Concept mapping is a terrific way of organizing your thoughts and ideas and then crafting them into a concept. Concept maps are made up of summaries, storyboards, inspiration, requirements, notes, and tasks to represent the early stages of strategic plans that can be synthesized into to-do lists, kanban boards, project timelines, prototypes and so on (as opposed to jumping right into them, which can be more overwhelming and less effective).
In this article, I’ll explain what concept maps are, the benefits of using them in product development, how to create them and which tools to use to do so, and I’ll also share some concept map templates that you can use.
Concept mapping is the process of organizing thoughts and ideas related to a problem to be solved. A concept map is a diagram of interconnected summaries, storyboards, inspiration, requirements, notes, and tasks somewhat depicting a strategic plan (or several strategic plans) for solving said problem.
Concept maps help people in product teams (regardless of their role or responsibilities) make sense of their own thoughts and ideas before crafting them into some kind of concept. They’re also useful for documenting thoughts and ideas before you forget about them, as well as for exploring multiple ideas quickly, leaving no stone unturned. Because concept mapping is collaborative, they make it easy to brainstorm, discuss, and vote on next steps.
To help you get started with concept mapping, you can follow these three steps with your product team.
Concept maps should be purposeful and focused, so start off by stating your objective in the middle of your canvas.
If your brain goes off-topic, simply note down those thoughts and ideas elsewhere and then try to get back on track by returning to your objective..
Tip: It’s often helpful to state the objective as a question; for example, “How might we improve our customer support response times?” or “How might we make our DesignOps workflows more efficient?”
This next step is a bit chaotic because it’s very likely that you’ll have a lot of thoughts and you’ll want to note them all down before you forget them, which requires not worrying so much about tidiness and organization (yet).
So to begin, start by summarizing one idea and linking it to your question with some sort of connector (these are sometimes called “arcs” and are shown in gray in the image below). The thoughts/ideas are sometimes called “nodes” (shown in purple):
Next, you can either summarize more ideas or develop upon the one that you just summarized using “subnodes” and arcs. Subnodes are thoughts/ideas that are related to a parent node, which you can format in any way that you see fit. For example, if a parent node summarizes a solution then its subnodes might include a storyboard of how users might use it (with its own subnodes and arrow arcs), design inspiration, and/or a list of requirements needed to build it:
Wherever possible, single idea chains can share nodes. This is useful whenever you have multiple storyboards that share certain sequences. Simply arrow-in and/or arrow-out of the shared sequences/nodes, as shown in the image below:
Once you’ve exhausted your thoughts and ideas (at least for the moment), it’s time to clarify and organize. This includes moving and removing anything that wasn’t relevant after all, organizing and consolidating nodes, and making everything clearer. Doing so is especially important when collaborating in real time as your collaborators might’ve documented the same thoughts and ideas as you did.
After that, you could make your concept map even clearer and even more organized with some visual adjustments. As an added benefit, doing this will also make it more visually appealing.
Firstly, you could color-code your nodes. You can do this in any way that improves the clarity of your concept map, but the most common way is to color-code each idea chain on crowded concept maps:
You could use differently shaped or sized nodes, however, I find that this often makes concept maps unnecessarily more complex. At most, I tend to circle top-level nodes (if they’re small/brief) and box subnodes (with rounded corners for aesthetics of course).
Finally, I recommend labeling your nodes. As an example, a list of requirements could be labeled as “requirements.” If you’re using FigJam to make concept maps, I recommend using sections to create nodes (since they can have labels) and then creating the content inside of them:
I wouldn’t bother with specialized concept mapping tools because there are many tools that your product team probably already has that can facilitate concept mapping.
The most used tool for digital whiteboarding is FigJam (by Figma) and it has an official concept map template that you can use as a jumping off point. It’s worth noting that FigJam is the only digital whiteboarding tool on this list where collaborators can talk to each other with real audio in real time, which puts FigJam light years above other tools.
The second most used digital whiteboarding tool is Miro (who recently acquired InVision Freehand by the way), which is a bit more mature than FigJam, but otherwise not much different. Miro also has an official concept map template.
In third place (oddly) is Figma itself, probably because FigJam is a separate subscription from Figma. That being said, Figma is a UI design tool, so usage is heavily skewed towards designers. If you’re not a designer, then using Figma for concept mapping will be significantly more complicated. It’ll be a manual process of creating and styling the concept map, unless you use some kind of diagramming plugin or widget.
Surprisingly, Canva is also a popular choice having steered a little more towards professionals in recent years. If your team already has a subscription (probably to create graphics), it’s definitely not a bad option. You can find its concept map template here.
Concept mapping can be incredibly useful to all members of a product team, regardless of their role or responsibilities. When collaborating in real time, concept mapping can even bring all styles together harmoniously. This makes ideation/collaboration more accessible, democratic, thorough, iterative, clearer, strategic, and productive.
If you’d like to tell us about your approach to brainstorming and ideation, you can do so in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!
Featured image source: IconScout
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