story maps & executive diagrams

dirt road curving around a mountainside ahead of us, with Olympic National Park snow-clad mountains in distance

newsletter #12  |  07-Jun-2016

Winners Announced!

Congratulations to Danny Spitzberg of Peak Agency and Ben Judy of Intuit, who each win a print copy of Mental Models.

I received 15 entries, most with good stories about understanding other people’s mental models and how it helped clarify what to design and what to leave off. Danny‘s story was about making a zen center more welcoming for new attendees, as well as supportive for different phases along everyone’s spiritual path. Ben‘s story was about really understanding professional tax preparers so his team could support them better. For his master’s thesis, Asaad was able to give windmill repair technicians more efficient shifts. Both Raheem and John got deep into understanding how engineers think about data and back-end infrastructure to create better software. Tara used the approach to understand her team’s stakeholders much better, thus building immense trust. Michael says beginning with a mental model has helped him foster incremental changes and better benchmarks. My favorite was how Jenny used behavioral audience segments to help define qualifying candidates for developer job openings.

Thank you to everyone who entered!


cover of the book with a figure stepping into the sea of someone's mind

Story Maps & Executive Diagrams

While I was in Seattle for the UXPA panel on empathy, I got to hang out with some fabulous people. First it was Lad Decker, then Kelly Goto, then the whole panel I worked with: Andrea Gallagher, Dawn Nidy, Bernadette Irizarry, and Joseph Lee. Amazing people! And here’s what I learned.

executive diagrams

Lad asked me if I wanted to see her one-page versions of mental model diagrams. She has been curating relevant information from the mental model diagrams she creates for presentation to stakeholders. Narrowing the signal down to just what is important and actionable at the moment really serves to help focus the discussion. Or the presentation. Sometimes she shows the information as towers with supporting capabilities. Other times she shows just a few of the towers in a few of the mental spaces on a timeline, with a gorgeously simple visual approach. This simplification helps convey the information needed quickly and clearly. Then discussion can happen in the usual way–are we weak in our support here? What new opportunities jump out? How well are we doing as an organization in helping people achieve their intent/purpose?

Lad also applied this curated approach to her personas, adding to a persona description just the mental spaces and towers that call out a difference in philosophy, thinking, or reaction, in comparison to the other personas. It’s not every tower–just those that are unique or defining for this persona.

ginger striped cat sleeping atop a printed mental model diagram

Even cats love mental model diagrams! (Here Lad’s mother-in-law Elke’s cat naps upon an executive one-page version of the diagram. We were at Elke’s house for lunch.)

story maps

Andrea and I were on the same flight home from Seattle, and when we sat down in the gate area she flipped open her laptop, saying “I’ve gotta show you something.” The something was Agile story maps. Andrea showed me how the Themes across the top of a story map are the same as towers in a mental model diagram. There is a direct correlation. She has been using story map Themes taken directly from the mental model diagram, whereas other teams she’s seen have just invented the Themes based on what they know … which risks assumptions at the foundation of their infrastructure.

Not all the towers get represented in the story map. Choose the towers (or indeed, whole mental spaces) that represent the things your organization is good at providing support for. Choose the towers that represent new opportunities, or the chance to strengthen your support.

The capabilities that I map beneath the towers in mental model diagrams correlate to the user stories that map beneath the themes in the story map. You can draw some connections between them or input them in one of the agile tools that depicts dependencies, backlog, or a product roadmap.

Mental model diagrams are about understanding the whole intent/purpose people have, not just the parts of it that relate to what your org does now. Naturally some of what is on people’s minds is not stuff that your org wants to get in the business of supporting. But usually things come up that are just a tiny bit outside of your org’s core competency, and this equals opportunity.

Mental model diagrams, when mapped with the capabilities, gives you a way to measure how well you’re doing in support of people. Story maps are the way your team executes on the things they are changing or building.

story maps with arrows from which towers in the mental model they come from

Make sure the Themes in your story map are based on solid data, not on assumptions. Select a subset of all the towers from a mental model diagram to head up your story map, depending on where your organization wants to concentrate. (Thanks to Atlassian Marketplace for the example story map.)


indi can help you
answers, advice, direction, de-tangling of complex situations
private coaching
training series
coffee with indi
research delivered to you, when your resources are short
custom research
heavy lifting
team mentoring
figure out if this is the right research at the right time
try-it-out day
workshops, presentations, book club chats