The release of R. Edward Freeman’s book Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach in 1984 and the further development of stakeholder theory prompted project managers to increasingly orient their work towards stakeholders as they are those for whom its consequences will have the most impact.
But who (or what) is the stakeholder?
The answer to that question, which academics have mulled over for the past three decades, is still propelling the careers of countless professors.
In theory, every project could be said to influence everyone somehow. Just like a small stone that, when dropped in a lake, creates ripples that disturb the entire surface of the water.
At the same time, however, one can’t design for everyone.
Priorities must be made, and the needs of our project are too immediate to wallow in ifs and perhapses.
You need to find a way to quickly identify those who your project will impact most, people whose trust you need to gain during the process, and whose influence the project hinges on the most.
You need to involve yourself in stakeholder mapping.
What is stakeholder mapping?
Stakeholder mapping is the process of identifying, analyzing, and prioritizing the principal players who your project will most positively or negatively influence.
Stakeholder mapping allows a challenge owner (e.g., a designer) to prioritize certain design elements and functionality based on the people — both inside and outside of the company — for whom the project will have an impact.
You can do one of the simplest and most powerful kinds of stakeholder mapping on a piece of paper or whiteboard.
Such a map is self-evident. You see which parties require the most attention (high level of interest, high power level) and which parties require the least (low level of interest, low power level).
Development Impact & You (DIY) suggested another form of stakeholder mapping. This kind of stakeholder mapping is primarily geared towards external stakeholders.
When do you need stakeholder mapping?
With small projects, it can sometimes be clear from pure instinct who the stakeholders are and how to design for them. When your project gets larger, either financially or in terms of ultimate impact, more stakeholders will be involved. And it’s a much more challenging task to design for them.
For large-scale projects, stakeholder mapping can be critical to determining design priorities. Creating a stakeholder map is the first step to understanding where time and money need to be focused.
Furthermore, as a project becomes increasingly complex, its impact may not be self-evident.
So ask yourself who benefits and in what way.
Being crystal clear about the answer to that question will help you hone your design to make it as simple and effective as possible.
Beyond supporting the idea of efficiency and consumer impact, stakeholder mapping can make or break a project.
As projects become more and more expensive, stakes are higher. Certain stakeholders — generally those with a high level of interest and a high level of power — can bring a risky project from a maybe to a go-ahead.
Equally, these same interested and powerful stakeholders can block a project, undermine your position, and lead to a failure that will rest primarily on your shoulders.
Stakeholder mapping, then, is an all-inclusive way to ensure you and your team are continually building trust with the influential and interested stakeholders while at the same time designing with the end-user in mind.
Internal vs. external stakeholders
If you’ve read up to this point, you might have noticed a marked difference in the kinds of stakeholders we discuss.
There are those within the organization who can influence your project as it is developing. And there are those outside of the organization who your project will impact. The line that divides these two groups is the line that divides internal and external stakeholders.
External stakeholders are those outside the business who are nevertheless impacted in some way by your project.
Beyond the line between internal and external stakeholders, however, more distinctions can be made.
Of the internal and external stakeholders, you can identify primary, secondary, and what we call key stakeholders.
Primary stakeholders are directly impacted by your project, while your project indirectly impacts secondary stakeholders. Key stakeholders fit into either or neither of these categories. But they can influence an effort or those who are important within an institution, agency, or organization engaged in an effort.
Even after that, you can put stakeholders into groups based on motivation and interest. In your UX testing and research, you may have identified personas into which stakeholders can be grouped.
Even further, certain specific individuals might have a category all their own (e.g., a CEO) that represents a specific set of interests and motivations.
Using stakeholder mapping, you can visually communicate or represent who has the most to gain or lose from your UX design, who has the most influence, and who has the most resources at their disposal.
Those parties with the most financial investment, the most to gain or lose, and the most influence on the project are stakeholders that need direct, constant attention to ensure the project is making them happy.
You need to consider even those without direct influence over the project as it's a key aspect of design thinking that focuses on the end-user.
Stakeholder mapping can allow you to properly balance the priorities of those with the most influence over the project with those of the end-users for whom the project exists in the first place. After all, what is UX if not a love of, and empathy for, the end-user?
How to create a stakeholder map
To create a stakeholder map, you need first to begin a process called stakeholder analysis.
During this process, the UX designer creates a list of all the stakeholders involved in the project. Then categorizes them based on interest and begins to think about their motivations.
To begin stakeholder analysis, you should start with brainstorming, possibly getting the whole team involved. Who serves to be impacted by our project?
Your list might look something like this:
- The team;
- The community;
- Our families;
- The list can go on and on.
When you have the list, it’s time to create a stakeholder map.
A stakeholder map visualizes who’s internally and externally affected by the project. It groups the affected parties based on motivations, benefits, or impact and finally ranks these individuals based on priority.
Stakeholder maps — a kind of mind map — can be done using sticky notes on a whiteboard in the conference room. Though many design teams now use online tools to create effective mind maps.
Find the right groups and people
An important aspect of stakeholder mapping is taking the great sea of “interested parties” and separating them into distinct groups. It can be based on motivations and potential for gain or loss from the project.
A good stakeholder map will clearly show for whom to prioritize the project.
Start with grouping stakeholders into internal and external. Then group these stakeholders based on the kind of stakeholder they are. E.g., you can base grouping on power or influence over the project, the potential to be impacted by the project, and more.
When it comes to internal stakeholders, it behooves the designer to consider which internal parties are most involved, which are most interested, and which are most keyed into design thinking.
By understanding this internal party’s familiarity with design thinking and their vested interest in the project, the designer can assess when and how to involve them.
When you've created these groups, rank their stakeholders based on priority.
How to do this?
Remember the grid for measuring the power of the stakeholder and their level of interest? It’s time to use it.
It’s also a good idea to brainstorm a list of all your internal stakeholders. It will be extremely helpful when it comes to prioritizing.
External stakeholders can be more tricky to prioritize. In the broad stroke of “end-user,” who serves to gain more? There are a few analysis techniques we can use to assess this.
In one method, the fundamental analysis technique, the challenge owner grades qualitatively what user personas should exist for a specific UX component.
Suppose you examine CarMax’s “CarMax Delivers” page, for example. In that case, you’ll see some quotes from customers who were assisted by the car delivery service CarMax developed with the aid of UX design. Reading these quotes, we can see some user personas begin to develop.
It is no accident these quotes exist on this page of the website. Having done their user research, the CarMax design team created personas for the kinds of customers that would most benefit from their service.
These personas were, of course, based on real interviews with real people.
The UX team at CarMax employed a fundamental analysis technique in this case. They examined qualitatively which end-user would most benefit from the service and catered the design to them.
Another method, the technical analysis method or target audience analysis, uses ads, social media, and other strategies to gain data. Whereby you can segment groups geographically, socioeconomically, or psychographically.
Merge and split groups
Once you've created your groups, you can reassess the entire stakeholder map using the following questions:
- Are these the right groups?
- Should we merge some groups?
- Maybe we should split some groups apart?
- Do the groups have enough in common that you can merge them?
- Perhaps certain groups could be two separate groups?
- What makes a group separate from another?
Start building trust
Building trust is at the heart of UX design, and with stakeholder mapping, it’s a central objective. A good design builds trust with the end-user. That said, a UX designer also needs to be focused on building trust with the internal stakeholders throughout the whole process.
By understanding the internal stakeholders’ focus on the end-user, the designer can create a better plan for building trust with that stakeholder.
Suppose the stakeholder has a lot of power and influence but is generally unfamiliar with design thinking. In that case, it might work to the designer’s advantage to involve them as early as possible. In some cases, the designer might even get permission to use a user-centered approach.
At the same time, a stakeholder with a high level of involvement with design thinking might be “made a conspirator”, and you can ask them for advice and counsel.
In this work, communication is vital. With your priority stakeholders ranked, keeping interested parties involved and abreast of any changes is of the utmost importance to building trust.
At the end of the day, discussions surrounding the stakeholder and the end-user go back to what design is about in the first place: an empathetic approach to business that combines good economics with ethics.
A stakeholder map creates the first bridge between your design and the people that it can help.
This article only scratched the surface of all the deep thinking surrounding stakeholder analysis. Yet it has hopefully given you a good jumping-off point to begin your large-scale project or improve your existing design process.
Stakeholder theory continues to develop, always intending to improve the world, one design at a time.