Concept Mapping Together

A design facilitation protocol to generate shared understanding

Concept Mapping Together is a design facilitation practice that can help design teams to tame complexity.

As designers we now have our veritable “seat at the table”. However the table is not a simple and relaxing dinner party. Designers are now sculpting a variety of complex and ever-­changing domains of human activity. Finance, agriculture, law, healthcare, manufacturing, energy, transportation, communication... the list goes on. This introduces a number of significant challenges, not the least of which is that designers and design teams need to master the relevant knowledge of a given domain.

Designers are called to take on this challenge. They gather together and synthesize the knowledge of domain experts and stakeholders. They facilitate the co­-creation of models with their team. They draw maps that aid in understanding, and enable their team to see a vision of the next steps.

Do you...?

  • 🧠 Do you need to elicit and capture the knowledge of domain experts?
  • 📚 Does your team have trouble making sense of a complex domain?
  • 👨‍⚕️👩🏻‍🏭👷🏾👩‍💻 Do your stakeholders have trouble connecting across professional boundaries?
  • 🤷 Is it difficult to access and analyze the knowledge your team already has?
  • 🤓 Is it painful to get everyone “on the same page”?

Imagine being able to capture expert knowledge with less effort. Imagine helping your team make sense of a new domain with less frustration. Imagine connecting knowledge effectively across professional boundaries, defeating confusion and delivering clarity. Imagine driving agreement among disparate stakeholders by integrating their diverse viewpoints. Imagine making difficult design decisions with greater confidence based on this new knowledge.

While Concept Mapping will not deliver these dreamy outcomes automatically for you, it can help you achieve them through your own efforts.

How does Concept Mapping help?

Concept Maps are meaningful diagrams that organize and represent knowledge. When a team creates a concept map together, they are required to express themselves with clarity, think and learn together, come to agreement, and generate shared meaning.

A good Concept Mapping session helps design teams by:

  •   •  Laying out the facts
  •   •  Organizing complex information
  •   •  Inviting greater participation from all teammates
  •   •  Exposing conflict and sparking healthy debate
  •   •  Integrating divergent viewpoints
  •   •  Highlighting knowledge gaps
  •   •  Generating a shared representation
  •   •  Enabling new perspectives to emerge

Sounds great, so how might we facilitate a Concept Mapping session?

One answer we have developed is the Concept Mapping Together facilitation protocol, a design tool that guides a team to quickly learn and practice concept mapping, together. Over many iterations a set of clear guidelines, process steps, roles, and requirements have emerged. We have used the feedback from each session to improve the protocol. Now this simple and powerful tool is ready for a debut.

The Protocol in Detail

What is Concept Mapping Together?

Concept Mapping Together is a facilitation protocol for having structured conversations aimed at generating shared understanding between two or more people. This is accomplished by creating a concept map, together.


  •   •  Whiteboard
  •   •  1 Dry erase whiteboard marker
  •   •  1 Whiteboard eraser
  •   •  1 Post-it note pad
  •   •  1 Sharpie
  •   •  Time-keeping device
  •   •  Camera
  •   •  Pen and paper

Before you begin, choose an objective

The following is a list of potential objectives to use as a starting point for your own concept mapping.

Potential objectives for individuals:

  •   •  Gain clarity about a topic for yourself
  •   •  Consolidate knowledge from multiple sources
  •   •  Identify knowledge gaps, and find new questions to fill in those gaps

Potential objectives for teams:

  •   •  Share alternative perspectives
  •   •  Uncover hidden knowledge to resolve an issue that your team is facing
  •   •  Generate alignment and shared understanding within your team, or with another team

Potential objectives when working with experts:

  •   •  Elicit and capture the knowledge of a domain expert to make sense of a complicated domain
  •   •  Connect the knowledge of stakeholders from across professional boundaries


  1. Choose a focus question
  2. Assign roles
  3. Generate a parking lot of 8 to 10 concepts related to your question
  4. Organize concepts into affinity groups
  5. Relate concepts with linking words and phrases
  6. Add new concepts as necessary, building on your map
  7. Rearrange the concepts and links as you go for improved organization
  8. Stop when time is up (20 minutes is a good duration)
  9. Take a photo of the concept map
  10. Iterate by clearing whiteboard and reassigning roles

Rules of Play

  • One focus question at a time
  • One concept per Post-it note (one or two word concepts are best)
  • Get connected: Build a connection between teammates
  • Go slow and keep the team in sync
  • The talker does the talking
  • One interview question at a time
  • Small teams are best
  • Be messy and diverge first, converge second
  • Take pictures of every map
  • Take notes of knowledge gaps and new questions
  • A concept map is not precious, so make modifications with no fear!
  • Timebox and iterate as appropriate

Team roles

  • The Talker - The source of knowledge - Gives direction to the mapper
  • The Writer - Asks questions of The Talker - Writes concepts on post-its and adds them to the whiteboard parking lot
  • The Mapper - Positions concept post-its on the whiteboard and relates them to each other with linking words or phrases
  • The Facilitator - Keeps order of time, space, materials, and focus

If fewer than four participants are available, roles can be combined.
If greater than four participants are available, assign multiple individuals to The Writer role.
Read below for further details on roles.

Detailed role descriptions

The Talker provides the knowledge to be mapped
Position: In the center, facing the whiteboard, behind The Writer and The Mapper
Tools: Expertise and knowledge by any means available (ie memory, documents, smartphone, laptop)
Actions: Respond to questions, direct the mapper Skills required: expert knowledge, slow speaking, clear explanation

The Writer interviews the talker and extracts the concepts from their statements.
Position: standing at the whiteboard, facing the Talker
Tools: 1 Sharpie, 1 Post-it note pad
Actions: ask a question, extract concepts, write concepts on post-it notes, stick them in the parking-lot
Skills required: interviewing, active listening, clear handwriting (write slowly)

The Mapper positions the concepts and draws the links between them to form propositions.
Position: standing in front of the whiteboard, facing sideways with writing hand to whiteboard, towards the Talker and Writer Tools: 1 whiteboard marker, 1 whiteboard eraser
Actions: move concepts, link concepts, remove concepts
Skills required: clear handwriting, active listening

The Facilitator is responsible for the smooth and timely progress as well as the proper focus of the team during the concept mapping session
- Position: in the center, behind the Talker and Mapper, facing the whiteboard
- Tools: extra materials, clock or stopwatch, pen and paper
- Actions: take notes, take photos, keep time, keep team focused, write down new questions
- Skills required: Attentive vigilance


What is the minimum team size?
The minimum team size is two: a Talker and a Writer/Mapper

What is the concept parking lot?
The concept parking lot is the space on the whiteboard used to temporarily hold concepts until the Mapper can properly position them.

What is a Focus Question?
A Focus Question is a question that clearly specifies the problem or issue the concept map should help to resolve.

Static Focus Questions examples:
"What are the parts of a plant?"
"What is the Ozone Hole?"
"What is the Panama Canal?"
"What is a compound interest rate?"

Dynamic Focus Question examples:
"How do the different parts of the plant help to produce food for the plant?"
"What effects does the Ozone Hole have on health and global warming?"
"How has the Panama Canal influenced Panama, economically and culturally?"
"How can we take advantage of compound interest rates to save for retirement?"

Example questions for The Writer to ask during the mapping exercise:
"What are the objects involved?"
"Who are the people involved?"
"Where are the locations involved?"
"What are the operations, behaviors and events involved?"
"What are relationships and interconnections involved?"