The Importance of Mapping Ecosystems and Understanding the Scale of Design

Jennifer Fraser | December 22, 2017 | 2 Min Read

Working with clients in complex domains, such as healthcare, has made it clear the importance of understanding the “system” into which we are designing. As designers, ecosystem mapping is one of our most valuable tools to help us visualize and understand systems.

Working with clients in complex domains, such as healthcare, has made it clear the importance of understanding the “system” into which we are designing. As designers, we have a myriad of tools in our toolbox to help us visualize and understand systems, but the one we have found most valuable is ecosystem mapping.

When mapping out an ecosystem for a client, we want to understand the people, processes, tools and information that interact with each other, and where the flow of value is through that system. An ecosystem can be looked at as a meta-journey – the summary of the experiences that happen around a product, or products.

This is where the notion of scale comes into play. If the ecosystem is a meta-journey, you can zoom in and choose a specific area of that ecosystem and look at a single journey within that area of the ecosystem. By zooming further into that journey, you can see that it is made up of a series of touchpoints between people, processes, tools, and information within an environment or environments. You can further zoom into an area of that specific journey and look at the interactions within it, and those interactions can again be even further broken down into Micro-interactions (as visualized in the diagram below).

Why is this important? Well, to quote from the movie The Matrix, “Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You’ll have to see it for yourself.”

We are often brought in to help a client fix a specific problem that they have identified. By going through a Discovery Session with the client, during which we usually map out the ecosystem, we are often able to uncover other previously unseen issues related to the problem, or, unintended consequences of focusing on a certain interaction or journey without taking into account the impact that adjustment will have on other parts of the system.

As designers, this ability to visualize – to make the invisible visible – is a powerful tool to help others understand the relationship and connections between things that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Mapping the connections between various stakeholders (internal and external), processes, tools, and information, allows everyone to clearly understand the scale at which the work needs to be done (ecosystem, journey, touchpoint, interaction, microinteraction). This process equips teams with valuable information that can then be used to identify what can be done to increase the value flowing through the system.

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