Mapping Workflows: A Common-Sense Approach to Product Planning

As product managers, we handle information at many different levels across many different contexts. It’s a rewarding job, but with so much information and so many expectations to manage, we may not get things 100 percent right. Have you ever asked yourself:

  • How did I miss that requirement?
  • Why did my stakeholders leave our meeting with a totally different perception of what we are building than I have?
  • Why do I have to defend a project’s scope when the build is already in QA?
  • Why do my scope and timelines always seem to balloon?
  • I’m pretty solid on my processes, but how can I take myself to the next level?

What if there were one thing you could implement right now to improve your product-planning practice? There is, and it’s not revolutionary. It just takes a common-sense, logical approach and the willingness to remain grounded and honest, while acting with your eyes wide open. The solution? Mapping workflows, the process of documenting the specific steps required to complete a specific task.

Here are five ways that mapping workflows can help improve the products you build and the time it takes to get to market.

Clarity

Before you map a workflow, you must have a use case. It sounds obvious, but I’ve seen people skip over this step and dive straight into tactical planning, like page navigation and user actions. But without understanding the use case that you’re mapping, you can’t say with 100 percent confidence that you’ve solved the right problem for the right person at the right time. Not only that, but identifying which use cases you are mapping also forces you to be very clear on which use cases you are not mapping. This is incredibly valuable, not only from a requirements perspective, but also for setting expectations up front with your clients, stakeholders and development team.

Beyond adding clarity, it comes with the added benefit of sparking healthy conversations around scope prioritization. If you know which use cases exist, you can work with your clients to determine which are most valuable, then prioritize them to deliver real value, fast. This is invaluable post-release when someone asks why they can’t do X, Y or Z with your newly released product.

Communication

Gaining clarity about what you’re building leads to the second benefit: improved communication. Mapping workflows helps you get on the same page as your clients and developers. Rather than verbally describing how something works, or should work, you can map it out in enough detail to ensure you have a common understanding of what is happening and what should change. 

When building new products and features from scratch, a workflow allows you to discuss a project in detail, confident that what one person communicates will be perceived uniformly by others in the group. A simple example is if someone starts off by describing what happens when a user “gets to the page.” Right there can be an opportunity for mass confusion if you don’t have a workflow to ground you: Which page do you mean? Does “get to the page” mean when they first log in, when they click on a link in the navigation bar, when they get to the top of the page or when they scroll to a certain spot on that page? 

When changing existing products and features, additional communication benefits of a workflow come in the form of marketing communications. Once you see the workflow that will be disrupted, you’ll know how to contextualize and explain what you’re changing from the user’s perspective.

Dependencies

Another way that mapping workflows enhances your process is by identifying dependencies on other systems, pages, people, teams, etc. If you care about time, delivery and expectations, this is reason enough to map workflows. Think about how much time you lose when you’re partway through development and a “gotcha” rears its ugly head. Gotcha! We need resources from another team to complete this functionality. Gotcha! Your proposed code changes impacted another application that wasn’t part of the project scope. The list is endless. Your project manager, clients and team will thank you for investing a relatively small amount of time up front mapping out a workflow to reduce or eliminate these timeline and scope killers.

Foresight

Mapping workflows will also uncover technical obstacles or complexities and identify the additional work you’ll need to support your use case. The complexities will become apparent from the get-go, providing you with the foresight to have conversations with the right people, analyze the right systems and set appropriate expectations before you write your first user story.

An example of this is anything you build that requires a login workflow with more than one user type or user permission set. Let’s say you have 3 user types and 4 permission levels. That’s 12 possible scenarios to consider, depending on your use case. (Example: If User Type 1 has permissions A, B and C but not D, what do they see when they log in, and how is that different from User Type 1 with permission sets A-D?) 

The map you create will force you to consider what you’re building at this deeper level. It will help you plan out—per the example above—several sets of landing-page copy, new graphics or even whole new pages. And that’s just one example.

Future Improvement

Mapping workflows sets you up to take your user experience to the next level. Developing a culture of mapping workflows and incorporating them into your product management habits paves the way for the evolution of your team, product and company toward higher levels of delightful UX and customer satisfaction. It will help you focus not only on the workflow, but also on the journey.

Journey mapping is a separate conversation, but without getting good at mapping workflows you will be hard-pressed to consistently and efficiently identify room for improvement. For example, let’s say you’re mapping a workflow and the next step is for the user to fill in a form. To take their experience to the next level, consider things like:

  • Does the user have enough motivation to fill in the form?
  • Do they have enough information to fill in the form?  
  • Does the user need to do anything beforehand to successfully complete the form? (Do they need to grab their driver’s license to fill in an ID or a credit card to fill in a number?)
  • How will they feel when they fill in the form?
  • Should you add a step before the form to set expectations and include a call to action about how to prepare?

Mapping workflows is a common-sense approach to improving your product planning practice. It will help improve note only the products you build, but also the time it takes to get to market.

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Meytal Markman

Meytal Markman

Meytal Markman is the director of product management at Rakuten Marketing. She grew up navigating the intricacies of life in New York City, London and Tel Aviv, which showed her how meaningful the difference is between delightful and never-again experiences. Meytal holds a master of arts degree in interactive media: critical theory and practice from Goldsmiths, University of London. Based in the Pacific Northwest, she spends as much time as possible immersed in delight. To learn more about mapping workflows, you can download Meytal’s eBook at http://mappingworkflows.com/digital_assets/ebooks/mapping_workflows_ebook.pdf. Email her at meytal.markman@rakuten.com.

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