Concept Mapping

What is it?

A concept map is a diagram of knowledge that supports meaningful learning through connection forming.Novak, Joseph, and Alberto Caņas. "How People Learn." August 29, 2009. (accessed November 10, 2011). Because knowledge is made explicit and tangible—literally, drawn out on a piece of paper—it can provoke collaborative development within a design team.

A concept map shows relationships between elements: typically the people, entities, and artifacts engaged in work, and the way they interact with one another. The map can capture a theoretical idea, a series of political influences, a system of interaction, or the pragmatic steps someone takes to achieve a goal. In all cases, the emphasis is on the externalization of ideas and the shared creation and interpretation of the artifact within a group.

An example of a Concept Map

How do I do it?

You can produce a concept map by following these steps:

  1. Identify the words and phrases that make up the system you are mapping. Extract this language from contextual inquiry or interview transcripts, or free-associate it through brainstorming. To help you identify the language, you might imagine yourself walking through scenarios you've observed; each time you think of a person, item, action, policy, or influence, capture the thought with a tool such as Excel or on a large sheet of paper; a moderately complex domain may have thousands of relevant terms.
  2. Identify the most important terms: typically people, groups, or policies. These will serve as containers and "anchoring" elements for the other words and ideas. Write these words in big letters on a large sheet of paper. This is the preliminary concept map.
  3. Go back to your long word list, and add words to the map that directly relate to the anchor words. Add the words near their anchors and use lines to connect them. On each line, write the two word's relationship as a verb or sentence.
  4. Continue through all of the words. As the map grows, you'll probably run out of room. Start again, redrawing the material in a more cohesive manner. As you do, you might find it helpful to literally cut sections out of the paper and attach them to the next revision.

Use your completed map as a tool. For example, you can compare the "existing state," version of the map with an alternative version that represents the "idealized state," where you introduce new policies, procedures, design ideas or artifacts to solve problems you perceive. Because the map is made up of words, design at this stage is a simple task of adding new language to the map; the difficulties of implementation are, temporarily, removed.

When should I use it?

Use a concept map during and after research to make sense of large amounts of data and to better understand relationships between individual data points. By creating the concept map in a group, your design team will form a shared and collective understanding of a complex system. And because a concept map is easy to understand, it can be used as a primary means of co-design; consider building the concept map with end users.

Refine the map throughout the process of design to a constantly evolving representation of your knowledge and understanding of a system. After each new contextual inquiry, add concepts to the map or revise the relationships between people and artifacts.

What is the output, and how can I use it?

A piece of paper with a lot of words on it, a concept map is typically messy and confusing. Re-create the raw output in a digital tool before you share it with stakeholders.

Where can I learn more?

Read Applied Concept Mapping: Capturing, Analyzing, and Organizing Knowledge by Brian M. Moon, Robert R. Hoffman, Joseph D. Novak, Alberto J. Cañas.

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