Impact mapping – what is it?

Written by Nicola Pritchard, Principal Service Designer, CX Partners

Fresh from holding a number of impact mapping workshops and webinars over recent months, I’ve been considering why impact mapping is gaining so much traction at the moment. Packed conference audiences are one sign, as are the conversations with our clients, who regularly tell us it’s something their team or company needs and wants. So, why is this? What is the rush for impact mapping, why are we so invested in developing the methodology, and introducing it to every client we work with?


What is impact mapping?

Definitions and methodologies for Impact mapping vary. For me, in its most basic form, impact mapping is a way of exploring the shorter and longer term impact of your products, services or organisations. It’s a way of setting out your intent around what you hope to happen as a result of what you deliver. 

In some spheres, impact mapping is a tool for tracking product success or organisational success. However, I tend to use impact mapping as a process and tool for ensuring our products and services are sustainable – for people, for society, and for the planet. So a more accurate name for it would be ‘impact mapping for good


What does it involve? 

A backwards mapping process. Starting with your end goal, or ‘impact statement’ (something that is meaningful to your users and to society, not to your organisation), working backwards through long/medium/short term outcomes, and then ideating opportunities and solutions for achieving those outcomes. 

More advanced mapping can see you layering on further components – enablers, assumptions, evidence, indicators, mechanisms of change, feedback loops, the list goes on. It’s a tool and process that can be applied to simple problems as well as complex systems problems. It all depends on the scale and boundaries that you set. 

The methodology I’ve been using is rooted in Theory of Change; over the past 2 years we’ve been testing and evolving the way we use it to match the needs of our work and teams, who are at the coalface of service and organisational design.  Whilst the technique is relatively new to service designers, Theory of Change has been used for decades in the non-profit and public sector domains as the foundations for impact measurement and evaluation.

What I love most about impact mapping is its versatility. Service design briefs are almost indefinite in their variety and scope. So any kind of ‘universal’ approach has to cope well with variety and adaptability. I think impact mapping provides this. 

At its worst, it surfaces healthy debate amongst teams for what you aim to achieve and how. At its best, it sets organisational direction, forces you to reconsider your solutions, and helps you identify more meaningful things to measure.


When to do it?

Due to its versatility, impact mapping can be used in a variety of situations. A few examples are:

  • When your team lacks clarity on the legacy you want your product or service to leave in the longer term
  • When there’s a gap between your long term ambitions and what you’re delivering day to day, in other words there’s not a clear picture of  how what you’re doing is laddering upwards
  • When your team has avoided considerations about the societal and planetary impacts of what you’re delivering
  • When you’re unclear on what to measure and how, or are finding yourselves reverting to organisation-centric metrics rooted solely in things like profitability, productivity or growth.
  • When there’s disagreement about where your service is headed and there’s a need for re-alignment. 


What about when to do it on a project?

Ideally, you want to use impact mapping as soon as you’ve got an understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve, and keep revisiting it as your understanding of the problem, users, and solutions evolves. But realistically you can jump into this exercise at any point in a service development lifecycle. The tool itself is a living document and intended to move with your team throughout the discovery, alpha, beta journey. 


The bigger picture

Impact mapping is one part of a three step journey; 


  1. Scanning for impact – understanding the context, understanding users, identifying the right problems, exploring risks, harms, opportunities
  2. Mapping the impact – aligning on impact and outcomes, identifying assumptions, connecting what we do with what we want long term
  3. Measuring the impact – setting up to measure what matters, gathering resources and infrastructure to target the right things. 


As a tool and process, impact mapping can bring vast amounts of clarity and structure to purpose-driven teams looking to identify and measure the long term value of the services they deliver. Over the coming months I and the team here will be sharing more guidance on ways to embed impact mapping into your day to day. There is lots more to it than meets the eye and I’m pretty sure you’ll be as hooked as I am once you get started. 

If you have found this interesting then do join me when I shall be sharing more about these three stages as part of an upcoming webinar ‘Using impact mapping to prioritise the right things’ as part of a Customer Centricity Month 2023, alongside Naomi Shearon – Strategy Lead at Sport England. Sign up now if you want to find out more.

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