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Mapping Your Product’s Ecosystem: A Product Strategy Essential

Ian Foster

Ian Foster

Lead Product Strategist

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

illustration of random shapes and patterns in Thoughtworks brand colors.

How to plot out the many actors, entities, and relationships involved in your forthcoming product to ensure your strategy leaves nothing to chance.

Products don’t exist in isolation. They exist in broader systems.

As a former service designer, it is difficult for me not to consider the broader context that a product exists in beyond just the hands of the consumer. In my previous post on Visualizing Product Impact, I talked about two techniques from our Product Thinking playbook—the Experience Map and the Service Blueprint—that work together to show the impact of your product beyond just the customer who directly uses it. In this post, I aim to push this idea further by introducing a technique that takes even more of your product’s context into account: the Ecosystem Map. 

Often overlooked, Ecosystem Maps are a vital technique for visually representing the various actors, entities, and relationships that exist in and around your product. Not only do Ecosystem Maps give you unique insight into your product, but they also allow you to learn from and monitor your competitors in the market. 

Let’s break down the different types of key Ecosystem Maps in the following sections.

Vantage Point 1: Your Organization

To get a sense of how an organization works, most employees resort to organizational hierarchies. Unfortunately, these hierarchies don’t tell us the full story of what actually happens at a company. 

That’s where Ecosystem Maps can help.

Ecosystem Maps are designed to show, not how systems are officially structured, but how that system’s constituents actually interact with one another in real life. In the context of an organization, that’s saying a lot! 

Rather than simply infer how different groups and functions work together on the basis of an abstract org chart; rather than spend hours upon hours speaking to people and learning through osmosis, an Ecosystem Map can provide a fuller picture of how people and their respective groups actually operate and interact with one another—all at a single glance.

Understanding this information isn’t just great for onboarding new hires (which it is, by the way), but is instrumental in leveraging the different expertise, data knowledge and capabilities necessary to sound product development, while also decreasing organizational obstacles that ultimately impact the customer experience. Rather than play the guessing game of “who knows what?”, Ecosystem Maps help visualize all this complexity in an instant.

Vantage point 2: Competitive Landscape

Needless to say, most strategists will try to understand the competitive landscape their product would operate in; they perform research and usually put together some sort of output of their analysis (typically a report). But in my experience, many do not visualize this analysis in a meaningful way for longevity and quick reference. And while visualizing the competitive landscape takes time and effort, we are able to process that information much quicker than simply reading content. Visual designers and illustrators know this well. 

Using visual cues like size of nodes to infer size of the competitor, or proximity to illustrate their level of strategic threat, you can convey a lot of valuable information quickly. Below is a simplified framework to show how this could be illustrated: 

Important, too, is the idea that this analysis isn’t static like a report, but can evolve over time. After all, what lies at the fringe of the ecosystem now may become a great strategic threat later on and vice versa. These ecosystems change, in other words, and a living map helps you monitor that change.

Vantage point 3: Other Ecosystems

While understanding your organization’s ecosystem and its competitive landscape should be standard practice in product strategy and development, the pursuit of relevant systemic knowledge does not need to end there. What about your competitors’ ecosystems? Or the ecosystems of other world-class companies? 

Considering and postulating how other product ecosystems work can inform how yours should. And just because your product may be in a different industry doesn’t mean that there aren’t structural similarities that you can learn from or avoid. One example of this is the course of action you engage in when the product you want to use isn’t working. What do you do? Maybe you search Google for help, or consult a Youtube video with an expert who can show you what to do—and if all of that fails, you resort to trying and speaking with someone virtually or over the phone. Many consumer products follow this structural path for customer care—part of the product’s greater ecosystem.  

Currently, however, in a number of industries, we are seeing the repercussions of organizations cutting investment in critical parts of their product ecosystems. Think of the last time you wanted to call a company’s 1-800 number, but couldn’t find it easily. And then if you do find it, you hear that they are experiencing a higher than normal call volume and that you will have to wait. While cuts like these save costs, they also disappoint customers and are the hallmark of a poor product ecosystem. It is ecosystems like these that we can learn from, try to avoid, and use to help ensure that we design ecosystems that work for us and our customers.   

Conclusion: Ecosystems are Key to Customer Satisfaction

Most product experiences today are systematic, which is to say that you don’t simply use a product in isolation but in the context of other products, services, and experiences. Yet far too often, product development focuses on the isolated development of something to put into market quickly, without due consideration for this broader system. And while rapid pushes-to-market can be a great way to learn, one potential pitfall is the fragmentation of the product experience from the customer’s point of view: adjacent services are poorly thought out, or inconsistent, or lacking altogether. Large enterprises in particular can fall victim to this fragmentation given their size. 

In short, connected experiences need to be systematically designed, implemented, and managed—and understanding how these systems are structured and how they work should be part of any sound product strategy. Ecosystem Maps are there to guide the way. 

Further reading: “Thinking in Systems: A Primer” by Donella Meadows 

Ian Foster

Ian Foster

Lead Product Strategist

As a Lead Product Strategist, Ian is responsible for leading product development projects from a product strategy lens to help clients build best in class products and create value in the marketplace. 

Ian is a strong advocate for taking a multidisciplinary approach to product development; he believes that this is the best way to achieve business innovation and better products for everyone. 

Ian is always seeking new and evolving perspectives to incorporate into his work, currently he is fascinated by biophilic design and systems theory.  

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