Cardsmith

8 Key Visual Tools for Business Analysts

Business Analysts are like parkour athletes. You’ve surely seen videos of these nearly superhuman tricks: fast-moving men and women springing off vertical walls, hopping from rooftop to rooftop, running across railings high above a city. They cleverly and quickly negotiate what most of us would see as impossible paths, or at least obstructions to our movement forward. Parkour was designed to help military forces move through urban spaces quickly, using the obstacles in their way to increase their efficiency. As Business Analysts, we can use this same mindset to improve our work.

In your job you must facilitate change faster than ever before, with fewer resources. Rework is expensive, so time wasted on on revisiting a project can leave your organization vulnerable and even negatively impact your career. It’s easy to get stuck in processes while competitors zoom ahead. In these situations, you need tools to help you negotiate obstacles with the agility and speed of a parkour athlete.

So how do you find the most efficient path when you’re also in a huge hurry? Use visual business tools. Studies show between 50% and 80% of us find it easier to understand ideas that are presented visually. Visual tools can help you more easily make sense of complex problems and work through tough choices, such as prioritizing. They can improve your creativity, innovation and problem solving. Many of these tools will also help you engage your stakeholders, so they stay connected to the project and buy in to what you need to accomplish.

Here, we will discuss eight top visual tools to specifically help Business Analysts with the work that you do. We’ll talk a little about each one and the situations where they simplify your work.   

Free Form Brainstorming

Problem: You need to get a lot of ideas from a wide variety of people.

When It’s Useful: Use this tool when you’re in an expansive phase of a project and are looking to get a lot of input. You might free form brainstorm with your team to generate solutions to a problem, requirements for a project, names of people to interview or companies to consider as potential partners.

How It Works: In free form brainstorming, pick your topic but avoid placing limits or guidelines on the brainstorm process. Simply write down every idea that comes up. Just let the ideas flow without trying to group them by similarity or think about next steps. Writing each idea on a sticky note (paper or virtual) is a great way to capture the ideas during a free form brainstorming session, in a way that everyone can see them.

Visual Value: With the sticky notes format, your team can see each idea visually, and that will help spark additional ideas. The fast pace of free form brainstorming allows you to generating quick input from team members, which increases the number of quality ideas you will generate. Sticky notes also allow for simple organization of the ideas after the brainstorm session ends.

Figure 1.  Brainstorming on Sticky Notes

Creative Matrix Brainstorming

Problem: You need to gather all of the requirements for your project and make sure nothing gets forgotten.

When It’s Useful: Once you know certain criteria, dimensions or categories around the problem, you can use this tool to get more in depth. The creative matrix is a great way to brainstorm for ideas within each category.

How It Works: This is a semi-structured brainstorming tool where a question is posed and a variety of categories are offered to help guide the idea generation.To get started, think about two elements of your project that are important, and five categories to brainstorm within each element. Create a grid of this information (see Figure 2 as an example). Divide your team into small groups and give each this grid. Give them a set amount of time to produce ideas to fill in the grid.

Visual Value: This tool helps your participants think about all of the different aspects of the topic you’re brainstorming, and that can result in a wider variety of ideas being generated. Creative matrix is typically done in multiple small groups to ensure everyone gets input and all of the categories get attention.

Figure 2. Creative Matrix

Affinity Diagram

Problem: You have generated a lot of ideas and now you need to organize them.

When It’s Useful: This is most beneficial following a freeform brainstorming session where lots of ideas have been generated but not yet structured. Use this tool as your first step toward designing the steps and workflow of your project.

How It Works: Assuming your brainstorming was on movable sticky notes or an online application like Cardsmith cards, you will now begin to group the ideas into clusters based on their similarities. This is best performed in a session with your team, so they can discuss and add input to make sure each grouping of cards makes sense to them.

Visual Value: Grouping similar ideas visually leads to important discussions around how ideas are similar and how they are distinct. Doing this exercise as a group helps your team feel connected to the project by building a shared understanding and overall consensus. Overall, the creative matrix leads to better decision making as you are structuring your project.

Figure 3.  Affinity Diagram in Cardsmith

4 Box Model

Problem: You need to delve deep into a large amount of information, so you can prioritize.

When It’s Useful: When you need to prioritize by simplifying and clarifying a large set of data. It’s often a great way to determine where you need to focus time and energy for the highest returns. You are looking to identify the proverbial “low hanging fruit” that deserve your immediate attention.

How It Works: The 4 Box model is created as a 2×2 grid where the X axis represents one dimension of your data, and Y axis another dimension. Here’s how to set up a

  1. Decide on your top two criteria.
  2. Before ranking all the information, make sure to gather it all into a spreadsheet, or in a visual tool like Cardsmith. 
  3. Ask your most qualified people to rank the first dimension from 1-5, with one being the lowest priority and five being the highest.
  4. Ask your most qualified people to do the same ranking of 1-5 for the second dimension.
  5. If using a spreadsheet, input the rankings for each item and create a graph that visually shows the results as four boxes.  
  6. Alternately, if you are doing this alone or in a very small group, use sticky notes and simply place the items into the appropriate four boxes organized on a wall, or do this it all online in a Cardsmith grid like the figure shown below.  

Visual Value: The 4 Box Model is useful in a variety of business analysis tasks, in particular requirements prioritization and stakeholder analysis.

When doing requirements prioritization, one axis can represent value or impact and the other can represent cost or effort. This is a great way to prioritize because it becomes apparent which items have the best value for the effort—basically, the low hanging fruit.

When doing stakeholder analysis, use one axis to represent interest and the other to represent influence. Stakeholders with high interest and influence make great steering committee members and project champions. Those with low interest but high influence requires a higher level of careful communication so that they do not derail your project. Others with low influence but high interest can be great resources to enlist in helping your project along. You likely only need simple communication with the people who have both low interest and low influence.

Simplifying your projects down to the most important elements in this way helps you communicate more clearly with your team, and therefore obtain buy-in. It also ensures that everyone focuses their energy in the right place.

This is a great alternative to attempting a detailed analysis of all the information at once, which usually ends up being confusing, overwhelming and counterproductive.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the 4 Box Model concept, we recommend this article.

Figure 4. Cardsmith board illustrating the 4 Box Model

Strategy Mapping

Problem: You need to understand the strategy of an organization or project.

When It’s Useful: This tool is a smart choice for a variety of business analysis tasks. Perhaps you are tasked with evaluating and proposing large scale change management projects. If so, you’ll likely want to facilitate a strategy mapping session with the executive team and other key groups within the organization. If you are a Business Analyst working on a single project such as implementing or improving a software application, you may want to map how your project relates to the organization’s overall strategy. This will help you communicate your project’s value, retain management support and guide project priorities.

How It Works: Start at the top with the overall objective of your client. Then, work from the top down to articulate the strategies, tactics, policies or approaches that are being used to achieve that goal. Items lower in the tree are connected via upward pointing arrows, resulting in a visual hierarchy tree. Figure 5 shows a simple example. In this case, the tree can be read as,  “In order to improve profits by 10%, we will increase sales by 5% and decrease manufacturing costs by 3%.”

Figure 5. Simple Strategy Map in Cardsmith

Visual Value: Strategy is a fuzzy thing, often poorly understood even by the management teams that set it. By mapping out your understanding of your company’s strategy—and how various project tie into it—you can bring clarity to your organization. This will also reveal any strategies that conflict with each other, helping the organization or project stay more on track toward its goals.

Business Process Mapping

Problem: You are tasked with changing or modifying a business process. However, there may be a wide swath of people involved in the process who explain or understand it quite differently.

When It’s Useful: Use this tool whenever a business process needs to be understood, simplified or modified. Before you begin, it’s important to understand and get clear about the current process. If you don’t map out the steps and review them with everyone involved, you are flying blind. Any proposed changes can create severe unintended consequences.

How It Works: If you can gather most people involved in a process together in a conference room, you can use sticky notes on a whiteboard to draw out the process steps. We suggest using sticky notes as opposed to simply drawing the steps on the whiteboard so that you can easily move them around as additional steps are added, or as the team debates the actual flow of the process. If you cannot do this together physically, Cardsmith offers a nice online solution to perform this process as a remote meeting. Everyone can see and contribute to the board in real time, while discussing the steps live via video or teleconferencing.  

Visual Value: Mapping out the business process in a live group setting will likely reveal great discrepancies as to what is the actual flow of the business process. Performing this discussion as a group allows each person involved the chance to be heard as they share their perception of the steps. The meeting takes place in a setting where everyone can see the steps being mapped out and, in the end, you’ll all reach an agreement about how the process works. This session can be very illuminating for the company, and offer additional justification for improving that process.  

Figure 6.  Business Process Map Template Available in Cardsmith 

Visual Project Execution Boards (e.g. Kanban, Scrum, Scrumban)

Problem: You need to map out the execution phase of a project,

When It’s Useful: You can use this tool to map out an entire project’s execution. Likewise, you can use it to break down smaller phases of execution, such as when you need to interview a large number of stakeholders or have a long list of requirements to research.

How It Works: Much has been written about these methodologies. If you are new to any of them, check out this post about how to build a simple visual processing board. If you are already familiar with Kanban or Scrum, you might find this post offers some more focused information about how to get the most out of them.  

Visual Value: These boards create a visual layout that promotes a steady flow of work and therefore speeds up your team’s progress. They allow us to visualize all of the work in one place. Visual Project Execution Boards also provide an element of limitation, which speeds up progress by helping people focus, rather than getting bogged down trying to do too many tasks. You and others involved in the project can also see where work is being blocked, allowing participants to ask for assistance from management or team members in order to get things moving forward.

Figure 7.  Simple Kanban Board for a team in Cardsmith

Visual Meeting Agendas, Actions and Minutes

Problem: You need one simple tool to allow for your meetings to proceed efficiently and for follow-up to happen effectively.

When It’s Useful: Whenever you are meeting with a team remotely, it’s a good idea to have a visual agenda on everyone’s screen via a screen-share to keep people focused. You can even do away with complex powerpoint presentations, written minutes, and handouts that people will be reading rather than engaging in the discussion at hand.

How It Works: Create a visual board in Cardsmith featuring the agenda items you plan to discuss. You can share it with your team both in advance of the meeting and at the beginning of the meeting. Agenda items are listed below the date. Some teams will allow others to post agenda items they wish to discuss, which prevents anyone from feeling blindsided when the topic comes up. To see a great example of how the Cardsmith team uses this tool, check out our blog post about the changes it allowed us to make—for the better.

Visual Value: A simple, visual representation of current status, what notes are being taken and which action items are being recorded helps engage an entire room and keeps them on the same page. Seeing things being recorded by another person improves accountability and the likelihood of an action being completed.


You’ve now learned the 8 Key Visual Tools for Business Analysts. When you put these tools to use in your work, you’ll find you can get through your tasks with more agility and efficiency. You now have the skills to manage your obstacles with the nimble speed of a parkour athlete.

If you’d like to learn more about using these kinds of tools, we think you might like this post about six simple steps that lead to successful visual problem solving.  

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