Principles of cartography applied to service blueprinting

As a designer with a passion for maps, I am interested in the principles of cartography as they relate to design practice.

Cartography — the science and art of map-making — has a long history tracing back to ancient times. Maps were critical tools for exploring the geography of our world, used as visual platforms of geopolitical debate, and serve as foundations for data visualization. While today’s approach to map-making has shifted from paper to a more digital and interactive format, what hasn’t changed is the importance of thoughtful visual communication to translate real-world data into tangible artifacts in aid of human understanding.

The concept of representation

Thinking further about what makes an effective map, a core concept is representation. Representation suggests that data distortions and trade-offs always have to be made because maps are limited 2D (flat) interpretations of the 3D world—they are ultimately inescapable from human interpretation, decision-making, and bias. All maps have the propensity to mislead and miscommunicate information and so it is the responsibility of a cartographer to make decisions on what data to keep, what to omit, and how to visualize data in the most honest, yet compelling way.

How does mapping relate to service design?

Service design is a design discipline that focuses on planning and orchestrating how organizations can be more customer-centred. The primary job of a service designer is to work collaboratively behind the scenes with a variety of internal and external stakeholders (especially customers), to reimagine the way people interact with one another, as well as the technologies, policies, materials, processes, communications, and infrastructure surrounding them. Yet sometimes a service designer must also act as a cartographer. Instead of making geographic maps in the traditional sense, service designers create maps called service blueprints.

Road maps and service blueprints both help people navigate complex information. While road maps help people navigate the physical geographic world, service blueprints help organization navigate the external and internal facing operations of a service offering.

What is a service blueprint?

Service blueprints are flowchart diagrams that aim to communicate the complex operations of a service from the customer’s perspective. They are maps because they share the same intent: to help people see and navigate the real world. While there are less formal rules when making a service blueprint compared to traditional map-making, a general structure does exist.

Example structure of a service blueprint. The top row represents key service steps from the customer perspective. The next two rows summarize the people and different channels they interact with across each step. Finally, the last two rows reveal some of the invisible back-end infrastructure required to deliver the service.

What can service design learn from cartography?

Service design is still a young discipline compared to cartography and there is an opportunity to add more rigour, transparency, and healthy skepticism around the visual maps we create. There are two basic principles we can apply from cartography to service blueprinting.

1. Establishing “standard projections”

Map projections are mathematical transformation of points on earth (longitude and latitude) onto a 2D surface. Common examples include the Mercator and Robinson projection. Every map uses a projection and there are many types of map projections for different purposes. The reason why there are so many types of projections is because information distortion occurs one way or another. Selecting the right projection depends on the intent of the map which informs what aspect(s) of the earth you wish to preserve (i.e. distance, direction, scale and area). For example, Google Maps follows a standard Mercator projection, which preserves direction but exaggerates areas far from the Earth’s equator. This would make sense as we use this map for navigation. But it is also why if you zoomed out, Greenland would appear to be the same size as Africa when it is actually about 14 times smaller. In contrast, a Peters projection preserves the relative size of countries, but not the shape, resulting in a map where the continents appear elongated. In 2016 architect Hajime Narukawa developed a new award winning projection called AuthaGraph that aimed to represent all land masses and seas as accurately as possible.

The equivalent of a projection in service blueprint design relates to the map structure. This means making a decision on what key customer data from user research to emphasize and what to leave out (i.e. service steps, customer actions, customer emotional states, employee frontstage/backstage actions, support systems, processes, tools, physical evidence, time, measurements for success, etc). Based on my experience creating service blueprints for a range of clients, I have compiled a few ideas on what service blueprinting “standard projections” might look like:

  • Customer Emotions. This would be a service blueprint that intends to build empathy for customers by emphasizing customer actions, emotional states, and pain points. It can include images (sketches, photographs, graphics, etc.) from field research to elicit an emotional response among viewers.
  • Operational Steps. This would be a service blueprint that focuses on steps, flows, and front-and-back-end processes. It would emphasize formal stakeholder actions and interactions, physical evidence, time, supporting systems, processes, and tools.
  • Priority Areas. This would be a service blueprint that intends to steer organizations into service improvement or solution mode. It would emphasize data revealing the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for service improvement defined by both customers and/or employees of the organization.
  • Measures of Success. This would be a service blueprint that intends to track the success of each service step based on the broader company strategic vision and goals. It would emphasize organizational key performance indicators (KPIs) associated with specific customer interactions and internal strategic documents.

2. Identifying common types of service maps

Another key consideration in cartography is deciding on the type of map to use when displaying data. Common examples include general reference maps (for physical features of an area), thematic maps (for topic or themes), topographic maps (for physical landscapes), navigation charts (for water, land, air), and cadastral maps and plans (for property). During election time, one of the more controversial types of map you may encounter is a political map because it uses government or administrative boundaries to divide land rather than geographic features raising questions around borders and how they can arbitrarily group households into statistical categories. Different resources will categorize types of maps differently but the general rule of thumb is to be clear about the intent of a map and include specifications acknowledging any issues associated with the map.

The equivalent of map types in service blueprinting can relate to the use case, or objective, of the map. Selecting the appropriate type of map to create depends on the content, purpose, and intended audience. Service blueprints can be visualized differently to tell different stories about the data. Here are a few types of services blueprints I have observed:

  • Process-Oriented Map: Used for testing out processes. This blueprint looks like a systems diagram as you would imagine an engineer’s schematic to be: outlined squares, circles, arrows, and fail points. It is intended a map to help people work through service bugs for thinking and communication, not intended to be a beautiful masterpiece. The first cited service blueprint was introduced in 1984 by a bank executive named Lynn Shostack? She mapped out variations of the shoe shining process as a way to show how blueprints can be valuable tools for testing out processes. Her blueprint looked like a systems diagram as you would imagine an engineer’s schematic to be. It was appropriate because the intention was to work through service bugs, not to be a beautiful masterpiece.
  • Current State Map: Used for aligning and rallying people to a service as it exists today. This blueprint is like a snapshot of the present moment and does not attempt to speculate how the service might change in the future.
  • Future State Map: Used for aligning and rallying people to an new ideal future version of a service that does not currently exist. This blueprint is more speculative and tends to be much less detailed, but visually appealing and polished as they should reflect a vision for success.
  • Hybrid Journey Map: Used for deepen understanding of the end user’s experience while relating it to a service offering.

A few final guiding questions

Whether in geography or design, good mapping begins by taking a step back to ask a few key questions about the intent of the map:

  • What do we hope to achieve by creating a map?
  • Is a map even the right deliverable?
  • How might the map be potentially misleading?
  • What is the best data to include?

For anyone enthusiastic about diving into the world of service design and service blueprinting, remember that all maps are representations of the real world that have the propensity to do good, but also mislead and miscommunicate information. Make appropriate design decisions around content, purpose, and intended audience, and have an open discussion about those decisions. It is through a healthy skepticism of the maps we create that will help us elevate our craft and industry.

Happy mapping!