Using Impact Mapping to
navigate Product Discovery

Product Discovery is rarely linear, let alone foreseeable. There’s also no one-size-fits-all approach to doing it “perfectly.” As a result, product teams need to have high confidence in their Adaptability to pick from and execute a broad range of techniques.


Written by Tim Herbig 

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Last Updated: July 29 2021

Impact Mapping Product Discovery Article Header Image

While a Product Discovery process varies by organizational environment, one particular theme emerges when you ask product managers about what is holding them back from running more effective product discoveries: Connecting the insights and evidence collected for making informed decisions toward delivering products that make a difference. With a high required degree of Adaptability during Product Discovery.

Here’s how this article will help you:

Navigating the Uncertainty of Product Discovery

Product Discovery work is all about uncovering new user segments and understanding existing ones even better. It’s about making sense of user insights and changing user behavior through iteration and improvement. While the execution of the above activities already poses a challenge, keeping them on track during the messy reality of product discovery is an even bigger one.

Now, what if there were a way to organize the elements mentioned above in relation to each other? What if this connection would not only help you to get stakeholders and management on board but would also help you sideline pre-determined feature ideas? What if it also encouraged you to document evidence and product discovery insights and to structure your overall product discovery efforts?

One of the most effective ways I have come to known throughout my career to achieve just that is Impact Mapping. Avoiding jumping from an overarching business goal straight into solutions is vital for outcome-oriented product management. And the 5-level structure of an Impact Map is a helpful constraint to avoid exactly that

The structure of an Impact Map encourages product teams to map the inputs and insights of their Discovery, supporting a focus on the immediate next steps and a focus on understanding the problem space first.

Product Discovery Problem Space and Solution Space

The Product Discovery Problem Space and Solution Space

Impact Mapping is the helpful bridge product teams need to connect the two things executives and stakeholders care the most about: progress toward business goals and individual feature ideas.

While the original concept of Impact Mapping has been around since 2012 (and its roots for even longer, I want to focus on my adapted version of it that I found to be more supportive for problem-focused Product Discovery efforts.

Structuring Product Discovery through Impact Mapping

Structuring Product Discovery through Impact Mapping

Let’s take a closer look at the five levels of the Impact Map and how they can help product teams navigate Product Discovery.

Start your Impact Map with WHY this Product Discovery matters

This level is about clarifying the context and need around a product discovery initiative. It helps the team connect their actions to the company’s success.

That’s why I like to refer to the goal listed here as an impact. An impact metric helps you to describe how the success of a specific strategic priority looks from a company or department perspective. An impact can be derived from Product Management OKRs or Product Strategy and should be manifested through a collaborative alignment artifact like the Mission Briefing or similar.

As impact metrics are often lagging indicators whose change depends on many projects/initiatives/events coming together, product teams need something more tangible to measure progress. That’s why Outcomes help a team know that they got to the place where the business wants to be, by looking at measurable changes in the behavior of users or stakeholders.

Leading Lagging Indicators Outcome and Output Sequence and Difference

Leading Lagging Indicators Outcome and Output Sequence and Difference

This metric should help the team frame its mission in relation to a current strategic priority. After all, you don‘t run product discovery just for the sake of doing it.

WHO has a problem, that matters to your Discovery?

Now it’s time to map out the ACTORS that have a Problem, that prevents you from making progress toward the IMPACT.

While it might be easy to list some of the very obvious actors right away, uncovering second-degree actors is where the magic happens. By digging deeper into a seemingly mundane interview or survey response, you might be able to map out actors you haven’t paid attention to before e.g. relatives of your users, administrative supporting roles, or read-only users which still matter to your product. So, in short: You don‘t just want to look at actors from an external perspective like users or customers, but also including internal roles which could matter, like stakeholders.

One of the biggest benefits of the Actor categorization is that it creates a structure to look beyond your obvious power users and encourages you to uncover adjacent actors that could also be relevant for your success.

Identifying Adjacent Actors during Product Discovery using Impact Mapping

Identifying Adjacent Actors during Product Discovery using Impact Mapping

The idea of differentiating power users and adjacent actors was coined by several practitioners at Reforge. From a Discovery perspective, it describes the problem of not being able to look ahead because you’re stuck, due to the gravity of your current most important segment. That’s why the adjacent actors describe the evolutions users can experience, whether it’s in terms of product usage or monetization.

And though the ACTORS of an Impact Map don’t have to be limited to adjacent actors, they can certainly help to uncover two or three relevant ACTORS—especially if you’re able to quantify the shift between these states. 

Teams can use this and the following HOW level as a landscape of their problem space by treating it as an evolving element. As soon as a new actor or user behavior “appears,” the decision of whether it’s worth pursuing can be answered by holding it against an Impact Map.

Mapping HOW you have to change behaviors

At this level, we aim to answer the question of HOW we have to change the behavior of the actors listed above, in order to change the overall impact.

This tricky thing is that there’s no place where we can just grab those outcomes. Instead, the items listed here are the result of running and interpreting qualitative and quantitative research. People won’t tell you how they have to change their behavior so your company can make more money.

You need to understand their current workflows, pains, and gains, in order to derive behaviors worth changing. However, you don’t want to focus on all the behaviors worth changing, but only on those which have a chance of contributing to the impact.

As Josh Seiden puts it, an outcome is “a change in human behavior that creates value.” And the above-mentioned impact metrics will only change as a result of specific customer behaviors coming together. Outcomes are a clear description of these different customer behaviors.

Listing the changes and the direction you want to take them (higher vs. lower, faster vs. slower) is fine during the rough phases of the mapping. Later on, select and focus on specific Outcomes to pursue and add a specific number to them to continuously measure the progress of your product management OKRs.

Framing Outcomes through How might we...? Statements

Framing Outcomes through "How might we...?" Statements

The secret superpower of an outcome on the HOW level is if you re-frame it as a challenge for the ideation sessions on Level 4 of the Impact Map:

“How might we [your intent as a team] [actor] [outcome]?”

“How might we enable real estate agents to create a real estate exposé from their smartphones?”

This should also serve as your litmus test if you’re talking about an actual outcome or slipped into discussing features already. Next, you should use these proven Outcomes as the foundation to measure the progress and success of your efforts. For example through co-creating your product team OKRs with your peers.

Due to its summarizing structure and the ability to highlight gaps in user insights, an Impact Map can also act as a very helpful input for the OKR definition of product teams.

Creating and prioritizing WHAT Solutions could drive change in behaviors

While many people get most excited about this level of the impact map, it’s actually one of the least important. This stage aims to articulate WHAT potential solutions the team could pursue to cause the desired changes in behavior. It’s time to enter the solution space.

To tackle this level, product teams should run cross-functional ideation sessions with permanent, temporary, and supporting Product Discovery collaborators. By embracing re-combination and iterative group sessions, the WHAT level probably fills up quickly.

Just as with every item on the Impact Map, it’s important that the pure presence of an item on the map doesn’t guarantee execution. Instead, it’s more about creating potential paths worth pursuing. When wrapping up an ideation session with your team, this might be important to mention to manage expectations the right way.

What is important though is a prioritization of your next steps. After all, you will always have more ideas at hand than time to experiment. Therefore, lightweight structures like ICE scoring can be extremely helpful.

Prioritzing Product Discovery Outputs through ICE Scoring

Prioritzing Product Discovery Outputs through ICE Scoring

Furthermore, it adds an objective, yet flexible and evolving prioritization criteria to your experiment structure. Which can be organized through the Idea Validation Grid or other frameworks that are focussed on the idea worth testing, not just a test itself.

Validating Solutions to determine your Confidence in their Success

The elements on the WHAT level shouldn’t be taken for granted. Not everything which has been brainstormed will be implemented. In fact, I recommend wrapping up the ideation sessions with this disclaimer, to set expectations for the remainder of the discovery process.

This level of the impact map helps you answer WHETHER you should pursue an idea. It’s time to validate those shiny new ideas through experimentation (not gut feeling). 

You can customize this level of the impact map depending on your experiment setups. Make sure to be explicit about the assumptions you’re looking to validate and document your results. The insights from your qualitative AND quantitative experiments should then result in a filtered selection of the WHAT level items you want to continue to pursue.

Structuring Product Discovery Validation through Impact Mapping Experiments

Structuring Validation through Impact Mapping Experiments

I recommend teams zoom in on their validation efforts at this stage by using frameworks like my Idea Validation Grid or other experiment-focussed structures.

Connecting the Dots of Product Discovery through Impact Mapping

A crucial test for checking an idea against the content of an impact map is to see whether you can form a narrative across all levels, explaining why you want to pursue a feature idea. Based on its fit for the overarching business priority, the most relevant actors to achieve that priority, proven changes in behavior of these actors, and the evidence you collected about the validity of an idea to drive bespoke change in behavior.

You can also use your impact map to check new ideas against the pieces of evidence you have in place. Does this idea help to create a change in behavior we have prioritized? Not sure? Let’s prioritize validation around it and place it as a bet on the WHAT level. Did a new user segment emerge from continuous research activities? Great, time to expand the map and discuss this discovery as a potential priority for the team.

Adaptable Product Discovery Phases and Process

Adaptable Product Discovery Phases and Process

The various scenarios for using Impact Mapping as a vehicle to navigate and structure Product Discovery is also why I made it an integral part of my Adaptable Product Discovery Course. In it, I share the specific details of how individual Product Discovery activities relate to the various Impact Map levels.

Keep the map visible to remind yourself and your team of what you have accomplished, and as an evidence locker to revisit and expand over time. Because after all, that’s what product discovery is about — Gathering evidence to support our decision-making processes.

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