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User Research, Workflow Models

Reality Maps

Reality maps are a way to collaboratively model people’s work and quickly gather the information needed to move forward with building user stories. They are a good choice for agile projects with short planning periods or for projects with limited contextual research opportunity.

Reality maps…

  • Make it easy to get a diverse group of people involved in understanding the user experience.
  • Help you analyze a process quickly without getting stuck on any one idea or issue.
  • Create a visual language for the users’ work so others can understand and participate.
  • Take advantage of specialized knowledge while keeping the focus on the user experience.
  • Give you a resource to write a complete set of user stories.

How to Build the Map

Step 1

Step 1

Step 2

Step 2

Step 3

Step 3

Step 1: Define the workflow with steps.

To start this step, you’ll need some understanding of a typical user’s workflow. This could be as simple as a conversation if contextual observation is not an option. Break the workflow down into individual steps. For example, a typical workflow might start out with a step about logging in to the system. Write each step on a sticky note and arrange these horizontally.

Step 2: Elaborate with questions, comments, and ideas.

Move from step to step and have each person add questions, comments, and ideas. Put each of these on a different color sticky note. Read the notes aloud as you add them to the board and keep going until people run out of steam. Avoid talking about any one concept, just focus on getting as many on the board as possible.

Step 3: Validate and share.

Answer as many questions as you can within the mapping team and cover those sticky notes with comments. Now, gather answers to the remaining questions by walking the map with users, subject matter experts, or other people within the organization. Once all questions have been answered, be sure to share the map with key stakeholders for the project. Encourage all of these people to add concepts to the map for a more complete picture.

Participants

Choosing a good team for the initial mapping session can significantly increase effectiveness and efficiency. The session will be more effective because it will produce a more accurate workflow and a larger body of comments and ideas. It will be more efficient because the team will have the knowledge to complete a larger portion of the map and reduce the amount of time needed to answer questions later. A team of four to five people typically works best with at least one knowledgeable member from the following groups:

  • Users and UX People – for an accurate understanding of the workflow.
  • Stakeholders – for knowledge about product strategy and market needs.
  • Technical People – for insight into technical capabilities and limitations.

References

The Persona Lifestyle by John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin introduced the concept of reality maps and explains them in great detail. They are also mentioned as scenario maps by UX for the masses.

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