Is impact mapping a service designer’s secret weapon?

Digital Leaders
7 min readJul 5, 2023

Written by Emily Horgan, Experience Design Capability Lead, Sopra Steria

Impact Mapping has long been used as a tool to measure impact, but often much further into the service or product development journey. We had a theory — if we added Impact Mapping to our toolkit and brought it earlier in the design process, would that deliver better outcomes for our people and teams?

As user-centred practitioners, we are familiar with the challenge of creating impactful services that meet the needs of the people who use them, while also aligning with business need and policy outcomes. While many of the tools in our kit aim to achieve this, having a method to create services that are not only well designed but also have a measurable impact on the lives of service users, is very appealing.

To test our hypothesis, we built out an in-depth, interactive workshop which we ran with some talented people from our own teams and across government. Before we share the insight, let’s first look at how we brought the participants on a journey to understand impact mapping and its value.

What do we mean when we speak about impact?

As a starting point for the workshops, we asked our participants the following:

What does ‘having an impact’ look and feel like to you?

We received a variety of interesting responses, including:

  • motivating
  • scary
  • empowering
  • it can feel demoralising
  • daunting
  • it can give meaning
  • it’s all relativ

For us as a design team, ‘impact’ is the sustained change that you aim to see within people or environments who directly or indirectly engage with your work.

We break ‘impact’ down into three key elements:

  • Impact is the sustained effect of what we deliver, over the long-term
  • Impact is something important and meaningful to our users, not just to the service or the organisation
  • Impact happens at different scales and with different perspectives — individual, organisational, community, policy, society, planet

How do we articulate ‘impact’ in practice?

To articulate ‘impact’ in practice, we use ‘impact statements’. These statements summarise the impact you want to achieve with your work. They might actually look similar to your project’s or organisation’s vision statements.

For example, an impact statement may be:

  • ‘Higher levels of safety across communities in the UK’ ​
  • ‘More collaboration and respect between teams’​
  • ‘A reduced carbon footprint by 2025’

To ensure that impact statements are person-centred and relevant, it’s best to use research and community engagement to inform them. We would also encourage you to keep them succinct — one or two sentences is ideal.

Impact statements form a fundamental part of the overall impact mapping process, and in our workshops, we asked participants to come armed with impact statements that were relevant to their current work.

We made sure the impact statements were the right ‘scale’ by assessing whether they lived at a societal, organisational or individual impact level. Focusing on individual or organisational impact can be helpful if you are looking to achieve impact on things like team dynamics, project outputs, culture within an organisation, or growth. However, for this particular mapping exercise, we wanted to focus on societal impact — this leads to outcomes like equality, diversity, inclusion, justice, wellbeing and resilience.

What is impact mapping?

Impact mapping is a strategic process. It’s a tool for setting clear intent around the positive impact we want to achieve, and mapping the journey for getting there​.​

It’s a method for gathering team consensus on our longer-term objectives and challenging our assumptions around how we think positive change occurs. ​​

The collaborative and inclusive process is as important as the output. Ensuring a range of perspectives are represented is critical to a good output. It’s also helpful if the process is facilitated by an external party to help hold the space for those contributing. ​​

Impact mapping forms the foundations for what we measure, enabling us to learn whether what we’re doing is having a positive effect​. It helps us contextualise our service, helping us to see the bigger picture of we contribute to long-term change.​​

Impact mapping can take a variety of forms, and a range of frameworks — including the ‘ 5 dimensions of impact’, logic models, outcomes stars and the theory of change. Which framework you choose, and the way it looks, matters less than 1) who is in the room and 2) the discourse it generates.​​

How does impact mapping help us?

Impact mapping is a useful way of ensuring we have a shared understanding of what we’re aiming for in our work. It helps us to:​

  • Think more long-term​: It encourages us to place what we’re doing in the context of our longer-term goals​
  • Challenge assumptions: We can challenge our assumptions and develop hypotheses about if and how positive change is likely to happen in our work​​
  • Establish a process​: Impact mapping establishes a process for setting impact targets that go beyond our day-to-day, and a roadmap for getting there​​
  • Focus on small steps whilst working towards the long-term​: We focus on the journey of change and the short-term steps laddering up to long-term impact​
  • Measure what works:​ It provides the foundations for what to measure, enabling us to understand what works, and how we’ll go about it​

What we learned

We’ve taken some time to digest our findings from the various workshops. Here we explore some of the key themes and takeaways:

  1. Impact mapping needs a coordinator and requires a level of practice.
  2. Scale and scope should be both real and achievable, as well as holistic and ambitious.
  3. Identifying the distinction between outputs/delivery and outcomes can be difficult
  4. There is a great opportunity for impact mapping to be a co-design activity, with co-production to reach shared definitions.
  5. Use research and community engagement to ensure you know the problem you’re trying to solve is something that matters to those you serve.
  6. Bringing different perspectives into the room is vital — from policy leads to software engineers. The diverse perspectives and context will make the impact map all the richer.
  7. Impact mapping success can be dependent on the personalities in the room — be mindful of introverts and extroverts, and make sure everyone’s voices are heard.
  8. It can be easier to focus on the short-term than on the medium and long-term
  9. Iteration is key. Use your impact map as a living document.
  10. The benefits come from the discourse that a map encourages, not just the map itself. This is why we typically say that impact mapping is both a process and a tool.
  11. Be willing to challenge and be challenged. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when exploring an impact map.

In summary

We started with a hypothesis. Can impact mapping be used as part of the designer’s process to create even better services?

We’ve explored impact mapping during a series of in-depth interactive workshops, carefully analysing the discussions and their outputs. What we discovered was that yes, impact mapping is a great opportunity for organisations to create better services. But it needs to be used as part of a wider kit bag of tools.

Next steps

It’s clear from our sessions that impact mapping can be a powerful tool that not only helps us but also helps our teams and our service users. It can help us gain a better understanding of the various factors that influence the success of a service, and break down silos, particularly in larger programmes of work.

Fully understanding the scope of impact mapping and its limitations is a good place to start. Following our suggested next steps will help ensure that your impact mapping process is useful, inclusive and in itself, impactful.

Here are some key steps to take to introduce impact mapping into your team today:

  1. Prioritise — Impact mapping can feel overwhelming, because so many potential outcomes are generated in a short period of time. Prioritise your map — which programmes or outcomes you might want to focus on first? What aligns most to current strategy? What is high impact/low effort (shortest circuit through the map)?
  2. Further Research — If conversations in your impact mapping session felt like they were rooted in a lot of assumptions, conduct research to learn more about the problem you’re solving, and the best ways to go about it.
  3. Operationalise — Take your outcomes and plan how to implement them in practice. What changes in services, teams, ways of working, ways of measuring, might there need to be?
  4. Conflict Resolution — Impact maps can cause conflict in opinions and approaches. You may need to facilitate a session where these conflicts are managed and worked through.
  5. Write a narrative — The more confident you become with your map, the more you can build out a narrative around it. To learn more about narratives, read more on their role in Theory of Change.
  6. Share your maps — Look at the language and accessibility of your work and get it ready to share with a wider set of stakeholders. Be sure to set expectations on what stage/fidelity the map is at.
  7. Revisit your measurement plans — What new insights and metrics might you need to capture to build confidence in what works?

Impact mapping is a key enabler of collaboration — supporting teams in gathering around a common goal and breaking it down into achievable steps. It is also a strong motivator — often in our work, we don’t always get to see the outcome of longer-term initiatives immediately. Knowing exactly how our work contributes to a longer-term goal helps teams stay motivated and reminds them of their role in the bigger picture.

More thought leadership

Originally published at https://digileaders.com on July 5, 2023.

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