impact mapping

What is impact mapping?

Impact mapping is a visual planning technique that aligns project processes with business objectives. In software development, impact mapping is used to form project requirements and create a development strategy.

In impact mapping, development teams first define goals and identify the groups of people that will influence those goals and the features they will work on. Then, teams prioritize features based on their ability to help the team realize project goals.

Impact mapping was first conceptualized by consultant and author Gojko Adžić in his 2012 book Impact Mapping: Making a Big Impact with Software Products and Projects. Organizations can use impact mapping in any project planning context, but often apply impact mapping to software development.

Why use impact mapping?

Overall, impact mapping can improve collaboration and team decision-making.

Impact mapping is useful because it creates a project roadmap where every feature is linked to an explanation of why it has been included in the plan. This visibility into the connection between processes and goals both illuminates hidden assumptions a team might make about certain processes and helps teams document the decisions they make.

Impact mapping's inherent focus on goals enables teams to be flexible and adjust processes without going beyond the scope of the project. The technique creates enough structure to prevent scope creep while enabling the flexibility to adapt to changing priorities and stakeholder feedback.

For customers, impact mapping provides a strategic explanation of feature prioritization. For the executive, impact mapping links investment in the product development team with the achievement of that team's goals, ensuring sound resource allocation.

Beyond the pros listed above, impact maps can support teams with the following:

  • Help teams clarify their goals.
  • Guide teams to define a vision for a new project.
  • Eliminate strategies that aren't actionable.
  • Create consensus around the goals and scope of a project.
  • Limit work that doesn't directly support goals, such as development team's "pet projects".
  • Help teams identify new avenues for achieving existing goals.
  • Help teams reduce project scope to include a manageable, achievable number of goals.
  • Can help increase productivity by cutting out unnecessary work.

Who uses impact mapping?

Impact mapping suits Agile software development teams because of the combined focus on goals and margin for flexibility, enabling iterative development. Impact mapping can apply to any strategic development effort, however. In Agile, impact maps can be used to support user stories. A user story in Agile creates a simple description of a software requirement in the product backlog. They are written in the format: "As a <type of user/role> I want <to do this> so that <reason>." User stories should map to branches of an impact map. If they don't, a team knows they shouldn't prioritize that user story.

How to make an impact map

Impact maps consist of four basic components: the goal, actors, impact and deliverables. These correspond to the why, who, how and what of a project. To create an impact map, a development team should define each of these components and relate them to each other. Below are the steps a team should take to create an impact map:

  1. Define the goal. The goal is the why of the impact map. There is one goal per impact map and the goal influences the rest of the components. The goal is a problem that the team wants to solve. By clearly defining the goal, the project team aligns itself with business teams. Goals should be specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and timely -- also known as SMART goals. An example goal might be to increase sales by 15% in Q3.
  2. Define the actors. The actors are the who of the impact map. These are the individuals or groups that can influence the outcome of the goal in some way. They might help achieve the goal or they might obstruct it. Actors might be customers, users, stakeholders or team members. Teams should aim to be as specific as possible when defining actors, and account for all potential influencers both inside and outside of the organization. Actors are sometimes referred to as personas.
  3. Define the impacts. The impacts are the how of the impact map. The impacts explain how each actor affects the outcome of the goal and detail the actions that actors should or should not take. Impacts are changes in behavior. Teams should be specific when describing the changes in behavior necessary to achieve the desired outcome. For example, if the actor is the sales team, the impact might be to improve conversion rates.
  4. Define the deliverables. The deliverables are the what of the impact map. These are the features of the project that enable the behaviors necessary to achieve the desired outcome -- the impacts. Deliverables might also discourage behaviors -- not doing something is an impact, too. For example, if the goal is to get users to increase engagement with a food delivery app, the deliverable might be a push notification that reminds the user of deals on the app at certain times of day.
  5. Draw the impact map. Link the components of the impact map. Start with the goal. The actors branch out from the goal, the impacts branch out from the actors and the deliverables branch out from the impacts. Actors use the deliverables through impacts to achieve the goal. It might help to start with one actor, impact and deliverable to match with the goal, then expand from there, instead of defining all actors, then all the impacts, then all the deliverables. Impact maps can be drawn out physically -- on paper, sticky notes, a whiteboard -- or created using a mind-mapping application.

Examples of impact mapping

Here are some example impact maps.

Example 1

Consider a company that provides a food delivery app. Their goal is to improve user engagement with the application by 10%. The impact map for this scenario might look something like this:

Goal Actors Impacts Deliverables
Increase user engagement by 10% Current users Use the app more Personalized notifications
Loyalty program
New users Download and use the app User-friendly onboarding
First-order discounts
Restaurant partners Drive more orders Promotional partnerships
Exclusive deals
Marketing team Enhance visibility Social media campaigns
Influencer marketing collaborations

Example 2

Impact maps are frequently represented as mind maps. Mind maps show the flow of influence from the goal, through the actors and impacts, through the deliverables.

In this example -- represented as a mind map -- consider a subscription box company that wants to increase sales by prompting customers to purchase box add-ons. Stylists choose initial selections and offer suggested add-ons. Customers can also select items to add to the box.

Depiction of an impact map as a mind map
Mind mapping software can be used to create impact maps and emphasize the connection between components.
This was last updated in May 2024

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