A Beginners' Guide to User Journey Mapping

Written by: Geordie Kaytes Geordie Kaytes 

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New user onboarding isn’t about showing off the features of your product—it’s about driving users to action and rewarding them for taking their first steps. Building onboarding flows specifically around realistic user journeys can help provide a more relevant and compelling first-time experience.

Imagine that you’ve just built the ultimate mobile weather app. Its feature set would make a meteorologist faint. Its visual design is slick and shiny. It’s even more than 50% accurate.

The user onboarding tour is fittingly exhaustive. When new users download your app, they get a whirlwind joyride through the entire interface—you’ve made sure they couldn’t miss a single historical humidity report or Old Farmers Almanac prediction.

You’ve built something beautiful, and you want to show it off. Unfortunately, in your excitement you’ve forgotten a cardinal rule of UX: thinking about your users’ needs first.

As it turns out, “learn how to use the app I just downloaded” is not on your user’s to-do list. For most people, learning how to use a new product isn’t intrinsically motivating. If you try to force people through a contrived “learning” flow, you’ll lose them.

Your product needs to create value instantly by helping your user complete one small, specific task (ideally the one they had in mind when they opened it up for the first time). Then another. Then another.

By understanding these initial value-creating tasks, your onboarding experience can begin to build habit, happiness, and long-term user engagement

Bonus: Download a User Journey template slide deck made by Fresh Tilled Soil

How do we figure out what these early tasks are? You have to understand the context, motivation, and mental models of your users when they first begin using your product. You can then build out user journeys that deliver value from the first touch.

Context: What is going on in your user’s day when they engage with your product? Are they rushed? 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?

Armed with this information, you can start understanding what journeys your users are most likely to find motivating when they first engage. But first, to the streets for some user research!

Great User Journeys Are Based On Research

This probably isn’t the first user research you’ve done—you “got out of the building” to speak to potential customers when you were building your weather app in the first place. You may have even built an experience map. But you can still benefit by digging deeper into first-time user motivations and segmenting by different use cases.

We can start by creating hypotheses around what prompts someone to take the action of downloading a weather application:

The commuter

  • Context: It looks like rain right now
  • Motivation: I don’t want to get wet on my way to work, or on my way home.
  • Mental Models: I have time windows where I expect to be walking to and from work. I want to make sure that if rain intersects with any of those windows, I know to 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
  • Mental Models: Picnics are best when the weather is between 70 and 80 degrees and sunny—but temperature is more important than sunny. 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
  • 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.


With our hypotheses in hand, we’ll use design research techniques to validate them—or even discover new possibilities. A few examples of these research techniques might be:

  • Interviewing individuals who fit your behavioral group descriptions about their weather-checking habits
  • Sending out a survey about how people use weather reports
  • Asking a number of individuals to keep diaries for several weeks on when they check the weather, why they checked it, and what they do with that information (usually an Amazon gift card is considered a fair trade for the diary)

Mapping Out the First-Time User Journeys

Let’s say our research confirms all our hypotheses. We then can build out specific onboarding journeys for each of these users. Imagine that, instead of dropping your new user on the main screen, the first-time experience gave the user four choices that would skip them to the appropriate view in your app:

For the commuter:

  1. “Rainy commute coming up? Check today’s hourly precipitation forecast”
  2. Jump to hourly view. If there is heavy rain or wind during the day, pop up a link to local mass transit schedules or Uber/Lyft

For the weekend planner:

  1. “Picnic or museum? Plan your weekend for the weather!”
  2. Show weekend day-by-day summary; include “best day for a picnic” tag on the day with more comfortable temperature and/or no rain

For the forgetful gardener:

  1. “Forget to water the plants? See recent weather and rain totals”
  2. Show past 3 days of precipitation, humidity, and temperature; additionally, note major weather events (e.g. heavy rainstorms) if within the past week

For the impatient: 

  1. “Skip to My Weather Station”
  2. Proceed to main screen of the application

These journeys begin by immediately providing the information users are seeking. For the commuter, the flow may look like this:

iPhone App User Journey

Designed by 8ties from the thenounproject.com

You can then slowly introduce your user to various other parts of the product — but not before you’ve proved your value.

Direct Users Towards Value Immediately

Your users don’t care about your product as much as you do. It’s hard to resist the temptation to show off all your hard work, but it’s all for nothing if your users don't reach your product's Aha! moment

Delivering that value requires on-the-ground research into users’ contexts, motivations, and mental models. Then, equipped with that research, you can create great first-time user journeys that will have them coming back for more.


Bonus: Download a User Journey template slide deck made by Fresh Tilled Soil

This lesson was written by Geordie Kaytes, the Director of UX Strategy at Fresh Tilled Soil, a user experience design firm just outside of Boston.

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