Mapping with hexagons

Jude Webb
5 min readNov 29, 2022

Something I’ve struggled with for a while is how to map complex things that don’t follow nice straight lines.

As a service designer we have to understand complex interactions between people and the services we’re designing and make sense of them so we can improve them.

We like the idea that things start at A and end at B, but life is very rarely that simple.

Two problems, one solution

A couple of weeks ago I had 2 problems I was trying to make sense of:

  • An approval process — who does what
  • The idea people will find their own way through your service and use the bits they want in the order they want to use them.

For each of them, I reached out to my communities at DfE to ask for help.

Visualising the approval process

With the approval process, I could see that the thing could either be approved or not approved and different people were involved in different steps of that approval.

I wrote the following on a designer slack channel:

Hello fellow designers, I’m trying to map something and looking for inspiration. I’m trying to show who does what at each stage of a journey, but there is a key decision half way through that affects what users have to do afterwards. This is my first attempt, but is there a better way of showing this?

Do I need 2 maps really?

One for yes and one for no?

Map attempting to show the journey as linear with 2 swim lanes. Swim lanes show 2 users (coffee maker & coffee drinker). Step one: maker offers coffee, drinker asks for coffee. Decision: is there coffee in? Step 2 maker makes coffee or says ‘I’ve got no coffee’. Drinker either drinks coffee or doesn’t drink coffee. Step 3 maker collects cup or is unsure what to do. Drinker feels satisfied or still want’s coffee.
The linear journey used to share the example of what I was getting at

My wonderful fellow designers replied with lots of great advice including:

I would always advocate a single map if possible.

If it is more like a journey map then I would tend not to create branches but stick to one scenario (e.g. user drinks the coffee). But if it is more like a process map then branching can be easier to manage. Maybe map a parallel “business” process, which could include branching and stuff.

I was also reminded of a tube map — which showed how all the different sub services connected, overlapped or had repeated patterns and shared touchpoints.

Redrawing of the linear map using hexagons coloured to show who’s doing what

I also took all of this inspiration and saw how Ute Schauberger had mapped using hexagons and had a go for myself and this is what I came up with a process map that has several decision points. I was able to put the phases behind the hexagons which seemed to work.

Many hexagons joined together showing the flow through the process. Where there is a decision 2 hexagons come off the same one before it. Behind it are different phases of the process marked by a different colour and a title. The content is all sample content.
High-level map of approving and using a thing

It seems to have gone down well, people understand that you can take forks in the journey. But it wasn’t the only problem I was looking to solve…

The idea of users finding their own way through our service

The second problem was that I was working on a strategy and wanted to change the language on something and thought a visual or metaphor might help.

So again I asked my community. This time I said:

Hello, I’ve got a problem and I’m looking for inspiration, I hope someone’s brain can give me a spark to think about this differently.

What I’m trying to communicate
I’m trying to get across the idea of the fact that:

- a service has lots of elements and they can be put together however the user needs them to be put together
- if a user comes in for one thing we’d like to offer them more elements of the service
- a user could just need one element and that solve their whole problem or they could need them all in one mega journey

Current thoughts
At the moment this is being called ‘The Network Effect’. I don’t like it because that focuses more on the connections than the value it gives to user.

I kinda like the idea of a pick and mix, but if our service was pick and mix it doesn’t have the idea that we’d proactively recommend other bits — also I can’t make the visual work

Again the community delivered:

The advice inspired me to think about the different metaphors, in the end, though it was the advice to use hexagons that made the most sense to me.

I created a very quick visual to demonstrate users putting together elements of the service in whatever way they want.

Many hexagons linked together, some white showing elements that exist, some grey showing potential developments. There are different coloured lines showing how a user could flow through all of the parts to create their own journey. The content is all sample content and reads things like; email promotion, webinar, support with tool.
Showing how all elements of the service can join together and users can choose their own way through them

Again, it had real success, the first person I showed it to just said, could you move this hex here and add this one? And the ‘network effect’ language moved away so we could talk about users navigating our service, which was my goal.

Limitations of hexagons maps

These maps are not accessible. I’ve noticed that as I’ve tried to write the alt text for this post. So they would need a plain text version to go alongside them.

Also, there are times that you need more connections off a thing so even a hexagon doesn’t have enough sides.

Sometimes a user can skip out hexagons that you have put in their way, so they still create journeys that look too linear.

Watch this space

I’m sure this won’t be the last time I draw maps with hexagons, I think they are so much more useful and fun than rectangles. I hope this has inspired someone else to have a go with them.

Finally thank you to everyone to continues to inspire me and unblock me when I’m lacking inspiration.