Part 2: How the CABS Approach to Mapping Can Lead to Service Improvements

Part 2: How the CABS Approach to Mapping Can Lead to Service Improvements

Many governments and communities are already using tools from human-centered design and service design to accelerate their innovation: process maps, customer journey maps, business process improvement diagrams, service blueprints, and fishbone or affinity diagrams.[1] The Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS) draws from the best of these tools in its approach to mapping systems and services — representing them in visual form.

The CABS Approach aims to apply insights from behavioral science to help our partners identify behavioral biases and barriers to participation or progress in their systems, and then design and test evidence-based solutions to address those barriers and improve their services. This post lays out how CABS uses mapping at different stages of our problem-solving process to help partners achieve service improvements.

  • Identify and define service challenges. Mapping begins with a simple visual representation of the steps in a program’s service flow. This visual representation is a product all parties can refer to as we identify and define service challenges in the Define stage of the CABS Approach. Drawing on MDRC’s decades of experience working with government agencies and social programs, we often sketch out a high-level process based on our experience with similar programs or early conversations with program designers or leaders. We listen to all sides, to gain the perspectives of both staff members and participants.[2] CABS maps then display the points where staff members and participants interact to highlight places in the process where additional interaction may be needed or areas of inefficiency and duplication where service delivery could be simplified.
  • Clarify challenges and identify leverage points. Of course, processes as drafted by program designers or researchers may not reflect everything that staff members and participants must do in a process. During the Clarify step of the CABS Approach, we invite larger groups of program staff members and participants to edit the draft map or comment on how their experience of the process does or does not match up with it.[3] Sometimes this exercise reveals that there are hidden or unnecessary steps in the process, sometimes it shows that there are multiple pathways to achieving the same goal, and sometimes it reveals assumptions that require reflection and adjustment. At this stage in the CABS Approach, the MDRC team incorporates quantitative data to pinpoint where in a process people are not engaging as expected (for example, by missing steps or stopping the process altogether), or are engaging without achieving their intended outcomes.
  • Diagnose bottlenecks in the system related to behaviors. During the Diagnose stage, a CABS map incorporates insights from the behavioral science literature to synthesize the perspectives clients and staff members shared in the Clarify stage and to reveal potential reasons why people may not experience a process or service as intended. This addition of insights from behavioral science can show how a system’s design contributes to inequitable service access and outcomes, or undesirable experiences for participants. These insights from behavioral science are also critical to the transition from the diagnosis of the barriers participants face in a process or system, to the Design stage of building solutions grounded in evidence.
  • Design or redesign systems and services to address behavioral bottlenecks. With a clear grounding in the human experience of a system, we can draw connections among the real-world challenges observed, insights from the behavioral science literature about the behavioral root of those challenges, and promising evidence of how services could be redesigned to address them. This approach to problem-solving ensures that the solutions we invest in are responsive to the people who maintain these systems and whose engagement determines their success. CABS maps typically include recommendations regarding potential evidence-based solutions to address identified behavioral barriers. Programs can then work with CABS to identify high-leverage points of intervention, to Design program improvements, and to Test whether they address the challenges identified in earlier phases. It is important to include in design and planning conversations the people implicated by changes, to ensure that the details of implementation do not unintentionally replicate existing barriers to participation or introduce new ones.

Innovation does not end when the CABS mapping process does. A CABS map is a living document that programs can turn to again and again to design and refine solutions for program improvement and systems innovation, using the same practices they used to develop it.

Do the organizational challenges and opportunities shared here seem familiar? Are you interested in learning more or trying to apply these tools to the design and delivery of your program? We want to hear from you! Visit us at or email us at


[1] Human-centered design is a problem-solving approach that centers the people you are designing for. For more on human-centered design and design thinking see Fishbone diagrams group observations into categories to consider many different causes to a problem. For more on these and other methods see Sarah Gibbons, “UX Mapping Methods Compared: A Cheat Sheet,” Neilson Norman Group, November 5 (, 2017); Kara Pernice, “Affinity Diagramming for Collaboratively Sorting UX Findings and Design Ideas,” Neilson Norman Group, February 18 (, 2018).

[2] These conversations and observations allow us to create something similar to a service blueprint, which shows the interactions and back-end steps involved in a customer gaining access to a service. For more see G. Lynn Shostack, "Designing Services That Deliver," Harvard Business Review 62, 1 (, 1984): 133-139; Mary Jo Bitner, Amy L. Ostrom, and Felicia N. Morgan, “Service Blueprinting: A Practical Technique for Service Innovation,” California Management Review 50, 3 (, 2008): 66-94.

[3] This step of the CABS mapping process is inspired by the human-centered design method of customer journey mapping.

Creating a process map graphic