The Map Trap

How to avoid the Map Trap and use Service Design to achieve your outcomes

Alessandra Canella
Service Design-in’


Maps as the outcomes. When I was working in consultancies, some projects were all about a special deliverable. ‘Client X wants a customer journey map of their grocery shopping experience’ or ‘Client Y needs a blueprint of their rental service’. Since I started working in-house, I realised the same applies occasionally — ‘This team needs a map for their return process’.

As a designer, people reach out to ask for help to map a thing. It can be a new process, a new value proposition or an existing service that they know needs improvement. Mapping is something that practitioners across the Service Design and User Experience fields are usually very comfortable with. The visual aspect of it really helps with a shared understanding of the thing: having it in front of everyone’s eyes makes it clearer.

Here is the problem with maps: they can never be the outcome. The alignment that is reached going through the mapping of the thing is the outcome. Somebody will tell that it’s the same, but it’s really not. Framing why we are mapping a thing is crucial to set our own expectations as well as the ones of our peers and stakeholders.

What do you want to achieve?

That’s the key question.

A map! I just want a map.

If you think a map is going to solve your problems, there are a number of risks you are likely going to incur, such as:

  • having one person, the Map Creator, being responsible for it and
  • all the people who support the mapping are likely not truly engaged, if anything happens/gets decided that has an impact on the map they might not share it back with the Map Creator and therefore
  • the map becomes easily outdated and therefore pointless
  • the Map Creator will move on to something else and the map will be forgotten. The end.

This is the Map Trap. The Map Creator will get frustrated with this kind of task and will perceive his contribution as limited, the people asking for the map won’t achieve what they needed to. It’s a vicious cycle that can be broken if you stop thinking about outputs and start thinking about outcomes.

Alignment! I just want alignment.

If what you want is alignment/clarity/xxx, then a map of some sorts might be handy, but

  • who will take the lead on it? Craft the role of the Map Facilitator. How would you describe it? What is their focus? Maybe the user experience of people going through the thing? Which are the meetings they have to attend? How long will they stick around? What will happen once they are gone?
  • agree with stakeholders (decision-makers, PMs, …) what’s the best way to record processes and decisions: is it a map, a Notion decision log, or what else? What do they prefer and why? What would they feel confident editing and updating themselves?
  • understand where decisions are taken and who attends these meetings, to make updating it a collaborative effort.

It’s fundamental to do this. Whatever the outcome you are thriving for, it’s definitely going to be a collective responsibility getting there and it’s not one only for the Service Designers around.

Ok, then, it sounds like you are going ahead with a map. Before getting started, I find it useful to reflect on:

  • the breadth of it: is it fully end to end, from awareness to post-sale, or is it about a specific moment within the journey, e.g. the check-out experience?
  • who is the right person to do the mapping: how many teams are across the thing? if multiple, is there anybody holding all the pieces together? what would a potential Map Facilitator need in order to do this job — e.g. what kind of relationship with the existing teams?
  • the granularity I will need to achieve: high-level/macro step vs step by step, defining roles, systems and timeframes?
This is a flow to get through a number of questions. Question 1: do you think you need a map [like a journey map]? If no, good for you. If yes, how many people/teams are working on the thing you are trying to map? If 1  — ok, it sounds easy but you need to figure out who will contribute and how, the medium you want to use, the granularity you want to get to. If more than one person/team is working on the thing, how granular do you want it to be? Option 1 — very granular. Option 2 — not much.

And now, the ugly truth. A map is a Polaroid. It stands for a precise moment in time for your organisation or client. Depending on how quickly things change, it might stay relevant for a day or six months. Therefore maps are never done, they are just a tool to get somewhere. But the good news is that by framing maps differently, Service Designers won’t be the only accountable.



Alessandra Canella
Service Design-in’

Mum x2, Head of UX @Cazoo, Italian immigrant, Mega Mentor co-founder and FutureGov alumnus