and also used tactically to dive into the finer details by a smaller, more invested audience.

3. Know the Research

Effective visual communication also requires a deep understanding of your content. If you aren’t the person who’s conducted the research, you need take extra effort in understanding it. Not only does this require reading research documentation, attending research presentations and workshops but also building a collaborative working relationship with the research team. Have frequent touchpoints with researchers throughout the process, involve them in co-sketching exercises and content editing. This will go far in helping you create a more accurate and authentic map that both your design and research teams can be proud of.

4. Prioritize Content

Once you know the high-level goals of the maps use, it’s audience and the research behind it, it’s time to start prioritizing content. Again, hold off on sketching and make a list of all the content buckets that will be included on the map, and then start to prioritize it. After doing this you may wish to omit some research data areas/buckets from the map altogether if they don’t support the communication goals of the project. This doesn’t mean this research is wasted, it’ll still be in reports or slide decks, it just may not be necessary or beneficial to the maps larger purpose and in some cases, actually hinder the maps ability to be easily comprehended and used as an effective tool.

After making your priority list, it may look a little something like this:

  1. Experience Phases
  2. Pain Points
  3. Tasks
  4. Personas
  5. Opportunities

…or like this:

  1. Experience Phases
  2. Personas
  3. Pain Points

…or like this:

  1. Emotion
  2. Personas
  3. Experience Phases
  4. Tasks
  5. Pain Points
  6. Opportunities

5. Sketch and Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

Now, this is where the fun starts! Doing the legwork in planning your content priority, goals and audience can make beginning to sketch out the map a lot less of a daunting and overwhelming task. Start by considering the overall shape of data. Is the experience a linear, one-way kind of flow or is it more of a repeated cycle better represented by a circular shape or loop? I would suggest starting this phase by quickly sketching out various rough iterations of how to visualize the phases of the experience first and then tackling the rest of the content. I suggest stepping away from the computer and sticking to pen and paper at this point as you’ll feel more freedom to play and explore. It’s important to note that at this stage we aren’t incorporating all of the data here, it’s more about the overall form each content bucket might take. As mentioned earlier, include the research team in co-sketching exercises to add their own ideas to the mix.

Once you have some options, try to evaluate what is working in each of the options and what’s not and –your research team can help here too. For the next iteration, try stitching together pieces you liked from various concepts into a larger cohesive map (still on paper) playing close attention to the intended hierarchy. Sometimes I’ll literally cut out pieces from my sketchbook and tape them together in different ways for a more unrestricted, playful and exploratory process. Your goal here is to create a cohesive composition so the map feels like a single piece with intentional visual hierarchy. Once you have a few options that you feel are working here it’s time re-evaluate pulling the research team and client back into the process for their feedback and then to move the best ones to the computer to start visualizing your concept sketches using the real data.

6. Bring the Data to Life by Creating a Visual Story

Here is where I ask myself: What is the story you want to tell and how can you use visual elements like colour, typography, illustrations and icons to communicate the story to the viewer? Where does the experience start? How do we let the viewer know where to look first? Use hierarchy and graphic elements to draw the viewer’s eye to the desired target and compose an obvious flow for the eyes to follow in an intentional direction.

Next, think about which findings about the experience are critical to highlight in the map. For example: Do some users drop off or abandon before we want them to? Are there large concentrations of pain points in one area?  Use visual elements like contrast, scale, colour, linework and icons to highlight these findings and draw attention to them on the map. Think of the at-a-glance viewer here and make sure that these areas can be seen and noticed quickly upon first viewing the map.

Now you should have the bones of your maps composition and hierarchy worked out and it’s time to start filling in the details.  When pulling in the rest the data take advantage of any opportunity to replace lines of text with imagery or icons. Humans process images 10x faster than words so use icons wherever possible (within reason of course) especially when you want people to compare things on the map (ie: compare data between different personas, easily identify phases, goals or emotions). Make sure to keep icons iconic and universal in nature so their meaning is obvious and doesn’t leave too much room for ambiguity.

Colour, when used strategically is also a great way to immediately communicate meaning on the map with very little effort needed on the viewers part. Think about what emotions people naturally associate with different colours and use that to your advantage (i.e. green for positive, red for negative). You may also want to colour code personas in order to show their unique journeys through the experience and code pieces of data to them.

7. Make it Theirs

Ultimately the success of a map relies on if it is used and adopted as a go-to tool within the organization. So how do we go about making it feel like it belongs? This is where branding comes in. Incorporate brand assets such as colour, font, logos and language into your map so it feels like it’s a part of the organization and feels familiar to those using it. Make it fit in and be seen as another brand asset to inspire people to use it, display it as art in the office and feel ownership over it.

I hope these tips help you on your way to creating beautiful, purposeful and effective experience maps. Have any tips of your own? Please share in the comments.

Amanda Billark

Amanda Billark

Experience Designer

Amanda brings 9 years of multi-disciplinary design experience to Akendi’s visual team. She holds a degree in Industrial Design from OCAD University and has a deep understanding of user needs, emotional psychology and design process. Equally creative and analytical, she loves strategic problem solving as much as creating. Her diverse background enables her to create work that is equally beautiful and smart, matching user and business needs with great design.


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