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5 Stages of Successful Customer Journey Maps

A customer journey map gives you insight into how your users interact with your product. Here are five best practices to help you make one. 

I have had a love/hate relationship with customer journey maps—and it started with hate.

In my first role as a UXR, I dreaded the damn thing. I was not a designer or a visualizer. I wrote and I used words to communicate my thoughts. To me, a customer journey map felt like one giant doodle that I would never be able to tackle.

My biggest issue was that I wasn’t 100% sure what a customer journey map really was or what purpose it served.

Now, after years of experience in this field, I always understand deliverables by the goal they are meant to serve. We need to think of the goal, what we want to accomplish, and then choose the deliverable based on that.

So, if you want to highlight a combination of user’s feelings, challenges, and steps in a visual path, then a customer journey map will be your best friend. It’s self-explanatory: a map of the journey a customer takes.

In order to illustrate this, let’s go through this article as if it were a journey.

A disclaimer: this fictional journey map is solely based on my individual experience with customer journey maps. Always do user research before creating a customer journey map.

If you want to highlight a combination of user’s feelings, challenges, and steps in a visual path, then a customer journey map will be your best friend.

First, let’s go through the most common stages someone trying to understand and create a customer journey maps will encounter.

  • Stage 1: Information gathering
  • Stage 2: Decision to create
  • Stage 3: Brainstorming (sketching)
  • Stage 4: Creation
  • Stage 5: Validating/disproving (continue to iterate)

In this case, these stages are based on my experience. In an ideal scenario (and if I had much more time), they would be based on user research I performed about how user researchers learn about customer journey maps (super meta, I know).

There are many different components you can include under each stage of your customer journey map. I generally include:

  • Overarching goal: What is the most high-level goal the user is trying to achieve during that stage?
  • Associated feelings: What is the user feeling during a particular stage? There may be multiple feelings, and some may be conflicting. Highlighting this brings a more human aspect to the map since it is incredibly realistic.
  • Approximate timeline: What is the approximate timeline a user will stay within the phase? This could be anywhere from minutes to months.
  • Tasks: What are the actions the user is performing during this stage? I include tasks the user performs, both inside and outside of the platform/website/app.
  • Pain points: What are the problems and challenges the user faces during this stage? Again, these can be inside and outside of the platform/website/app.
  • Other tools: What additional tools is the user accessing and using during this stage?

In addition to these points, I also include the actual touchpoint the user is having with the platform/website/app and relevant quotes to these touchpoints. I also always ask: are we [company] helping users in this stage? This gives an idea of, on a scale of 1-5 (1: absolutely not; 5: absolutely), the level of support the company provides for the user’s goals, tasks, and pain points

Let’s explore each of the above stages with this lens:

Step 1: Information gathering

Overarching goal: To find a deliverable that allows for a visualization of a user’s journey through a platform/website/app

Associated feelings:

  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Excitement
  • Rushed

Approximate timeline: 1-2 weeks

Tasks:

  • Searching for information about different deliverables
  • Trying to understand what deliverable makes the most sense for the project’s goal
  • Talking to manager/team members to figure out project goals
  • Asking colleagues, friends, and network about their experiences

Pain points:

  • Unclear information on websites
  • Not a single source of truth
  • Unsure of which sources to trust
  • No tangible examples, just vague templates
  • Conflicting information on what is “best” to include
  • Too many different examples

Other tools:

  • Google
  • Colleagues/friends
  • Network

Stage 2: Decision to create

Overarching goal: Make a final decision on a deliverable (customer journey map)

Associated feelings:

  • Anxiety
  • Momentum
  • Apprehension
  • Relief (with decision made)

Approximate timeline: 1-2 days

Tasks:

  • Comparing 2-3 different potential deliverables
  • Making a decision on one deliverable to represent the project’s goals
  • Presenting the idea to team/manager

Pain points:

  • Lingering uncertainty over the best deliverable
  • Possibility of team rejecting the idea
  • Doesn’t want to have to “start from scratch”
  • Wants to make a good impression by presenting the best deliverable option

Other tools:

  • Website resources
  • Books
  • Colleagues

Without this information, you are batting with your eyes closed.

Stage 3: Brainstorming

Overarching goal: With the user research that was done, coming up with different ideas on what the customer journey could include and how it might look

Associated feelings:

  • Excitement
  • Inspired
  • Creative
  • Nervous
  • Uncertain

Approximate timeline: 1 day

Tasks:

  • Choosing the different components to include in the journey map
  • Mapping out the different reaching findings (ex: affinity diagramming under each stage)
  • Sketching how the journey might look
  • Holding workshops for team members to brainstorm/discuss the journey map together
  • Picking and appropriately grouping content
  • Prioritizing the content

Pain points:

  • Running a workshop
  • Uncertainty around how to visualize a journey and bring together all components
  • Not sure exactly what to include in the journey map, as there are many different options
  • Unsure how to use other examples in the context of this particular product
  • Figuring out which content is absolutely necessary for first iteration

Other tools:

  • Google
  • Website resources
  • Colleagues
  • Books
  • Whiteboard, pen/paper

Stage 4: Creation

Overarching goal: Create the first iteration of the customer journey map

Associated feelings:

  • Excitement
  • Relief
  • Apprehension
  • Creativity

Approximate timeline: 1 week

Tasks:

  • Finalizing any brainstorming sketches into the first iteration
  • Ensuring all the content is created and appropriately grouped
  • Either: designing the first iteration or handing off to a designer

Pain points:

  • Not being able to design oneself
  • Finalizing the content for the first iteration
  • Ensuring everything is handed over in a way that makes sense
  • Design coming out “incorrectly” compared to expectation
  • Questions or delays in design

Other tools:

  • Sketch
  • Pen/paper or whiteboard
  • Photoshop

Stage 5: Validate/disprove (continue to iterate)

Overarching goal: Validate/disprove the first iteration

Associated feelings:

  • Relief
  • Accomplishment
  • Pride
  • Excitement

Approximate timeline: Undefined

Tasks:

  • Continuing to conduct user research sessions to validate/disprove the first iteration
  • If necessary (after 5 participants), making changes to incorrect or missing information
  • Teaching different departments how to use a customer journey map
  • Using the customer journey map for product improvements and innovation
  • Presenting the journey map to the company

Pain points:

  • Constant changes to the iteration (which means not enough research was done upfront)
  • Lack of understanding on how to use a journey map, or confusion when trying to use it
  • No one using the customer journey map
  • No designer available to help iterate on the journey map

Other tools:

  • Slack and email (or company messaging system)
  • Sketch
  • User research session tools (Zoom, Lookback, UserTesting.com, etc.)

It is okay if the ending is vague (I left it so here). With most customer journey maps, you will find that the ending is a loop or a question: either a customer returns to your site to purchase again, they renew a contract, or they leave forever if it was a terrible experience. Don’t try to find a finite ending, as it closes the door to potential places of innovation

Overall, I’ve made some pretty big assumptions in this journey map to understand journey maps. For example, I assumed that you have done the necessary generative research beforehand to have the insights needed for a customer journey map. Without this information, you are batting with your eyes closed.

Avoid these 3 mistakes

There were three huge mistakes I made when first trying to create customer journey maps:

Mistake #1: Making customer journey more than they need to be

They are to show the journey a customer is taking, and the different places they touch your platform/website/app. You can also show associated feelings with this.

What I tried to do, initially, was smash everything I knew into a customer journey map. I made this weird hybrid of a customer journey, experience, persona, blueprint map, and, boy, was it confusing.

Less is more understandable. You can always build on the foundation.

Mistake #2: Not realizing people don’t know how to use them

Unfortunately, not everyone knows what a customer journey map is and how it can help. I assumed I would create one and the necessary changes would be apparent. If it made sense to me, it would make sense to others.

I learned very quickly I had to teach people about what a customer journey map was and how to use one. Please make sure to present and follow-up with a best practices discussion so your journey map isn’t just digitally sitting in a folder.

Mistake #3: Not realizing journeys are never linear

Most customer journey maps are linear. But that’s a mistake.

We can show repeated behavior with loops and arrows but, so far, it is impossible to replicate the actual behavior of users in a customer journey map.

Also, it is difficult to reflect all the different twists and turns a user might take in a given journey. There isn’t necessarily a solution to this, but please keep it in mind when you are presenting and using this map.

My biggest piece of advice when it comes to creating these, or any, deliverables is to just put pen to paper, or marker to whiteboard, and draw. It is so easy to get a form of writer’s block when you try to do this perfectly the first time. In fact, there is no perfect first time. It is impossible and it will change. There is no “right” way to do this and, therefore, no wrong way to do it.

Nikki Anderson

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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