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Strike Research Gold with an Ecosystem Map

Beyond the well-tread personas customer journey, ecosystem maps paint a more complex picture with moving pieces.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Thumy Phan

An ecosystem map was one of the first deliverables I learned about and created. Since that time, they disappeared from my list of deliverables, and I didn't engage with them much. Instead, I was stuck in a world of personas and customer journeys while ecosystem maps took a backseat.

A few months ago, I was chatting with one of my mentees about an effective deliverable for a project. We went back and forth about outcomes like journey maps or personas, but none felt quite the right fit for what we were trying to share.

And that's when it clicked—an ecosystem map would be the perfect way to convey the information from the study in a digestible format.

Whenever I felt stagnant in my process, I tried to come up with a different technique or way to look at the study or problem. Rediscovering an old (or discovering a new!) approach can be inspiring, especially when repeatedly using the same old deliverables.

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What is an ecosystem map?

An ecosystem map visualizes all the interactions, dependencies, and people in a given experience. Typically, there is a user—such as a persona—in the middle of this experience. The ecosystem map shows how other people or products interact with this central person.

Regarding one central user, this mapping allows you to see their different interactions with other people and services or products. It is especially helpful in giving you a holistic understanding of complex interactions or complicated experiences.

While journey maps are excellent tools, they can fall flat and bring a sense of linearity to an experience far from straightforward. Including an ecosystem map alongside a journey map can help you capture the complex nature of an experience in a non-linear way.

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The best time to use an ecosystem map is when you’re trying to visualize how a user sits inside your service or product and their interactions during a specific experience.

When to use an ecosystem map

More formal definitions like the above can be hard to apply to day-to-day work, so let's go through a situation when I thought an ecosystem map might be a good idea.

I worked on a hospitality platform that helped streamline hotel operations and better manage guest requests. It was a B2B2C platform in that our B2B users were a mix of hotel staff, such as housekeepers, engineers, concierges, and front desk staff. Our B2C users were hotel guests.

Before working at this organization, I had no idea how complex the hospitality world was. But as I started having interviews with hotel staff, I realized that even the most minor task had a high degree of intricacy due to all the moving parts and interactions.

For example, when you go up to a concierge desk and request a dinner reservation at a recommended restaurant in the area, that sets off a chain of communication events that are in no way linear.

I found the same complexity even when you call for an extra set of towels:

  1. The concierge takes down the request

  2. The concierge sends the request to the housekeeping team who logs a ticket

  3. Someone from housekeeping has to fulfill the ticket and deliver the towel

  4. The task is then marked as complete

  5. The concierge gets notified of the towels being delivered and can potentially check in with the guest to make sure everything is fine

There are a lot of spaces for this to go wrong and for different tasks to come up that need to be taken care of first. For example, maybe the guest calls down again if it has taken too long, and then someone files an additional ticket and the guest ends up with multiple towels!

When understanding these interactions and experiences, a journey map didn't feel like the right approach. I wanted to highlight the back-and-forth and the potential for confusion rather than show a journey of stages.

Ecosystem maps show the user's experience with your service as a system and how that system and user are connected.

The best time to use an ecosystem map is when you’re trying to visualize how a user sits inside your service or product and their interactions during a specific experience.

When I chose the ecosystem map for the above project, my goals looked like:

  1. Understand the different interactions between the primary user and other people or services

  2. Uncover potential pain points or areas where we do not support their user in their different interactions

  3. Identify ways of streamlining our product to make interactions between people or services less complex

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How to create an ecosystem map

I'm not going to lie, I love creating ecosystem maps because I find them really fun to think through! That said, they can be tricky the first few times you attempt them.

That’s why I’m here to walk you through the steps I go through when creating an ecosystem map.

Phase 1: Planning

✔ Determine the experience or problem area

The first step is to narrow the scope of the ecosystem map. While it would be cool to look at comprehensive experiences, the best thing you can do is pick one experience to start with so your map is digestible.

✔ Choose the primary user

As mentioned, the ecosystem map revolves around one particular user. Picking one primary user reduces the complexity of your map and allows you to understand how different interactions impact that primary person more deeply.

With the above project, I focused on the experience of the concierge booking a restaurant for a guest. So with that, the concierge staff was my primary user.

✔ List all the services, products, or platforms

Within this step, you list out all the touchpoints of the primary user with different apps, websites, platforms, or services—including the main task.

For the hospitality project, I listed the different products and services that the concierge used in this experience:

  • Pen and paper to write down the needs of the guest (ex: dietary restrictions, time)

  • TripAdvisor OR a recommendation sheet of restaurants to look up and choose appropriate restaurants

  • A phone to call the restaurant and make the reservation

  • An email provider to get a confirmation email and send it to the guest

  • Our platform to text the guest through our app that the reservation was made and confirmed

✔ List all the other people involved in the experience

The last step before design is to list the other people involved in the experience and how they relate to or interact with the primary user.

For my project, the people included:

  • The guests who make the initial request, give the necessary information about the booking. The concierge also confirm the reservation with the guest

  • Another concierge that they might ask about a restaurant recommendation if they can't find one

  • The restaurant staff to book the reservation

Of course, conducting generative research is necessary if you’re unsure about the information for any of these steps. For the hospitality project, I had already done several rounds of 1x1 interviews with concierge staff to understand all the needed information.

Now comes the slightly more complicated part: design.

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Phase 2: Design

There are a few different ways to visualize ecosystem maps. For example, some people use concentric circles, and the further the person, service, or product is from the nucleus (the primary user), the less frequently the user has touchpoints with them.

Another approach is to use lines. The longer the lines, the less interaction that person, service, or product has with the primary user during this experience.

I've used both. Personally I like lines, but they can make a complex set of interactions look messy.

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Phase 3: Map building

Once you have all the information above, it's time to start building the map.

At first I tried lines for these interactions, but it looked confusing, so I used the concentric circle approach, which you can see below:

Once you have that information, start plotting it out in either circles or lines so you can represent the different services or products, people, and how the primary user interacts with them.

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Wrapping it up

Overall, ecosystem maps are a fun and different way to visualize complex interactions between your primary users and other people, products, or services. They can give your stakeholders a clear understanding of how a primary user sits inside an experience, and can easily highlight opportunities for improvement.

If you want to make this a collaborative effort, you can also have your stakeholders draw the map from their perspective, present it, and create a map based on everyone's input. Of course, always ensure the information inside is based on concrete research!

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Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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