Wardley Maps 1 — True user needs

Joe Blair
Joe Blair
Jan 16 · 4 min read

This is the first of a series of posts I’m planning on my use and interpretation of Wardley Maps.

If you are new to mapping, I’d suggest watching some of Simon’s talks on YouTube, for example:

I find maps extremely useful as a way to structure my own thinking about product strategy — starting at the top of the map, with the user.

What does the user need?

Most Wardley Maps start with a user linked to the product or service the map is about. To take Simon’s favourite tea shop example:

Each line here represents a need — the public (and business) need cups of tea. Cups of tea need cups, tea and hot water… etc etc.

And so lots of the maps I see look something like this:

As a product thinker, I’d suggest these maps miss possibly the most crucial question of all: what is at the heart of that user need?

Why does the person need a cup of tea?

(We could go off on a tangent here about how Starbucks is not so much a coffee chain, but a ‘third place’ using coffee as a currency for renting a comfy chair. Or explore this story about how people buying milkshakes didn’t really care about the milkshakes.)

If we start our map with an assumption that the user simply needs our product or service, we’re already on very dodgy ground.

Mapping Kodak in the 1980s

Let’s take the example of camera technology — we could draw a simple map like this of the Kodak business model in the 1980s.

What a great business! They have met a universal need with a commodity solution and the profits are rolling in.

But of course we know what happened next. And so the question becomes, what could Kodak have done to better predict and adapt to change?

One simple step: don’t just assume that people need your product. Instead, try to understand how your product meets a specific, timeless need for real people.

With the Kodak example we quickly realise this isn’t easy — there are multitudes of reasons that people needed photographs.

Do we map them all? Of course not… but I think maps are far more useful & meaningful when they explore one specific, genuine need.

As a parent of young children the choice for me is obvious:

Now we’re getting somewhere. As a parent, I want to capture the life of my child.

That need has been around forever, and will be around forever. The need is universal — what changes, with technology evolution, is how people meet that need.

Kodak had cornered the market for camera and film technology. They hadn’t cornered the market for capturing the life of children.

Not when this happened:


If the purest purpose of Wardley Maps is to explore how needs can be met over time, as technologies evolve — then you’d better make sure you’ve pinpointed a timeless need at the top of your map.

Anchoring the map to a specific need like this really pushes you to think about the user and the competitors you might face.

I even wonder if this is something that could become more standardised in mapping itself. Shouldn’t every map start with a timeless, solution-agnostic need?

Next up: how maps can help us explore product USPs.

Joe Blair

Written by

Joe Blair

Director of Product at ScholarPack. Fan of good technology, good writing, good design, good anything, and Eric Cantona.

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