“Could it have been the drawing of maps that boosted our ancestors beyond the threshold which the other apes just failed to cross?”
– Richard Dawkins
Have you ever wondered why the Business Model Canvas spread like wildfire?
To me, the answer is clear. It’s a simple, visual tool that communicates the key elements of a business model on one sheet of paper.
Think about that. How many of you could have articulated what a business model was before the canvas was available?
I’m sure most of us would have mumbled something along the lines of, “it’s how a business makes money…”
But we’d be wrong. That’s a revenue model.
The business model canvas not only defines the 9 key elements—value propositions, customer segments, customer relationships, customer channels, key partners, key activities, key resources, revenue, and cost—but it also displays them visually helping us to see important connections.
We can see that customer segments, relationships, and channels impact our revenue and that key partners, activities, and resources impact our costs.
We can see that we deliver value via relationships and that we acquire customers through channels.
And the business model canvas does all of this on one page. That’s powerful.
That’s the power of a map.
Richard Dawkins is spot on in speculating on the role maps played in the cognitive development of humans.
According to Barbara Tversky, a cognitive psychologist at Stanford University, we develop spatial competence at a young age and it’s critical to our survival. Humans used imagery to communicate before language developed.
Sketching Helps You Think
Using visuals in the creative process is important. It helps you think.
It’s easy to consider ideas in your head. It’s when you sit down to put them on paper that the work becomes challenging.
Drawing requires getting specific. It requires making ideas concrete. You have to define something before you can draw it.
This requirement of specificity helps you to think through your ideas.
It also helps you to see your ideas in new ways.
Let’s hear more from Barbara Tversky:
“Design is an iterative, cyclical dialectic view where sketches serve to instantiate design ideas as well as to stimulate new ones. In each cycle, designers express their ideas externally, on paper, and then examine, interpret, and perhaps reinterpret them. This inspection of the drawings may inspire changes in design ideas, which are put down again on paper to be reexamined again, reconceived, redrawn, reexamined, and so on.”
Drawing allows us to examine, interpret, and re-arrange our ideas. This continues in a virtuous cycle, where each iteration helps us to further evolve our ideas.
But sketches do more than that:
“They [Sketches] also provide a token for the contents of working memory, relieving the dual burden of holding the content and also simultaneously operating on it. Instead, computations and inferences can be made on an external representation.”
When we hold our ideas in our head, we spend our mental energy on retaining the idea itself.
When we draw our ideas, they talk back to us. – Tweet This
Tversky further explains:
“People are limited simultaneously by the amount of information they can keep in mind and the number of mental operations they can apply to that information. Memory limitations can be reduced by offloading memory to external displays that can be inspected and reinspected. Similarly, mental operations can be facilitated by putting the information relevant to particular operations in spatial contiguity and by taking advantage of people’s enormous capacity for recognizing many different patterns.”
Because maps help us externalize our ideas and relieve our working memory, we often uncover unintended consequences of our ideas which can lead to better ideas.
“…design requirements are invented on the fly through cognitive interactions with sketches. Further, detection of unintended features has significant bearing on invention of design requirements; instances of invention of design requirements were likely to occur immediately after occurrences of detection of unintended features. This indicates that … detection of unintended features motivated the invention of design requirements. Thus, detection of unintended features is key to the invention of design requirements which in turn is critical idea generation.”
Essentially, externalizing our ideas helps us think.
Maps help us explore our ideas, exposing unintended consequences, inspiring further design requirements. – Tweet This
Tversky further explains:
“More than talking, sketches often serve as communications for self. One role of a sketch is to check the completeness and internal consistency of an idea, especially a spatial idea. A sketch is a literal model of an idea, an existence proof.”
Maps Tell Stories and Inspire
The value of sketching doesn’t end with helping us think through our ideas. It can also help us communicate our ideas.
Maps have been used to tell stories for centuries.
We tend to think of maps as navigational aids. But maps do more than tell us where to go.
One of the earliest modern maps was Hereford’s Mappa Mundi created in 1290. Created at a time when we didn’t know what the world looked like, this map wasn’t designed to tell people where to go. It was designed to tell people how to live.
In Simon Garfield’s book, On the Map, the Mappa Mundi is described as follows:
“[It] had a lofty ambition of metaphysical meaning: a map guide, for a largely illiterate public, to a Christian life. It has no reservation of mixing the geography of the earthly world with the ideology of the next. Its apex displays a graphic representation of the end of the world, with a Last Judgment showing, on one side, Christ and his angels beckoning toward Paradise, and on the other, the devil and dragon summoning to another place.”
In addition to its depictions of heaven and hell, it also included exaggerated religious landmarks, quoted scripture, and streets teeming with human activity.
Maps are also used to communicate a vision or a plan. – Tweet This
Looking at a map of Manhattan, you might think the clean, grid-like structure was drawn to reflect reality. But it wasn’t. The map came first.
In The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, the map is described:
“It [the Manhattan grid] was that truly rare thing: an enduring vision conceived sold and executed as a map.”
Maps inspire us. They tell us where we are going. They help us see connections and draw conclusions. – Tweet This
Expressing ideas in a visuaspatial medium makes comprehension and inference easier than in a more abstract medium such as language.
They accentuate the important details and leave out the irrelevant. They provide necessary structure for complex conversations.
And just as we saw that maps aid our own thinking, they can also aid a group’s thinking. More from Tversky:
“The public nature of sketches allows a community to observe, comment on, and revise the ideas, and enact those revisions in the external representation.”
Maps as Artifacts of the Problem Space
Maps aren’t a new concept in the world of product management. Many of our most successful artifacts are maps.
And, of course, there is our most debated artifact, the roadmap.
Despite the prevalence of maps in the world of product, they are often under utilized.
A business model canvas might be created once during a strategy session and never used again. Customer journey maps and empathy maps often live with customer success teams with little input from the product team.
Or when they are used by the product team, they are created from internal knowledge, missing the voice of the customer. Or they quickly grow out of date.
Most of us intend well, but we get caught up in the week-over-week pace of delivery. We get pulled in many directions, leaving little time to update documents.
But maps are critical thinking aids. They help us improve our ideas. – Tweet This
This is so often missing within product teams.
Map the Challenge: Last Call
Students in my Map the Challenge course spend six weeks mapping a challenge.
They learn how to breathe new life into stale artifacts.
They use maps to explore their own perspectives, to explore the perspectives of their teammates and their customers, and they use maps to synthesize the rich data they collect through observation and interviews.
And finally, they use maps to communicate their vision and to inspire others to take action.
Are you interested in participating? Applications for this course are now closed. If you would like to be notified when a new cohort is offered, please join the Product Talk mailing list.
P.S. The quotes and excerpts from this post came from the following resources:
- Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins
- On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield
- The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011 by Hilary Ballon
- Barbara Tversky’s publications:
- Tversky, B. (2002, March). What do sketches say about thinking. In 2002 AAAI Spring Symposium, Sketch Understanding Workshop, Stanford University, AAAI Technical Report SS-02-08 (pp. 148-151).
- Suwa, M., Tversky, B., Gero, J., & Purcell, T. (2001). Seeing into sketches: Regrouping parts encourages new interpretations. In Visual and spatial reasoning in design (pp. 207-219).
- Tversky, B. (1999). What does drawing reveal about thinking?. In IN.
- Tversky, B. (2000). Some ways that maps and diagrams communicate.Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 72-79.