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Product Management: Impact Mapping

Impact Mapping is a graphic strategy planning method to decide which features to build into a product. As it begins with the intended goal and extends out from there, all identified features have a direct impact on achieving that goal and a clear rationale for how they will do so. Impact Mapping was introduced to the world by Gojko Adzic in 2012 in his book Impact Mapping.

What is impact mapping?

With similar origins and fundamental principles to story mapping and mind mapping, impact mapping is a visual method for feature identification and prioritization. It quickly illustrates the path from the primary goal to a specific feature by identifying the relevant actors, how they can help achieve the intended goal, and what functionality is required for them to perform those desirable actions.

That way, with the goal at the center of impact mapping, more time can be spent on identifying and defining the goal more than anything else. The rest of the exercise could lead the project in the wrong direction without the right goal. If you can answer the following SMART goal questions than your goal is in the right direction”

Is it Specific?

Is it Measurable?

Is it Action-oriented?

Is it Realistic?

Is it Timely?

Impact mapping incorporates multiple viewpoints, experiences, and opinions. When you conduct multiple impact mapping exercises with different groups, you can deduce where there are overlap and divergence of impact deliverables based on the biases of the different cohorts.

What purpose does impact mapping serve?

A completed impact map can serve multiple purposes. For the executive team, the business impact can be illustrated and provide a clear relationship between investments in product development and the attainment of set goals. With the goals clearly illustrated, the exec team has confidence that features are prioritized appropriately and can help to shut down any arguments around resource allocations that are unrelated to the primary goals.

On the product development side, the features (or deliverables) are all tied directly back to goals. This prevents any feature or scope creep that doesn’t directly improve the chances of successfully accomplishing the intended objective.

And for strategic customers, impact maps can also be used as a tool to explain feature prioritization decisions. Those customers (or a customer advisory board) could also be asked to participate in their own impact mapping exercise.

Why is impact mapping important for product managers?

Companies often get so caught up in building a solution that they forget what problem they were trying to solve in the first place. Products morph over time and the end result doesn’t always map back to the original goal, which can lead to product-market fit issues or bloated products with unnecessary features for their core purpose.

Impact mapping helps product teams maintain their focus on the primary objective of the initiative by mapping everything back to that goal. If a feature doesn’t come out of the impact mapping process, then it probably doesn’t need to be in the product at all.

It’s also an excellent tool to explain to other stakeholders why certain features are being prioritized and why others are not. Since impact mapping is simple and visual, it’s easy to digest. Plus, it’s 100% focus on goal attainment it makes it hard to argue with.

Impact mapping is based on assumptions. The company assumes that a particular type of actor will make an impact on the goal. Therefore, additional validation must occur to confirm the use cases are valid and the prioritization is justified.

But impact mapping is particularly good at ruling out certain features that don’t have a direct tie-in back to the agreed-upon goal.

Impact mapping can also play an early-stage role in exploring various ways to accomplish the primary goal. By exploring all of the potential actors, impacts, and deliverables, product teams can visualize the many different ways to get to their desired destination and then research and select paths with the greatest chance of success.

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How to build an impact map

Impact maps are visually quite simple—they start with a single element (the goal) and then branch out from there. For each step through the process, there may be one or more branches.

It is very important to go through these steps sequentially, as they all build upon each other. If you skip to the end, it would completely defeat the purpose of the exercise. The point is to only identify deliverables based on the preceding branches (and the rationale behind them). They look like this:

Example 1: Goal: Generate word-of-mouth marketing

You’ve got a great product, but need to get current users talking it up to their peers.

GoalWhoImpactDeliverable
Increase WOM MarketingCurrent UsersTalk about benefits on social mediaSocial media prompts in the app
Create hashtag campaigns
Drive referralsRewards program for referrals
Future UsersShare that they’ve started using the productIncentivize social media promotion by giving a discount if they post about the product at sign-up
Get users to include social media handles during sign-up for future promotion activities
Marketing StaffPromote influencer usersFeature users on our social media channels

Now let’s dive into each component of the impact map.

1. Goals = Why?

Define the goal at the nexus of the map. In short, what is the product trying to achieve?

It’s worth it to grind away on this one and really boil things down to the core objective of the entire endeavor. Goal definition will influence the entire trajectory of the exercise (and eventually the product), so it’s vital to get it right.

2. Actors = Who?

Various people (and groups of people) will play a role in the success or failure of the product to achieve its goal, so it’s worthwhile to be as granular as possible for this step.

For example, while all products have end-users and customers, are there multiple types of users? Is the product serving multiple industries? Are there both end-users who interact with the product and others at customer organizations who might have an interest in how the product works despite the fact that they don’t use it themselves?

Are there other actors outside of customers that also play a role in the product’s success? For instance, internal staff (product development, sales, marketing, support, etc.), distribution channels, strategic partners and suppliers. They should all be called out to see if their impact requires any specific deliverables for success.

Another aspect of this stage of impact mapping is to include not only the actors who can help you achieve your goal but also those who might stand in the way of a deliverable of some kind.

3. Impact = How?

Now that you know what you’re trying to accomplish and who will play a role, it’s time to identify what role you want each actor to play to help you get there. This is much different from typical modeling of user behavior, as it is all goal-oriented versus focusing on the tasks people are trying to accomplish.

Then you want to identify the specific behavior you want to incite that will advance your chances of achieving your goals. Such as, spending money or recommending the product, completing tasks more efficiently, or spending more time on a web site or in an app.

Don’t forget to factor in what actor behaviors should not change to achieve the goal.

4. Deliverables = What?

Finally, the impact mapping includes the features the actors will use to create impacts, along with things that make it easier to use and incentivize the desirable behavior.

Once these deliverables are identified they can be vetted based on merits and validity toward goal achievement ultimately driving final prioritization.

Now that you’ve reviewed the different components, let’s look at another example.

Example 2: Goal: Increase onboarding completion

You know you’ve got a great product, but users have much more success when they’ve been fully onboarded.

GoalWhoImpactDeliverable
Increase onboarding completion by 20%Future UsersImport contactsIntegrate with Facebook
Automate Office365 Import Process
Complete first orderTime-based discount incentive
Current UsersComplete their profilesAutomatic reminders to finish the profile process
In-app prompt to enter one incomplete field at a time without taking them out of the workflow
Customer SuccessIdentify and proactively support customers that haven’t completed onboardingCRM-integrated dashboard with real-time status of task completion

Conclusion

Impact mapping is another helpful item in the product manager’s toolbox. It can be used both at the nascent stages of product definition, during ongoing development when trying to figure out what to build next, or as a sanity check within a product development cycle.

They shift the focus back to the “why” from the “what” so product managers are able to escape from feature-centric thinking and make prioritization decisions based on the intended end results. Build consensus within your organization about what the product is trying to achieve and how it’s planning to get there with impact mapping.