Design Thinking: Prototype 2 | Rebuilding an idea around an Actor Map

New ideas are delicate. Undertake a pre-mortem to see who needs to be engaged, how, when and, vitally, why

When we have built an idea, a good early prototype of it might involve mapping out the people involved in making the idea sing. Doing this constitutes a prototype, as simply the process of thinking through the relationships involved and the biases that creep in provide useful feedback that informs a redesign, or the creation of a new idea.


All too often ideas get built, tried and tested in the safety of a pilot, and then fall apart in the hands of the real folk who benefit from the potential of the idea. Sometimes, the idea meets with its highest criticism from those who, in fact, benefit less from its implementation. But if these groups have a disproportionate balance of power, even if they are only loosely connected to the original idea, they can close those nascent ideas down before their time. An Actors' Map provides a representation that provides a systemic view of the service and of the context in which it will actually have to operate. In turn, as we consider where the idea may be thwarted by certain actors' understandings or uses of the idea, we can use the map to inspire new ideas.


We use actor mapping in our Creating Space for Innovation masterclasses at the point where a deep amount of research has unearthed a problem area worth exploring, and a nascent idea has been created. Actor mapping helps identify some potential human challenges that may occur as the idea is implemented with different groups in the community.

For example, in teams of mixed groups of Japanese schools, innovative ideas around student-led learning were adapted to something even more powerful after having taken into account the fact that, in the current setup of learning, the school bulding was the main centre of learning by far. The home and larger city of Tokyo was not used so much to inform learning, and so presented an opportunity for a good idea to become much better. Taking into account what the different actors in the wider community could offer for student-led learning, the idea was improved with distinct actions of how parents, school visitors and Japanese higher education institutions could be put to use during and outside school hours for project-based learning.

Actor mapping using hexagons helps make clear those connections - and the lack of any connection - to an idea. Start with the actors, the people, and consider WHY the idea is important to them.

Your Next Steps...

  • Choose an innovation that you've already researched through an immersion and synthesis, ideated and maybe done a prototype or two of already, but which has not yet been publicised or socialised too much. Place it at the centre of your actor map.
  • From the centre, draw a half dozen concentric circles, and split these into six slices, like a cake: WHO, WHAT, HOW, WHERE, WHEN, WHY
  • Begin filling out the WHO, from those segments that will benefit most from the idea being implemented. Think about segmenting groups beyond their larger constituencies: e.g. engaged parents, disengaged parents, rather than just 'parents'.
  • Once you've outined all the people affected by the ideas, take each one in turn and work out WHAT they need to do to implement the idea, or what we need to do to implement the idea effectively for them, HOW this would happen, WHEN and WHERE.
  • When it comes to filling out the WHY for each person, consider as much as you can from their point of view - this is a great exercise in empathetic thinking, putting yourself in their shoes. It also reveals some of the hurdles you may have to work around, changing the original idea even to make it work for these groups.
  • Consider using hexagonal stickies or paper cutouts, to show how ideas connect, and don't be afraid to place certain people or actions separate from the rest, outlining the fact that they are perhaps currently disconnected, and need bringing closer to the idea at a later date.
  • When you analyse the actors' map, keep a note of each action suggested by the team, as these actions will form the basis of your next idea prototype.

Actor mapping works as part of a design thinking process, where an idea solving a problem "worth solving" has already been identified.

Ewan McIntosh
October 01, 2013