Maybe I’m a little sensitive to bad visual story metaphors.  I’ve certainly seen more than a few… but this one was professionally published and promoted.  We can learn from what the storyteller did wrong.

As many of you know, I worked with Martin Sykes and Mark West to co-author a book on visual storytelling.  It’s beautifully constructed, thanks to Mark, and provides a framework that Martin and I created called CAST that helps individual folks create their own compelling and interesting stories. It’s also given me a somewhat visceral reaction to visual stories done well, and stories done poorly.

One important aspect of testing your visual story is to share it with people who cannot hear you present it.  In other words, letting it stand alone.  Show it to someone, via email, or post it on the wall.  Then ask: what story does it tell?  See what they say.  This is wildly instructive.

So first off, let’s look at the image in question.  Let’s see if you can tell what the story is.

subway map image of ITSM processes for Service operations

Looks interesting, doesn’t it?  The visual metaphor is that of a subway map.  For those of you who do not live in a city with a subway, a subway map is a stylized map of the various trains and train stations that shows a potential rider where to get on, get off, and change stations.  If you want to see some common examples of excellent subway maps, follow these links to see London, New York, and Tokyo.

So lets take the concept of a subway map and look at the diagram above.  Can you tell what the major “subway lines” on this subway map are?  I think it is reasonable clear that there are six train tracks: Access Management, Request Fulfillment, Incident Management, Event Management, Problem Management, and Knowledge Management.

I’m going to assume that you do not know what those are, and that’s OK.  Let’s keep looking at the picture a little longer.  Can you tell what a circle or a square mean?  The key does not indicate what they mean.  (This is a complete image… I did not remove anything).  We can see that a green and yellow circle is a “Key Intersection” but there is no indication of what a hollow circle, square, or diamond are, or what they mean.

Let me reassure you that there are no distinctions between circle, square, and diamond shapes in any of the subway maps that I’ve encountered.  Simply click the links above to view the subway maps of some major cities and you will see nothing of the sort.  This creates confusion.  Is a diamond a “station”?  How is it different from a square or a circle?

Clarification from the comments: many maps use a single shape to indicate a station and a variation on that shape to indicate a larger or transfer station.  In NYC, that is a circle or filled circle.  There are no square stations or diamond shaped stations.  London has smaller stations represented as a divot on a line and a transfer station represented as a circle. Paris takes the same route as New York, with circles.

So let’s look at the “stations” on the map above.  Most have a diamond shape.  So let’s guess that “diamond shape” means a station on the map.  But what are these stations?  I’ll give you a clue: “Incident Management” is a standardized description of a process.  So perhaps these are steps in the process?  Ah, that kind of makes sense.

So we can ascertain some of the information on the map knowing a little context in advance.

But what is the big circle in the middle?  The words “Plan”, “Do”, “Check” and “Act” are written on that circle.  Can you guess what it means and why it’s there?

I couldn’t.  And I coauthored a book on visual design.  I’ve seen thousands of visual designs.  And I COULD NOT FIGURE OUT WHAT THAT CIRCLE WAS.

So what’s the story?  Ah, there’s the rub.  There really isn’t a story being told here.  And that’s a problem, because a story would be excellent to tell.

What is the map trying to say?

This image is never shared alone.  It is part of a white paper shared by a well known consulting company.  The five processes listed are described in a process framework called ITIL (specifically the third version of that framework, which is now obsolete).  The text that accompanies the image above states:

This map depicts the major ITIL processes as the stations en route to an organizational process (destination) or goal. The ITIL process stations are served by tracks, which are positioned relative to one another to illustrate how they support the goal of continuous improvement. The ITIL continuous improvement cycle takes the form of a circle or central line,with each Plan-Do-Check-Act (P-D-C-A) step as a process integration point or junction on the line. Junctions serve both as reference points when assessing process maturity and as a means to consider the implications of implementing a process in isolation.

First off, that’s terrible writing.  But even if it were written understandably, it doesn’t really explain the diagram.  Apparently the large circle in the middle is supposed to provide some kind of context for the train lines.  The text says that cycle is a “central line”.  Really?  It’s another train line?  Why doesn’t it look like a train line?

In addition, each station on that central line is an integration point.  But what if there are no stations on the central circle?  Look carefully at the diagram. There are no stations where the Knowledge Management line intersects the central circle.  It just passes right over.  SO WHY IS IT THERE?

Let’s ignore the fact that the diagram has serious factual errors.  Incident Management intersects with Knowledge Management in real life in two places, but on the map, there is only one intersection.  That’s a technical detail but it does work against the credibility of the model.  Geeks like me notice.

What’s more important is the fact that the visual metaphor is complete messed up.  Here is where the problems lie:

  1. Extend the metaphor carefully — the visual metaphor of a subway map represents trains that run in both directions.  There is no start or end of a train on a subway map.  The ITIL Operations map above shows processes, and processes always have a start and an end.  They move in one direction.  So if you want to use this metaphor, you need to extend it: The map needs direction indicators to show flow.  (That’s what those circles and squares mean, by the way.  Start at a circle and end at a square.  That’s clear, right?).  The lesson here: if you are extending a metaphor, you may have to add indicators that are not on the original.  In this case, arrow heads work better than circles and squares.
  2. Stick to the metaphor — While a subway map certainly can be used to indicate intersections between processes (it’s rather common, actually), the “central line” added above (Plan-Do-Check-Act) is completely foreign.  There are no subway maps with a “central line” that are not also a train.  The goal of the author, I think, was to illustrate that specific process points were somehow related to “plan” or “check” concepts.  Not sure why that’s relevant for these process maps.  And if it is, there are better ways to indicate the alignment to concepts.  Simply encoding the stations with a color or a subscript would have been more effective.  And if an entire section of a process is related to the “plan” concept, have it travel through a “landscape” that represents the concept.  (See the New York subway map for a great example of superimposing a landscape on the subway map).  Personally, I think it is extraneous.
  3. Stick to the metaphor (pt 2) — in a subway map, every station has a name.  The diagram above has “stations” with no name.
  4. Use understandable text when describing your visual metaphor.  The text above is verbatim from the source material attempting to describe the image.  It’s awful.  If writing isn’t your thing, hire someone to help you.
  5. Have a clear goal that the image is attempting to achieve.  As the text above indicates, the process junctions are supposed to “serve both as reference points … and as a means to consider the implications of implementing a process in isolation.”  Really?  Is that your goal?  Remember, this is from a consulting company.  The goal of public materials from any consulting company is to increase sales of consulting services.  Sharing IP can increase confidence (and thus sales) by demonstrating that the consulting company has a regular approach and trained staff.  Does this map indicate a regular approach?  Does it indicate keen understanding? Does it build your confidence?

Ok, enough criticism.  It’s enough to show a really troublesome visual metaphor.  But its often more instructive to show someone who used that same metaphor well.

Here is a good example of using a subway map to illustrate a process.  It is from the US Internal Revenue Service.

Taxpayer Roadmap from the Internal Revenue Service that uses the visual metaphor of a subway map to illustrate intersecting processes

By Nick Malik

Former CIO and present Strategic Architect, Nick Malik is a Seattle based business and technology advisor with over 30 years of professional experience in management, systems, and technology. He is the co-author of the influential paper "Perspectives on Enterprise Architecture" with Dr. Brian Cameron that effectively defined modern Enterprise Architecture practices, and he is frequent speaker at public gatherings on Enterprise Architecture and related topics. He coauthored a book on Visual Storytelling with Martin Sykes and Mark West titled "Stories That Move Mountains".

2 thoughts on “How to screw up a visual metaphor”
  1. One minor point: “Let me reassure you that there are no distinct circle, square, and diamond shapes in any of the subway maps I’ve encountered. Simply click the links above to view the subway maps of some major cities and you will see nothing of the sort.”

    The NYC subway map uses all three: square = line terminus; circle = line route; diamond = peak route. (The IRS subway map also uses these shapes and several others.)

    1. Hi Derek, You are referring to the shapes used as indicators of the various lines. For example, look at the #7 line as it reaches Flushing. You will see a purple digit “7” in a circle, a square, or a diamond shape. However, the stations are all circles. Some are small black circles, like 103rd Street at Corona Plaza, while others are small white circles like 61st Street, Woodside with a link to the LaGuardia train. There is a much larger white circle at Grand Central Station. However, every station is a circle and every circle, when placed on a line, is a station. No confusion.
      Now look again at the example above. What is a circle when compared to a diamond?
      That’s my point. I clarified the text in response to your comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

13 + 6 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.