Plan Features with Impact Mapping: A Visual Method for Product Development

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.

Plan Features with Impact Mapping: A Visual Method for Product Development

Discover how to use Impact Mapping to focus on the following features you want to create for your product and ensure every step brings you closer to your goals.

Imagine you're planning to buy a car. This purchase represents a significant expense. There are numerous ways to approach this decision, from simply winging it to turning it into a well-structured project.

If I were to buy a car, my approach might resemble the following (read from left to right):

An Impact Map for Buying a Car

This Impact Map would be a work in progress until I purchase the car. Up to this point, I have identified various stakeholders (referred to as "actors" in Impact Mapping, such as car dealers) and considered how they can assist me (e.g., by providing discounts) and what actions I need to take to obtain their help. It's worth noting that not all potential assistance will be necessary. However, this map outlines the primary activities that could bring me closer to my goal of buying a car.

Does that make sense? Here is a more systematic description of a method that is most times used by Product Owners.

Why Impact Mapping?

Impact Mapping offers numerous benefits for Product Owners and teams:

  • Collaboration: Impact Mapping is a highly collaborative process that involves stakeholders, Product Owners, and development team representatives, fostering productive discussions and shared understanding.
  • Efficiency: The method helps teams identify the most valuable features, saving time and resources by prioritising what matters most.
  • Alignment: Impact Mapping ensures that every feature contributes to the overall goal, keeping the team focused on the big picture.
  • Assumption Testing: The map highlights the assumptions made during the planning process, enabling teams to design experiments to validate or refute them.

The Impact Mapping Process

Typically, the impact map is created in a workshop setting with relevant stakeholders and team representatives. Participants collaborate to identify the following elements, one level at a time:

  • Goal: Start by clearly defining the primary objective. It should be an actual goal, not a deliverable (e.g., "6 million weekly signed-in users" instead of "New sign-in system"). Avoid over-specifying the task with a plan to achieve the goal. For instance, "Getting more customers by creating a mail-based marketing campaign on X" is not a good starting point. Instead, use broader goals like "Getting more customers," which allows flexibility in choosing whom to involve, how to involve them, and what support is needed.
  • Actors: Determine the users and other parties who might be impacted by the product (e.g., signed-in users, guest users, customer services). These actors can either help or hinder your initiative. As Gojko Adzic, the inventor of Impact Mapping, puts it: "Whose behaviour do we want to impact?". Be specific when identifying actors. For example, instead of generic terms like "Friend," use actual names. Distinguish between "secondary actors" who provide services and "primary" actors whose goals directly impact the final goal.
  • Impacts: Assess how actors can help achieve the goal, prevent it, or be otherwise impacted. Ask yourself, "How should our actors' behaviour change?". In some cases, this might involve one-time changes, like providing requirements. In others, such as improving a website, the desired change may be repeatable, like encouraging visitors to spend more time on the site.
  • Deliverables: List what can be delivered to achieve or mitigate impacts. This includes features and other actions like recruiting additional support staff. The critical question is, "What can we do to support the required impacts?".

Consider your Impact Map a living document. Keep it updated when you get new ideas, when features are delivered and especially when you learn something new.

From Impact Map to Backlog

An impact map can facilitate meaningful discussions and decisions during its creation and when reviewing the results. Some examples include:

  • Descoping features that don't fit into the impact map and therefore don't contribute to the goal, saving effort and resources.
  • Adjusting the priority of deliverables contributing to a particular impact based on its importance.
  • Comparing multiple features contributing to the same impact and prioritising the one with the most significant potential contribution.

Final Thoughts

The value of impact maps extends far beyond prioritising features against one another. The exercise helps generate features in the first place while ensuring that each one contributes to the goal. Moreover, impact maps reveal the assumptions made during the process, enabling teams to validate them.

For further reading on impact mapping, consider Gojko Adzic's book, "Impact Mapping," and Magnus Dahlgren's article on Determining Value Using Impact Mapping.