Concept mapping is a team activity to organise and structure knowledge. Based on the gathered data, important concepts for understanding the problem are formulated and mapped so that important relations amongst them are revealed.
In the Empathy phase of understanding and observing, the design team has gathered a lot of data and you will need to determine what it all means (sensemaking). Talking about all your findings helps to generate a shared understanding. The concept map is a formal tool to organize the data and to discover meaning.
The first crucial step in concept mapping is moving from data to concepts. A concept is how a class of objects or events is understood and the name/label used to express these perceived regularities or patterns.
- Apple is the label for all fruit that has this specific (round) shape, that specific taste and size, etc.
- Chaotic is the label for events that are disorderly, with no clear centre or control etc.
To understand this process, imagine a design team working on the challenge of how to improve the wellbeing of telemarketers. Several of the team members heard these marketers worrying about not getting a good rating from clients after the phone call. The team may find remarkable resemblances in these observations from interviews and label the condition as nervousness, which then is understood as the concept for understanding the mental situation of the telemarketers in the challenge.
Concept mapping is organizing such concepts into visual maps and describing how they are related. When a design team develops shared knowledge of how to understand the challenge/problem, a concept map can help to construct the mental map of the problem. A mental map consists of a set of selected concepts and the relations that represent the real system. The holy grail in effective teamwork is to have a shared understanding of the problem and collective understanding. Concept mapping reinforces higher level thinking about the gathered data and synchronizes thinking with the other team members.
The ultimate goal of concept mapping is to get an idea of the bigger picture. To determine what all the data mean, you will need to describe the relationships amongst the different concepts. The nervousness description by the design team working on telemarketing could also discover concepts such as haste and competitiveness, which might then – overseeing the concepts in the map and describing their relations – relate to the central connecting theme of anxiety. An important result here is the reframing of the question to examine how to better deal with the anxiety of telemarketers. Deep and meaningful sensemaking is what drives innovation.
- Group the data to identify similarities that will help to reveal important concepts for understanding the challenge.
- Discuss and describe the central topic for your concept map, like “lack of wellbeing of telemarketers”
- As you discuss the most relevant concepts for understanding the topic, write them on sticky notes to generate a parking lot of 8 related concepts.
- Write the central topic at the centre of a large sheet of paper (draw a circle around the concept – repeat that with all the concepts you include in the map).
- Add the main concepts one by one, connecting the concepts to the main topic OR connecting concepts between themselves (when this connection is more direct and obvious). Note that you can only draw one line for each new concept.
- Each new concept can be developed with more detail, connecting new lines to further related concepts.
- Go on until the important concepts of your parking lot have been transferred to the map.
- Label some of the most relevant connections you have drawn with appropriate and concise linking words that describe the relationships between the primary concepts. Make the descriptions concise. They typically include verbs, such as causes, includes or diminishes, as in the telemarketing example, where the link between hastiness and the topic of wellbeing could be labelled hastiness decreases wellbeing.
Take a step back from the map and try to see the big picture. In a different colour, identify and similarly describe cross-links with appropriate labels. These relationships between concepts in different domains of the concept map may also encompass more than two concepts.
The description of cross-links can help you discover themes, deeper layers of meaning, that underlie the observed needs, motivations, and experiences in the field.
(n.b: the themes you choose should not be too close to the themes underlying the current situation.)
Describing the relationships (links and cross-links) is pivotal to the process of making sense in this mapping activity. By linking concepts, as in hastiness decreases wellbeing, you are creating propositions, which are the basic units of meaning. These short phrases should help you grasp an even deeper, broader level of meaning.
The description of cross-links is the focus point of this version of concept mapping that is therefore called a ‘concept and theme map’.
Concept maps can also be generated in electronic version. This makes it easier to share and to iterate on a version of the map.