8 Lessons on Creating Strong User Journey Narratives

Creating user journeys can be a sluggish process. You have to do interviews, then ploughing through a plethora of notes, analyse and process them on a poster and perhaps do some post-interview questionnaires because you found many gaps in the story.

Many articles already tell you about the basic notions of user journeys,
the usage of personas, the journey templates you can adhere to and much more.
So I will not go into that.

I’d rather show you a few techniques that will help you throughout the entire cycle
of producing user journeys; from interview to draft to final product. The
following approaches helped me make the journeys more valuable for both myself
and the teams I work with.

1. Choose a flexible template

There are many templates on user journeys out there but one I’ve settled on is, simply put, a customisation of a customisation. And this demonstrates my first advice already: try to customise the structure of a user journey template to your research context. In order to do this, you need a starting template that will cover most of your research goals and needs.

Our most used journey template originated from David Travis’ article on ‘Eliciting user goals’, which referred to a customised version of an interview template called
‘Jobs to be done’. However, we felt its proposed phases didn’t cover our entire
research scope. We tweaked it and came up with the following phases: ‘Awareness’, ‘Active Looking’, ‘Deciding’, ‘Consuming’, ‘After use’, ‘Outcome’.

We try to stick to these exact labels, up until we enter the last stages of the analysis; i.e. Refining the tasks and goals per phase. We keep one golden rule though: Only change a cluster’s label (whether it’s a phase, goal, task) when every cluster is unique. For example; ‘Deciding’ can become ‘Consider participation’ or ‘Consume’ can become ‘Participating in the campaign’.

2. Start mapping big, during the interview

One of the most invaluable actions is to actually start using your template when doing the interviews with your target group. I even prefer bringing an entire flipchart (*) over a small notebook. Anything bigger than an A4 will work as well, of course. Although by going bigger, you will not just spark curiosity but also make the interviewee feel part of a workshop rather than an inquiry. Additionally, the large surface will bring you a good overview of your story-to-be. It depends if this is possible in the interview location, of course.

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When using a large surface, post-it notes work best for the aforementioned reason: flexibility. You can rewrite the users’ answers without messing up your timeline, you can throw them away or reposition them.

Mapping on a large surface during an interview:

  • Facilitates bringing notes together. When working together with a colleague or when you split roles between an interviewer and note-taker, you can bring your answers together on one surface. By doing it on the fly, the activity of bringing notes together becomes less tedious and more interactive during the most meaningful moment.
  • Helps identifying and adapting to non-chronological answers. Even when you’ve prepared a certain flow and structure, I found it’s often unnatural for your interviewees to always answer perfectly within the intended phases. Because the journey is being shaped right under your nose, you will immediately notice when the story is mixed up.
  • Pinpoints gaps in the story. Visualisation is understanding. Similar to the previous point, seeing the interviewee’s story unfold helps you to notice when a task or goal in-between others is missing. Be precise in this. Ask yourselves if B necessarily happens after A. When in doubt, immediately validate it with your interviewee. Perhaps they forgot to mention it, you forgot to write it down or maybe there’s simply no step in between.
  • Results in a draft user journey from the get-go. Traditionally, after finishing up a few interviews, you will translate your notes onto a large surface. You’ve done it during the interview already? Congratulations, you’ve just successfully skipped an unnecessarily long step and created a draft user journey. Even better, if there’s time left, you can let your interviewee validate the journey you just mapped.

3.  Focus deeper on the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ between phases.

During the interviews, keep extra focus on the actions that happen during the switch between the journey’s phases. These are often the most crucial moments in the journey. It could be the point where they decide to use your product or go for your competitor. It could be the very moment that decides whether they would or would not check out their shopping cart to buy a product.

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Prepare some questions to capture these moments! What makes them decide to go have a deeper look, after being made aware of your product/service? What are the top content elements that lure them in? Why are(n’t) they convinced to take up the action you’ve laid out for them? Would they check in regularly afterwards? Why (not)?

4. Don’t leave the designers (and others) in the dark

If you’re working as a user researcher, you should bring your designer into the fray, at least for a couple of interviews. You can also switch them out with any other stakeholder or team member such as content experts, data analysts, product owners. This adds different perspectives and will lead to more aligned views when debriefing the research.

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At all costs, avoid too many people on the interviewing side. Your interviewee could feel ganged-up on and you want them relaxed and thinking clearly instead. Also, they should be briefed on the basic interviewing rules you’re following.

Involving the designers in the actual analysis will also give you a soundboard when thinking about opportunities and subsequent solutions. Doing this early will also make your team gain time as the designer can observe and start sketching already when the journey starts coming in place. Unless there’s a firm reason, don’t make designers wait for an official debrief meeting to start their work.

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5. Don’t forget the back office

When dealing with any online service, there’s always some manual work happening in the back office. A team of people dispatching orders, analysing feedback, etc. In case you have a bit of extra time, it’s recommended to map their journey as well and link it to your users’ journey. Issues in the back office are often the root cause of usability problems surfacing in the front end. It can add tremendous understanding to the problems your users have and vice-versa. You need the two sides of this coin: one full story.

However, this can prolong the work so you’ll need a good justification to your client or manager. Perhaps there were already indications, during the end-user interviews, that the internal process is a cause of the issues you’ve observed.

6. Take the analysis in small steps

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Granted, ‘analysis’ sounds boring. But it’s not as much analysis as it’s building a story. The tasks following each other need to be logical. But how to safeguard such a seamless story? It starts with going through the story a few times, repeating the following, phase by phase:

  1. First cluster the users’ tasks according to user goals.
    For example: Inserting your billing address and your delivery address can belong to the goal ‘Clarifying personal location details’, which in turn belongs to the phase ‘Cart checkout’.
  2. Reposition, change or clarify tasks to clean up your journey and get a clear overview.
    • Add all the channels to the correct goals and tasks.
    • Does it make sense that task ‘X’ happens in phase ‘A’? Tasks and goals can change phases if it makes sense in the users’ narrative.
    • ‘Mind the gap’. Reread the tasks and goals to spot if anything’s missing. If the story doesn’t add up, clarify it in the next interview or perhaps you can split up a certain task to fill in the gap.
    • Merge redundant tasks, belonging to the same user goal. Similar tasks can return in different phases so don’t be overzealous here.

This part can be started as soon as you have the first interview done, in order to prepare for your next interviews.

When the journey starts clearing up and the narrative makes sense, you can focus on the next layers. Breaking it down this way ensures you won’t get overloaded by the amount of information.

  1. Add issues and opportunities when explicitly mentioned or observed. Having a designer by your side during the interview and analysis will help your effort in mapping opportunities for this journey.
  2. Depending on your journey’s desired complexity, you can add all the extra insights such as emotions, features, etc …

As mentioned in the very first point of this article, now is a good time to start changing the labels of your overall phases as well.

Let’s take for example a journey for an online shop. You might feel the need to split the phase ‘Consume’ into two because you notice a certain gap between them, so you end up with “Consume: Part 1” and “Consume: Part 2”. When you cleared up your entire journey, you should change them to something contextually meaningful such as  ‘Checkout: Personal data’ and 'Checkout: Payment’.
 

7. Focus on tasks, not personas

Personas have many pros and cons, all of which I’m going to ignore here as I prefer sharing my experience in identifying certain notions of personas directly into the user journey.

Different profiles (or subprofiles) will always reveal themselves when analyzing the user journeys. Let’s look at two case examples:

  1. A different ‘route’ in the story, in fulfilling the same goal:
    In the journey mapping the experience of ‘Participating in law-making’, we saw that researchers can either collaborate or work individually to fill in a consultation. Both of the tasks can happen in parallel and one researcher might do a task individually or in group, depending on the topic.
  2. A sequence of tasks or goals done by different ‘persona’.
    When mapping ‘Entering a research project’, we noticed there were certain sets of tasks that were done by a coordinator, who would collect information and disperse it to the correct researchers. These researchers used the provided information for their project.

As you see, tasks and journeys are not always clear cut. Splitting a single journey into individual journeys per persona means you will lose meaningful information on the interaction moments between different ‘personas’.

8. Use it and make it usable

What’s the use of going through all the effort of setting up interviews, talking to people and analysing their journeys if others won’t use it? More importantly, it’s a user researcher’s duty to make it usable for the rest of your team. Important deliverables and next steps are:  

  • Map your separate user stories.
  • Scope them with the team, including the solutions attached to them.
  • Make a clean, digital version which you can and should share after presenting it.
  • Refer to the user stories or the journey when presenting any deliverable afterwards: wireframes, user testing, mock-ups, etc.

User journeys can be made using many different templates. But efficiently translating the interviews insights to a template and moreover confidently creating a comprehensive story takes practice. The points mentioned in this article should, given some practice, allow you to produce a journey faster, improve the quality of the journey and give you confidence about producing the correct journey.

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