A customer journey map tells the story of the customer’s experience: from initial contact, through the process of engagement and into a long-term relationship.

Customer journey maps may focus on a particular part of the story or give an overview of the entire experience. What they always do is identify key interactions that the customer has with the organization. It talks about the user’s feelings, motivations and questions for each of these touchpoints.

It often provides a sense of the customer’s greater motivation. What do they wish to achieve, and what are their expectations of the organization?

To put the importance of a customer journey map into context, by the end of this year, we will have created, captured, copied and consumed roughly 59 zettabytes of data, a number so large that it’s difficult to even fathom. Think of it this way: a zettabyte equals 1 trillion gigabytes so our collective data can fit comfortably on 230 billion MacBook Pro laptops. With that much available, it’s natural that most organizations are reasonably good at gathering data. But data isn’t enough, which makes customer journey maps among the most important tools for marketers.

Think of customer journey maps as taking your data and telling a story. As Francisco Inchauste wrote in Smashing Magazine, “Stories have defined our world. They have been with us since the dawn of communication, from cave walls to the tall tales recounted around fires. They have continued to evolve, with their purpose remaining the same: to entertain, to share common experiences, to teach and to pass on traditions.”

But storytelling is not just a tool to engage users. It is also a powerful way to teach organizations more about their customers.

What Customer Journey Maps Look Like and Why You Need Them

A customer journey map takes many forms, but typically appears as some type of infographic. Whatever its form, the goal is the same: to teach organizations more about their customers. In the example below, Sarah is looking at new Internet and phone service providers in anticipation of a move.

The customer journey map starts with Sarah’s motivation. From there, the map details her journey from inquiry (going online to check out different options) through comparison and purchase, all the way through the installation phase when she’s already a customer.

Each phase of the customer journey map has a different recommendation for marketers. During the comparison phase, for example, it’s a good idea to segment customers by location, removing the current service address roadblock. This way, Sarah can configure services before adding them to her cart and see the bundled price discounts in a clear way.

Why You Should Create Customer Journey Maps

A customer journey map is a powerful tool.

If you are a designer, it will help you to understand the context of users. You will gain a clear picture of where the user has come from and what they are trying to achieve. If you write copy, it will help you to understand what questions users have and how they are feeling.

Customer journey maps give managers an overview of the customer’s experience. They will see how customers move through the sales funnel. This helps them identify opportunities to enhance the customer experience. The customer journey map shows how enhanced customer service can differentiate the organization’s digital experience.

For the user experience designer, a customer journey map helps to identify gaps, points in the customer experience that are disjointed or painful. These includes gaps between:

  • devices, when a user moves from one device to another
  • departments, where the user might get frustrated
  • channels, which describes instances such as a clunky experience going from, say, social media to the website

For someone like Sarah, who is shopping around for a new Internet and phone plan, the customer journey is especially powerful during the installation process. This phase is often unpleasant, with inconsistent communication. Here, the company can ensure customer satisfaction by providing accurate arrival times and clear instructions during the installation process. This is a perfect example of how a customer journey map puts the user front and center in the organization’s thinking. It shows how mobile, the web and social media have changed customer behavior. It also demonstrates the need for the entire organization to adapt.

Additionally, a customer journey map encourages people across the organization to consider the user’s feelings, questions and needs. This is especially important with digital products and services.

With so many benefits, a customer journey map makes a lot of sense. But where do you start?

How To Research a Customer Journey Map

The process of  customer journey mapping has to begin with getting to know users.

Many organizations already have some information about users. In fact, you might meet resistance from those who feel that repeating this exercise would be a waste of time. This is why gathering existing research is a good start. Often, this research will be out of date or buried in a drawer somewhere.

By gathering existing research, whether analytical and anecdotal, you will see what the organization knows and how relevant that information is. This will placate those who are resistant, while potentially saving you some research effort.

User Journey Map Research and Analysis

You can turn to many sources for data about users. The most obvious is website analytics, which provide a lot of information on where users have come from and what they are trying to achieve. It will also help you to identify points in the process where they have given up.

But be careful. Analytics are easy to read wrong. For example, don’t presume that a lot of clicks or long dwell times are a sign of a happy user. They could indicate that they are lost or confused. Social media are also a useful source of data. Tools such as SocialMention tracks mentions of a brand and whether those mentions are positive or negative. 

Search data also provides valuable insight into what users are looking for, revealing whether your existing website is providing the right information.

Finally, consider running a survey. This will help you build a more detailed picture of users’ questions, feelings and motivations.

Anecdotal Customer Journey Research

Although data can build a compelling case, it does not tell a story by itself. For that, you need anecdotes of user experiences. You can get these by speaking to users in interviews or on social media. You will also discover that users volunteer experiences by posting them to social media. Be sure to collect these mentions because they will be a useful reference point in your final map. Speaking to front-line staff who interact with customers daily, such as those in support and sales, is another useful way to understand customer needs.

The detail of the research will be constrained by your time and budget. If your organization has many different user groups, then creating detailed user journeys for each might be hard. Therefore, focus the research on primary audiences.

You can make educated guesses about a customer journey for secondary audiences. Do this by workshopping solutions with front-line staff and other internal stakeholders. Although this “quick and dirty” approach will not be as accurate, it is still better than nothing.

Be careful to make clear what has research behind it and what does not. Making many decisions based on assumptions is dangerous. Once management sees the benefits of research, they will be willing to spend more time on it.

With your research complete, it is time to create the map.

Presenting Your Customer Journey Map

As mentioned, there is no right or wrong way to produce a customer journey map. Normally, it will be some form of infographic with a timeline of the user’s experience. But it could just as easily be a storyboard or even a video. Here’s an example:

The goal is to ensure that the user’s story remains front and center in people’s minds. Get a designer to produce the graphic to ensure it is as clear as possible and grabs people’s attention.

Whatever its form, user journey mapping should involve both statistical and anecdotal evidence. It should highlight users’ needs, questions and feelings throughout their interaction with the organization.

Don’t make it too complex. It is easy to get caught up in the multiple routes a user might take. This will just muddy the story.

The graphic is not meant to map every aspect of the customer’s experience. Rather, it should tell a simple story to focus people’s attention on the customer’s needs.

Think of the customer journey map as a poster pinned to the office wall. At a glance, people should be able to see the key touchpoints that a user passes through. It should remind them that the customer’s needs must always be at the forefront of their thinking.

Struggling with getting started? Check out HubSpot’s many customer journey map templates, which are both free and editable. Here’s an example:

Paul Boag is a user experience strategist who writes for Smashing Magazine.