UX Design

A Beginner's Guide to User Journey Mapping

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It's easy to develop tunnel vision when you're building a product. You spend a lot of time thinking about every little feature and every single process running under the hood.

But that's not how your users interface with your product. They're coming from the opposite direction—they have no reason to care about your product until you show them what it can do for them.

Say you built a great weather app with a lot of cool features. Your users aren't going to care about those—they likely just want to know if it's going to rain on their commute home. 

Your users probably came to you because they want to do one specific thing. Maybe they downloaded your app while waiting for the subway or they found your product in a Google search—whatever the case, you have a limited amount of time to prove to them that your app can help them accomplish what they want to do before they lose interest.

Turning first-time users into long-term customers requires an understanding of where your users are coming from and what they want to do. Creating user journey maps helps you keep user motivation at the front of your mind and create UX flows that get users where they want to go.

With user journey maps, you can make granular but pivotal tweaks that help users accomplish their goals easier and faster, come back to do it again, and build habits around your product—all from your onboarding UX.

In this post, we'll look at what user journey maps are, how to create them, and see examples from several industries.

What is a user journey map?

A user journey is a timeline of user actions that describes the relationship between your brand and its customers. It's a visualization all of a user's interactions with your product, from their point of view.

User journey mapping creates a timeline of all touchpoints between a customer and your organization, including all channels they happen in.

A really simple user journey map for your weather app could look something like this:

A flowchart for a UX journey map. The user logs into the app for the first time, tries to find local weather for the week, can't figure out how to enter her location, watches an onboarding tutorial, and finally sets up first customized weather report. User journeymap example. Example of UX map.

These user journey maps help your company gain insight into how users experience your product, based on their unique motivations and goals. 

For example, you might find that you need to remove a step from your onboarding UX flow, change the copy in a lead nurturing email, or add tooltips to help users learn something—all based on the actions your users take. This fosters a more customer-centric approach to product building, which ultimately leads to better customer relationships.

Mapping out your users' experiences allows you to understand several important factors that shape the overall impression they will walk away with. Some questions you might ask about your users' journey could include:

  • Why did they downloaded and opened the app in the first place?
  • How easy is the app to understand and use immediately?
  • How long it does it take them to accomplish what they came there to do?
  • How well does their experience extend across multiple channels, and where do they experience gaps?

The answers to these questions can help you better understand what motivates your users and what they're most likely to find helpful. You can then use this information to create an experience that really hooks them on your product.

In the next section, we'll explore what it takes to create a user journey map that does just that:

How to create a user journey map for your onboarding UX

A user journey map can include the entirity of a user's interaction with your product— from the moment they learn about it, throughout the process of becoming a customer, all the way to the point at which they stop using ir. Or it can focus on a specific part of this process, like the onboarding flow.

Here's how to get started understanding your customers and their journeys:

1. Start by working from your user personas

User personas are generalized profiles that outline the archetypes of your common users. They help you understand who you're building for, which can in turn help you understand the whys and the whats—why users take certain actions within your product, and what they're hoping to accomplish when they use it.

Begin by creating hypotheses about tje different types of users. Then, through a combination of product analytics, user surveys, and market research, you can validate these hypotheses (or disprove them, which can be equally illuminating). If you're just getting started with user personas, Price Intelligently CEO Patrick Campbell gives a step-by-step explanation on how to create them in this detailed guide.

For example, your weather app might have the following user personas:

  • The commuter
  • The picnic host
  • The forgetful gardener

Once you have your user personas drawn out, start creating user journey maps for each of them to understand how each type of customer interacts with your product, and what they need to do in order to accomplish what's meaningful to them. You should have at least one map per persona.

2. Great user journeys are based on research

User research is critical to understanding the experience of users. There are many different ways in which you can collect and systemize feedback. In fact, you're probably already getting a lot of feedback if you have a product that's up and running.

At this stage, it is critical to learn about the motivation of you users—what problem are they looking to solve when they come to your app? Different user segments will probably have different reasons to use your app, so you can start by developing hypotheses about what drives each user to download.

Your research should focus on the following aspects of the user experience:

  • Context: What is going on in your user’s day when they engage with your product? Are they in a rush? Worried? Planning an adventure?
  • Motivation: What drives your user to interact with your product? What are they hoping to get out of it? Why are they using your product instead of a competitor’s—or nothing at all?
  • Mental Models: How does your user conceive of the problem space that your product addresses? What concepts and connections come naturally to them, and what do they need to be taught?
  • Pain Points: What are the challenges users are facing? Is your product helping them solve these or aggravating them? Are there any obstacles they have to using your product?

For example, the research for your weather app's buyer personas might look something like this:

The commuter

  • Context: It looks like rain right now.
  • Motivation: I don’t want to get wet on my way to and from work.
  • Pain Points: I need reliable information about the weather by the hour.
  • Mental Models: I have time windows where I expect to be biking to and from work. I want to make sure that if rain intersects with any of those windows, I know to walk instead so I can bring my umbrella. If it’s rain AND high winds, that will tear apart my umbrella, so I’ll take the bus or a taxi.

The picnic host

  • Context: I’m making weekend plans and want to have a picnic.
  • Motivation: I want to know which day this weekend has the best weather for outdoor activities.
  • Pain Points: I want to know with certainty what the weather is going to be a few days in advance so I can plan accordingly.
  • Mental Models: Picnics are best when the weather is between 70 and 80 degrees and sunny—but temperature is more important than sun; I’ll try to find a day with both, but prioritize temperature if both aren’t available.

The forgetful gardener

  • Context: I can’t remember if it rained this week.
  • Motivation: I need to know recent precipitation totals so I don’t overwater my plants.
  • Pain Points: Finding historical weather data is complicated and time consuming.
  • Mental Models: Usually I just care about the last 3 days, but a really major rainstorm would soak them for a week. Total precipitation is all that matters.

The next step is to validate and refine your hypotheses by talking to your actual customers. Feedback you're already getting from customers is the first place you should look since that's readily available for you to analyze and process. There are many additional methods you can apply to collect data from customers—including A/B tests, surveys, and customer interviews.

3. Map out their journey

While you may eventually make a map for every persona, you can start by making a single general map of the general user journey.

The information you collect allows you to create a timeline of your user's interactions with your brand and product. This timeline could include things like:

  • User touchpoints
  • Benchmark actions and accomplishments within the app
  • Scheduled notifications

Here's an example of what a user journey map could look like for a productivity app:

UX map. A graph that shows positive and negative experiences in a user journey—plotted on a bar graph. A user journeymap can be simple and include the channels in which these interactions happen.

Your user journey map should note the channels in which these interactions happen to ensure that the user is getting a consistent experience across all channels. For example, if a customer talks to a pre-sales agent, you should note if that's expected to happen over the phone or through an online live chat. If a commuter from your weather app was going to talk to an agent, it would make most sense for them to do it within an online live chat box, since they'll be on the go.

You can also note the emotional state of users at each step of their journey (based on customer feedback and behavioral analytics). Look for the steps that confuse them and/or make them angry. Identifying these will allow you to target areas that could affect the entire user experience.

Examples of user journey maps

The user journey maps that you come up with will be highly specific to your unique product and users. However, there are some general similarities that you can use as a foundation for your own journey maps.

Below, we've outlined three common product experiences, provided an example of a product with this type of onboarding UX, and described how each company might get started creating their user journey maps:

  • Upsell to paid account
  • Ecommerce shopping flow
  • Chrome extension to web app

Upsell to paid account

Airtable, a relational database tool, allows users to start on a free plan and upgrade to a paid plan when they need more records or storage space. The Airtable team realized that their free version can be really beneficial to casual users, but that there is also an opportunity to monetize larger teams that have more complex organizational needs.

As a result, helping users determine what they need from a paid plan and navigate this upgrade is very important to Airtable. User journey maps can help remove friction points around this process.

To get started, Airtable would need to do some research about their user's experience. For example:

  • Context: As our company is growing, we need to find a better way to organize our blog publishing process.
  • Motivation: Content marketing has provided us with a scalable way to acquire customers, but managing the pipeline has become too time-consuming.
  • Pain Points: There are menial tasks about organizing the content calendar that waste too much time. Our process is spread between too many services—editing docs, storing images to be used in the final blog post, etc.
  • Mental Models: “My time is best spent when I'm focused on coming up with interesting topics to cover on our blog and when I spend time editing and improving the content.”

For instance, if the CMO at a startup is looking for a better way to organize their content team's workflow, they might consider upgrading from a free plan. Here are the steps in their journey:

user journey table showing pain points, touch points, channels, and experiences. A good user journey table example that can be adapted for your own use. It's important to understand your product's UX journey.

Using this map, Airtable can identify the critical points in their user's journey that can make or break their product's success. For example, a user experiences a huge point of friction when they can't decide between annual and monthly billing:

A screenshot of Airtable's pricing page (Feb 2018) shows a potential point of friction along the user journey. UX journey map.

By adding a “Save 17%!” message to the annual billing option on their pricing page, Airtable made it easier for visitors to make a decision about which billing cycle to choose.

Ecommerce shopping flow

Hotel Tonight scored a big win when they realized a key fact about their customers' mentality: When customers look for hotel rooms, they tend to align the experience with an ecommerce shopping model rather than the experience of using a typical app. Apps usually require registration before getting started—but that's not what users are expecting when they want to book a hotel room.

Interviewing customers and mapping their journeys is a great way to unearth insights like this. Some important findings about a Hotel Tonight user might be:

  • Context: Users are on-the-go in a new city and looking to make a quick “last-minute” booking on their phones.
  • Motivation: They need a place to stay tonight or in the next few days. Because they're in a hurry to book, they want to quickly find a good option, which gives them both a good place to stay and an acceptable price.
  • Pain Points: “Booking a hotel on your phone is cumbersome and takes too many taps.”
  • Mental Models: “I want to book soon and not worry about not having a place to spend the night.” “I want to find a good hotel at a price that's not going to put a hole in my pocket.”

Here's what the journey for a Hotel Tonight user trying to find a last minute hotel room might look like:

A second user journey table showing pain points, touch points, channels, and experiences

This user journey creates a positive customer experience by taking into account the need for speed and users' reluctance to create an account before booking. 

A screenshot of Hotel Tonight's UI, which was created by UX mapping.

By taking the time to really understand their customers' point of view, Hotel Tonight uncovered this critical piece of insight, which helped them improve conversions by 15%.

Chrome extension to web app

The proofreading tool Grammarly has amassed close to 7 million users since 2008. The key to their success is that they managed to turn their product from a tool that people use occasionally into an everyday companion.

Grammarly's original product would proofread your writing by allowing you to copy and paste text into their text editor.

For a user trying to edit an email to their boss, the follow details may be true:

  • Context: User is on her computer at work and needs to send an important update to their boss.
  • Motivation: This user was recently hired and is eager to make a good impression on her boss. She's nervous to email her boss in the first place, and is concerned that a silly typo or awkwardly phrased sentence will make her seem careless or lazy.
  • Pain Points: “It's easy to miss a silly mistake when you're proofreading your own writing.”
  • Mental Models: The user wants to feel confident that the final draft of her email is well written and mistake free, even though she feels nervous and prone to error. She doesn't want to ask anyone on her team to proofread her email to her boss, because it feels awkward and creates too much back and forth.

The user journey map for this user might look like this:

An example user journey map showing pain points, touchpoints, channels, and experiences across three steps

This kind of negative experience could discourage users from continuing to use the Grammarly product. It also adds a lot of friction. Every time the user wants to spellcheck something, they have to open Grammarly and copy and paste at the end—that's too much transferring between products and there's too much room for error.

Grammarly fixed this by releasing a Chrome web extension. Turning on the extension would enable Grammarly to proofread text anywhere the user was writing on the web.

A screen shot of Grammarly on an email. The company was able to make their product better by understanding the user journey and building a good user journey map.
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Now their product can help a user write well—whether they're composing an email to their boss or blasting internet foes on a gaming subreddit. This is how Grammarly shifted from a product that people used occasionally to one that was constantly necessary.

Grammarly's business model revolves around getting people to start using the free version of the product through the browser extension, and then getting them to upgrade their plans through the web app. Therefore, moving users between platforms is critical for the success of the brand.

Ease pain points along the user journey to help users accomplish their goals

Your focus should be on creating a smooth and intuitive user journey, no matter what type of onboarding UX or product experience you're building.

And remember: What seems intuitive to you as the product designer or marketer isn't necessarily intuitive to users. You work with the product every day and have a vested interest; users just need to accomplish one thing, and they don't have a reason to care beyond that.

By doing a little research and identifying what that one thing is—and helping your users get there quickly—you'll prove that your product is valuable. And by making it easy for users to accomplish their goals the first time around, you'll ensure that they keep coming back again and again.

I coach traditional companies on building design into their DNA, so they can stop looking for unicorns and get on with building brilliant digital products.