Wardley Maps for product development

Old school Wardley Map

Wardley Mapping is most commonly associated with higher level business strategy. When I’ve talked to people familiar with Wardley Mapping, they’ve been quick to dismiss it as a tool for the C-level suite, not for mere mortals developing products. I disagree. The following will attempt to explain why I find Wardley Maps not only relevant but vital to product development. If you’re unfamiliar with Wardley Maps, I recommend watching Simon Wardley’s 2017 Google Next talk for a good overview. If you want to take a deeper dive, I suggest Simon’s free online book.

Digital Beanie Baby: Husky
Welcome to the future. Digital Beanie Babies. Trade them on your favorite exchange!

Imagine. We’re transported to a time where it seems like anything with the label “beanie” is drawing attention, mostly because a new form of Digital Beanie Babies (DBB) has been skyrocketing in value for over 12 months. An entire ecosystem has sprouted up around the digital critters. In the midst of this beanie bonanza are exchanges launching to enable trading DBB, much like other exchanges exist for trading stocks, fiat currency (e.g. USD), etc. Each new DBB exchange has its strengths and weaknesses.

A few entrepreneurs identify an opportunity to create a new exchange that fills the gaps left by even the most successful DBB exchanges, while also adding a couple innovative features. They’re focused on meeting existing customer needs in a burgeoning market, not building a larger technical “platform” that has aspirations beyond being a very successful DBB exchange. The founders form their startup, get some technical people on board, build a proof of concept, raise funding, and continue building on the vision of providing a better DBB exchange for traders big and small.

But how does the startup know that they should build this product from the ground up?

Product development for this new exchange is focused on continuing the path the proof of concept set – build a secure, fast, trustworthy, and feature rich DBB exchange from the ground up. In such a new market space this seems reasonable. Put together a small, agile/lean development team and continue to build a product that meets the needs of its traders, validating the product as it is built. Lean startup style.

But how does the startup know that they should build this product from the ground up? Are there pieces they should buy? Higher level functional open source components they should adopt? The assumption is made that because DBB trading is a fairly new market it requires building a brand new product from scratch. Besides, many of the most successful DBB startups built their exchange from the ground up. They blazed a trail, this new startup is simply following in the path that’s cleared for them.

Enter Wardley Maps, a way to visualize the evolution of the underlying landscape anchored to the needs of users. When we map out the Digital Beanie Baby trading landscape, including high level components/requirements of a DBB exchange, we start to see that a number of core components of the exchange are available for purchase, leasing, and/or open source. After all, exchanges have been around quite a while in various forms.

Based on the product development approach the Beanie exchange startup is taking, we’d expect to see most of the exchange components and requirements in the “Custom-Built” or “Genesis/Novel” lane, but instead a majority of the core exchange features in development (highlighted in blue) fall into the “Product/Rental” lane or very close to it. What does this tell our startup? It’s telling them that the bulk of what they’re currently developing is something that has (probably) been built before and is available to buy, lease, or simply use (open source).

A common objection I hear at this point is: OK, but what if you’re wrong about the position of various items on the map? That’s quite possible. The potentially incorrect map positioning can drive meaningful discussions as well as further research to either validate or invalidate the position. The beauty with the map is that we’re: A) having the product/business strategy discussion based upon a shared visual aid and context B) able to identify our assumptions. In the case of our startup example, the biggest areas likely up for debate are core components (that they’re creating themselves) like the matching engine, order book, API, web app, etc. Maybe with some further digging the discovery is made that commercial offerings exist, but they’re immature, or expensive, or rigid, or any number of other issues that may make them less viable as options. Maybe we find that certain components are available as products, but are only really suitable for more traditional exchanges, not for those aimed at trading digital beanies. It’s also possible that we discover there are numerous existing components and products that fit our needs and validate the position of those items on the map.

The Wardley Map provides a higher level view that can help drive lower level product development decisions.

Another objection I’ve heard is that what I’m crediting to Wardley Maps is really just another path to market research that any business should already be doing. Possibly, but the map provides a shared context that market research does not commonly provide, as market research tends to end up buried in docs and slide decks. A group of people can look at a Wardley Map together and start to quickly identify areas of alignment, disagreement, opportunity, etc. Those with more industry expertise can be brought in to look at the assumptions on the map and determine if those assumptions are on track or need adjusted.

In our startup’s case, the map identified some potential blindspots in the product development approach. Should the exchange startup be building something from the ground up that is already available for purchase, rent, and/or adoption? Unless the devil is hiding in the details of those components mapped in the product lane, then it’s unlikely the startup should pour further (fairly limited) development resources into those items. 

It makes more sense for the startup to consider focusing its development time and talent on building items in the novel or custom lanes. Or, possibly focus the engineering team on implementing the items in the product lane, become experts on operating those in production (much sooner than the homegrown equivalent would be available), and then discover through real customer feedback what should be introduced on the exchange next. The possibilities the map opens up are much greater than what development teams tend to consider when they’re building a product, such as, should we: Scale back feature X, Y, Z? Reprioritize the backlog? “Pivot” to target only one subset of customer initially? Change our approach to development in order to increase velocity and lower time to market? Reset some or even all of our goals for the MVP? Those are all legitimate options to consider in product development, but they may be too nearsighted and ultimately limiting. A startup is particularly sensitive to this form of myopia, as the business and product the startup is building are so tightly coupled, it can be hard to determine where one ends and the other begins. The Wardley Map provides a higher level view that can help drive lower level product development decisions.

Adding Wardley Maps to a product development team’s toolbox is a valuable asset, even if at a first glance it’s hard to understand how. Mapping is not a silver bullet or even a tool that is immediately easy to grasp, but it’s worth learning. This example only begins to touch on all the nuances of Wardley Maps. There are many other nuggets of strategy gold to be found for those who take the time to learn how to create and collaborate with these maps.

Not about school

thinking emoji

Consider this a parable of sorts for those building products. I’ll leave it up to the reader to determine its meaning.

Carl is a senior in high school and has a D in Algebra II heading into the last semester. He wants to bring his grade up to a B so that he can qualify for college scholarships. Quizzes and tests make up 80% of a student’s grade. The other 20% consists of completing homework (15%) and classroom work (5%). Carl’s Algebra II teacher, Mr. Smith, insists that Carl catch up on all his missing classroom work first, even though most of that work will not help on upcoming quizzes and tests. Mr. Smith works with his student to create a rather large yet well-defined backlog of all the classroom work Carl needs to catch up on so they can track his progress together. Carl diligently works on burning down that backlog. He finally catches up on the classroom work near the end of the school year. Mr. Smith pats him on the back. Carl’s final Algebra II grade is a D+.