// design

UX map theory

Correlating UX artifacts to maps of the real world

Some people may wonder why UX designers create so many artifacts to document and describe the products and people they work with. These artifacts can include competitive visualizations, user journey maps, empathy maps, and service blueprints to name a few. None of these design artifacts would technically qualify as product assets, meaning that maintaining these documents must occur in parallel to maintaining the actual product. But there are good reasons as to why maintaining and refining these product design “maps” in parallel to the product is indeed worth it, and I propose that reason is fundamentally equivalent to why maintaining accurate and detailed maps is worthwhile for human beings. I call it UX Map Theory.


There’s a major advantage to having and maintaining maps. Everyone within my geographic area can look at the same map of my city and agree that this is the city. It’s easy to figure out where things are located in relation to one another, and we all have a similar picture of the city in our heads. We know north and south from east and west. The same logic explains why it’s worthwhile developing UX models of the products and services we build. These models keep everyone within the organization aligned on the way the product works and the areas in which they can contribute.

Models create a consistent naming convention and help everyone in the organization visualize the contribution that they make with regard to the overall user experience. Even if you’re not a UX designer, it’s worthwhile to understand the UX of the product you work on, because ultimately a worthwhile experience is what keeps the lights on at your job. Once you begin building these models of how your product and organization work, it becomes easy to update and reference them if you’re ever feeling lost.

Breadth vs Detail

The core reason why we UX designers use so many forms of visual system mapping is due to an inherent limitation to human comprehension. We cannot simultaneously visualize the big picture and the small details. This is why you can’t make a photo mosaic if you only look at the individual photos within it. The analogy, which I’ve extrapolated from a talk by Brian Dellascio, is that if we’re in a hot air balloon we can either be high enough to see the lay of the land, or low enough to see the individual people moving about. UX designers are great at visualizing and communicating systems, but it’s important to consider the altitude at which we fly our hot air balloons when we’re trying to draw the maps that help us understand where our products stand. The fidelity of these maps needs to be appropriate to visualize the scale of the system we’re analyzing.

And so we begin at the highest level. The domain.

An arial view of some green pastures, mountains, rivers, and roads.

This is the highest level view of your organization within its industry and the benefit of being this high is that you can visualize opportunities within your domain. At this altitude, you may be visualizing marketing research, competitive analysis, or strategic information. We’re zoomed out far enough to see your organizational objectives among the objectives of other players in your industry too. You can find out where you’re located among the competition, and how you can strategically position yourself within the land to profit and make opportunities. When we look at the domain level altitude, we have a good vantage point to survey the field.

Two examples of domain mapping, including a competitive analysis matrix and graph.
An example of a competitive analysis chart, available on Slideteam, and a competitive analysis foursquare visualization, available on Venngage.

Journey Map

When we descend some levels lower, we can begin to visualize a specific customer journey. The customer journey is akin to the Google maps directions from point A to point B with the destination being a specific customer conversion that we desire. This path should be efficient and easy to navigate for the user.

A arial view map with a route from “home” to “store” with a stick man walking along it.

For an example customer journey, let’s say we’re selling donuts at a corner store. In the journey map, we would consider the steps and emotions the user experiences while following this specific path we set out before them. We visualize their actions, mindsets, and emotions as they travel from their home and come to our store and ultimately purchase a donut.

A journey map example with three phases: Define, Compare, Negotiate, Select.
This sample customer journey map, by the Nielson Norman Group, is great for visualizing the steps necessary for the user to complete the journey into your product.

This form of mapping allows designers and stakeholders to visualize the phases of the journey and consider if the path is as efficient as it could be. The simpler the journey, the more likely the customer completes it. Visualizing this allows us to identify kinks in the road or pain points that could be minimized or simplified.

Empathy Map

If we descend even lower in our hot air balloon, we become able to focus on the individual user or customer.

A Google map street view avatar with a empathy map surrounding him.

Once we learn to empathize and see as the user does, we can identify things they say, think, do, and feel which could help us identify opportunities and build out a specific path, or connect them to an existing path that’ll get them into our store.

An empathy map example.
This example empathy map by the Nielson Norman Group is for a woman who is looking to buy a new car.

By zooming in on the persona and taking the time to build an empathy map around them, we can assess the ways in which our product can serve this user. This helps us understand not only who our users are or what our users want, but it also shows where they are in relation to the roads and paths we’ve built.

Service Blueprint

The final mapping method I’ll discuss is the service blueprint. The service blueprint is effectively a map of how your product physically allows the customer to take the desired action. This includes everything that supports the user as they navigate to the end of their journey. In map terms, this is roughly akin to the civil engineering plans that describe the roads and walkways system between the user’s home and the corner-store.

An engineering road drawing showing different types of road supports and sign arrangments.

The scope of this model includes the entire product-system and delineates the customer journey that the user walks along. Service blueprints aim to visualize how the customer interacts with the product and how the product organization supports those customer-facing interactions. With the map analogy, we would be taking into consideration the road the user takes to the store as well as the concrete foundation that was designed to hold up the road and store.

A service blueprint example.
This is an example of a service blueprint from Nielson Norman group

Although the service blueprint describes the entire customer-product system and can be fairly complicated, you may notice that each piece of the system is described at a very high level. This UX map has a large scope but relatively small fidelity surrounding the details of each individual piece of the system.


This article wasn’t written to break into extensive detail about the individual importance of each of these UX artifacts. Rather, I wrote this article to argue that spending a bit of time building these models is worthwhile and for the same reason that maps are valuable for civilization. Maps require a substantial investment of research and effort, but once created it becomes much easier for members of society (i.e. product teams) to identify and speak to problems within their ecosystem. As UX designers, we need to understand the value of creating these system models and understand when it is appropriate to use each. We have to remember that communication and mental comprehension has limitations in scope, scale, and detail. These various system maps are crucial to adopting a unified understanding of our products, and as more organizations are realizing that design leadership yields great results, we have to treat our UX artifacts like maps that we’ll continually use to guide our users and products to the lands of profitability and effectiveness.


Journey Mapping 101, Nielsen Norman Group


UX Mapping Cheat Sheet, Nielson Norman Group


Journey Mapping Decisions, Nielsen Norman Group


Google Pegman Illustration, Mett Delbridge


Competitor Analysis Graphic, Venngage


Competitive Analysis Chart, Slideteam