Principles of Alignment Diagrams
4 January 2012
I frequently get asked about a specific technique for creating alignment diagrams. It’s important to keep in mind that alignment diagrams aren’t a single document type, rather a class of maps that seek to visually represent and coordinate various aspects of both the customer experience and business processes.
In an article co-authored with Paul Kahn, we explain it this:
We propose the term “alignment diagrams” to describe the class of maps and diagrams that visualize touchpoints in a business process. Such diagrams are implicitly part of the current design practice. Thus our definition of alignment diagrams is less a proposition for a new visual technique than recognition of how various techniques can be seen in a new and constructive way. Alignment diagrams are constructed to reveal touchpoints and thereby contribute to the design and business process…It is the system of visual alignment that distinguishes this type of diagram.
Specific techniques for research and diagramming are important, of course, but it’s really the principles of alignment diagrams that are essential. Once you grasp these, you’ll find there range of potential ways to go about diagraming, including mental models, customer journey maps, service blueprints and more. You may even introduce variations on these standard forms or come up with your own.
The following is a list of core principles are at the heart of the alignment technique.
Principle of Holism
Alignment diagrams focus on human behavior as part of a larger ecosystem. They are NOT about product research (e.g., not about mapping out the workflow with a specific software program). As much possible, look at what your customers do in their normal lives or normal work environments.
Your customers “hire” your products or services to get a job done. An alignment diagram should focus on these jobs in the context in which they happen. Specifically, use customers’ goals and desired outcomes as a centripetal force for telling the alignment story. Show their pain points and barriers to overcome as well to enhance the narrative.
Paint a holistic picture with the diagram and then, together with your team, try to solve problems for customers. This will lead to opportunities for innovation and growth.
Alignment diagrams describe multiple facets of information on the customer and on the business sides of the equation. This is what the “alignment” part of the technique is really all about.
There are some common types of information to include on the customer side: actions, thoughts, feelings, goals, pain points and moments of truth are some of the leading things to include. There may be others depending on your situation.
On the business side, common elements include processes, actions and artifacts, as well as departments or roles involved. Channels of communication are typically relevant as well. In this respect, alignment diagrams help diagnose and plan cross-channel experiences.
Principle of Interaction
Alignment diagrams expose touchpoints between the customer and business. The multiple layers of information shown in an alignment diagram (see Priniplce of Multiplicity) must come together to show where customers have contact with a product, service or brand in some way.
After determining and aligning the multiple facets of information, analyze the touchpoints. Start with simple SWOT analysis: how well does your business serve customers in each phase and for each touchpoint? Or give yourself simple school grades to see where you’re good and where you’re poor.
Beyond that, use the alignment diagram to prototype the customer experience. Walk through the touchpoints in order and examine the real-world artifacts customers would encounter. In this way you can use the alignment diagram to gain empathy for customers and put yourself in their shoes.
Principle of Visualization
Alignment diagram show a composite view of behavior and processes in a graphical overview. It is the act of visualizing the alignment of various types of information and the touchpoints that makes value creation on both sides evident. A 10-page report with the same information won’t have the same effect. Stakeholders need to be able to take in the entirety of the interaction described in the diagram at once.
A single visualization also provides a compact and focused artifact to bring into a workshop. The diagram should be engaging, and a visual representation of customer and business activity helps.
Principle of Self Evidence
Alignment diagrams should need little or no explanation. Anyone should be able to walk up to an alignment diagram and orient themselves quickly.
Note that visualization, while helpful, does not guarantee the simplicity needed for self evidence. You will have to work hard to reduce the information to only the salient points.
Alignment diagrams tell a narrative. If your user research data is rich, it will be challenging to tell a concise story. You’ll be tempted to include everything you found. Resist this urge and stick to the main plot. Self evidence is more important than an overload of details.
Alignment diagrams seek to address real-world problems and therefore must be relevant to a given business or organization. As a creator of an alignment diagram, this means you must thoroughly investigate and understand the goals, challenges and future plans your business partners have. The resulting diagram should fit seamlessly into their thinking.
In particular, strive to shed light on problems that are not transparent or difficult to see. For instance, a business may be looking to strategically expand into new markets. Let’s say a B2B provider wants to start selling directly to B2C markets, something it previously hasn’t done. An alignment diagram can help document the types of interactions the business would have with this new segment, and it would highlight the additional capabilities they would need to develop.
Principle of Validity
Alignment diagrams are firmly grounded in first-hand investigation and evidence. They are not made up or brainstormed in isolation.
Even if a company already knows a lot about its customer behavior, primary research must be part of your alignment diagram effort. Almost with certainty, you will find things previously unknown. More importantly, you will validate, deepen and strengthen the information included in the diagram with first-hand research.
If you want to learn more, I’ll be giving a full-day workshop on alignment diagrams on March 15, 2012 in London. This is part of UX Fest, a 4-day series of workshops run by William Hudson and myself. The workshops offered are: