With no-code user onboarding tools, it’s easy to start building onboarding journeys that don’t reflect reality—all in a vain attempt to get new users to activate faster so they don’t churn.

User experience journey mapping makes us ask this question:

How do users move through their own goals, not our hoops?

UX journey maps are the antidote to product-led marketing, onboarding, and product development that happens for its own sake. These maps gives us the ammunition to solve problems big and small, and they help cross-functional teams live up to their full potential.

UX journey mapping can save you from a ton of unnecessary work and give you brand new KPIs that truly matter.

In an age where retention is king (a 5% decrease in churn can result in a 25-125% profit growth), a quality UX journey map can guide you to far better results.

Here’s what we’re covering in this post:

  • What is user experience journey mapping?
  • What ISN’T user experience journey mapping?
  • What problems can user experience journey maps solve?
  • How to do user experience journey mapping in 10 steps

What is user experience journey mapping?

Here’s the actual definition of user experience according to the Oxford Dictionary: “The overall experience of a person using a product such as a website or computer application, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use.”

By extension then, user experience journey mapping is when you map out the entire journey of how a user interacts with a company’s digital property—your website, your desktop app, and your mobile app. Everything you own.

What ISN’T user experience journey mapping?

Not trying to be the grammar police over here guys, but these are actually different things.

user experience journey mapping 3
Photographer: You X Ventures | Source: Unsplash

User experience journey maps versus user flows

User experience journey maps aren’t the same things as user flows. While a UX journey map explores every interaction between a product and a user (from the user’s point of view), a user flow is an ideal series of steps that a product team expects a prototypical user to take.

User experience journey maps versus customer experience journey maps

User experience journey maps are also not quite the same things as customer experience journey maps, though they are similar. While a user experience journey map details how a user interacts with your digital property, a customer experience journey map will detail how they interact with your entire brand, as well as any solution like yours. It’s not all about your company or your product, but rather how a customer comes to need, discover, choose, and interact with any solution like yours.

User experience journey maps versus user journey maps

User experience journey maps are also not the same thing as user journey maps, which can be developed for any individual user objective, such as creating a prototype. While a user journey map can be one segment of the experience, a user experience journey map encompasses the entirety of how a user interacts with your digital property.

We’re going to cross our fingers and hope that all of the “what it’s not” stuff above made things clearer for you, instead of more confusing. Let’s move on.

What problems can user experience journey maps solve?

UX journey maps can help you solve just about any problem you might imagine. Firstly, they can stop you from unnecessary product development, onboarding flows and emails, and retention campaigns. Guessing what to do next and developing unnecessary features is just really bad for business.

Here are some examples of problems you can fix with UX journey maps:

  • More frequent churn at the 12-month mark
  • Low freemium to paid conversions for ideal users and even highly active users
  • Internal disagreement on what counts as user activation and how to improve the onboarding experience
  • Low levels of product adoption for premium features
  • Low levels of engagement with the product features that have built-in virality

And a whole lot more.

Before we move on to the 10 steps to build a UX journey map, it’s essential that you stop, drop, and roll.

  • You need to STOP building user onboarding flows (and other things) that are based on assumptions.
  • Then you need to DROP all of those assumptions.
  • Now you can ROLL on with a new way of doing things (that has nothing to do with assumptions).
user experience journy mapping_roll

Ready? Okay, great. Let’s do this.

How to do user experience journey mapping in 10 steps

UX journey mapping is as time-consuming or as fast as you want it to be. That all depends on how much research you do and how much you disagree with your colleagues (not kidding). Whether it takes you 5 hours of work or 45 hours, this is the process you should follow.

1. Come together with collaborators and stakeholders

Eh, yeah, no getting around this one.

UX journey mapping is a team effort. Even if you’re leading the charge and doing most of the work, you still need to pull in the right people. Anyone who needs to agree on your UX journey map at the end should be involved in the process at the beginning.

For the best results, a UX journey map should be created by a cross-functional team. These are some of the folks who might be involved:

  • Product marketers
  • Product managers
  • Customer success
  • Customer support
  • Sales
  • Senior leadership (CPO, CEO)

Because a UX journey map is so helpful to so many different people (and it should be used by almost everyone at the company once it’s been created), you need to pick your team players before you begin. Choose who should be involved, hold a quick meeting about what this is and why we’re doing this, and work together on the following steps.

2. Do your research—collect quantitative and qualitative data

“We’re working on getting people to see research as a part of doing design well.” – Erika Hall, Mule Design.

Everywhere we look, from product design to marketing, customer research is a trendy topic. That’s because people are sick and tired of wasting time and money on the wrong things.

Don’t freak out, but there’s a lot of research that should go into building an authoritative, reality-reflecting UX journey map:

  • Target market surveys
  • Target marketing interviews
  • Website visitor survey
  • Demographic data (leads & customers)
  • User surveys
  • User interviews
  • Support records
  • Sales calls and demo recordings
  • Product usage
  • Nurture campaign stats
  • Content consumption
  • NPS
  • Website analytics
  • Buyer types
  • Personas that you’ve already created
  • Customer advisory boards
  • Customer jobs
  • Software reviews

We’re not saying you need to piece together all of these sources of qualitative and quantitative research to build your map, but you should use several of them.

The point is, there’s no guessing allowed. Here are some of the questions that you’re trying to get answered:

  • Why do people need our product?
  • What pain are they feeling?
  • How do they feel when they first interact with our product?
  • How motivated are they to solve their problems?
  • What is the first problem they’re looking to solve with our product?
  • What expectations do they have when they first use our product?
  • When does our product first prove that it can meet or exceed their goals?
  • When do users decide to first pay for our product, and why?
  • When do users decide to keep paying for our product, and why?
  • When do users decide to stop paying for our product, and why?

Some of these questions can be answered with user research surveys, and some of them can be answered by reading product reviews, watching user sessions, and conducting informal user testing and user interviews.

3. Improve your user personas

Most likely, you already have company-approved user persona writeups in the form of Google Slides. If you do, it’s time to reevaluate them and make sure that they’re still accurate after all of the research you just did. Are you splitting up user personas that need to be merged? Have you merged user personas that need to be split? Do you have just one user persona, but the core use cases are no longer fully accurate?

User experience journey mapping goes much deeper than just user persona writeups because they show us what users actually do at every stage (not just who they are and what they care about).

However, it would be silly to start making a user experience journey map without first making sure your user personas are up to date.

If you have drastically different user personas, then you’ll need to create a user experience journey map for each one. So before you move onto the next step, agree upon your user personas with project stakeholders (your cross-functional team from Step 1).

4. Write out the stages and milestones

The next step (after you’ve conducted lots of user research and honed in on your user personas) is to write out the stages and milestones that represent a user’s journey in your product.

  • Stages: The unique phases of the user experience journey
  • Milestones: The action that gets the user from one stage to the next

Before this gets too pie-in-the-sky, let’s take a look at a concrete example.

  • Stage 1: Try
  • Milestone: Achieve the first task
  • Stage 2: Validate
  • Milestone: Check that the product can help with other tasks, vet the company
  • Stage 2: Buy
  • Milestone: Decide that the product is worth investing setup time into
  • Stage 3: Setup
  • Milestone: Complete the initial setup and important onboarding steps
  • Stage 4: Integrate
  • Milestone: Get used to the tool and finish integrating it with other processes and systems
  • Stage 5: Regular usage

Your stages and milestones will look completely different than the ones above. The important thing is that you forget about the business metrics and business milestones that you are used to thinking about. You need to base these off of your user research.

From the user’s perspective, what are the core stages? What helps them leap from one stage to another? What action do they have to take (milestone) to get to the next stage?

The point here is not to identify the metrics that will raise engagement from your point of view, but to empathize with what the user is trying to achieve.

“Thinking only about engagement rates without the impact that has on users is a short-sighted and unethical way to build a lasting product. I am way more interested in the idea of healthy retention, which is based on the principle of ‘fewer but better interactions.” – Rian van der Merwe, product manager.

5. Understand what users need at every stage

Now that you know the stages and milestones that users go through (based on what they told you, not based on your guesses), it’s time to add in emotional depth to every stage.

It’s important to build emotions into your UX journey map so that you can empathize with how the user is feeling when they’re trying to accomplish a goal. In every stage, the emotional landscape might be a little different. At some stages, your users will be worried, fearful, and distrusting. At other stages, they’ll be hopeful, optimistic, and excited.

These emotions can and should impact the user flows and onboarding flows that your team builds, especially where UX microcopy is concerned. Empathy is one of the most powerful forces in marketing.

Naming the stages isn’t enough. You need to know everything that’s going through the users’ minds.

Here are the questions you should seek to answer about each and every stage:

  • What are users thinking during this stage?
  • What are users feeling during this stage?
  • What are users doing during this stage?
  • Who are users conversing with (other buyer or user personas) and what are they saying during this stage?

6. Design your user experience journey map on a single page

🎉You made it to the map design stage! Congratulations. Now it’s time to take everything you’ve learned and condense it down into a one-page document that can be shared with colleagues, printed up, and hung on your wall.

Here’s a user experience journey map template that you can use as inspiration.

Keep in mind that the number of stages and milestones will differ. You should probably aim for 6 or fewer stages (max 7) in order to keep things from getting too complicated.

user experience journy mapping_infographic

All of the stakeholders identified in the first step of this process should be able to agree on your UX journey map. While a journey map is never final, there should still be agreement on each iteration. That way everyone is on the same page with what needs to be done in order to satisfy and retain more users.

7. Verify your user experience journey map with real users

Now it’s time to get feedback on your UX journey map. You shouldn’t send it for review to all of your users, but it would be wise to take a small group of users, say 5 – 10, and check-in with them individually about it. Maybe send it to a few of your power users, your early adopters, your grandfathered-in users, your lifetime Appsumo deal users…the people who don’t mind doing a quick favor for you.

Send them an email and ask them if it matches their experience, or if they see anything that sees wrong. You can hop on a quick call to discuss.

If you have internal colleagues who match your user persona, definitely check in with them too. Of course, make any needed changes based on the feedback you receive.

We’re not looking for perfection here, just a gut reaction from users to see if the map rings true.

8. Develop new KPIs for every user milestone

Now that your UX journey map is complete, it’s time to put it into action. In order to do so, you need new KPIs.

Marketers and product teams all have business metrics that help them measure success. Things like the number of new signups per month, engagement rates, and active users. These are all metrics that matter to the business.

Even conversion funnels are measured in a business-centric way: sign up, credit card entry, second month’s invoice, etc.

What’s called for in this stage is to forget about all of those business-centric KPIs and develop ones that match each stage and milestone in your UX journey map.

For example, you might previously have measured the number of times a new user logs in during the first week after signing up. After going through the UX journey map process, you might discover that this metric isn’t representative of how a user activates and adopts the product from their own viewpoint. The achievement of a certain task or the interaction with a certain feature might be where true activation lies. Now you have a new KPI for a very important stage.

9. Find opportunities to optimize for these new user-focused KPIs

With your user-centric stages and your new KPIs, it’s time to brainstorm ways to make improvements. This is another step in the process where it can help to call upon the cross-functional team you assembled at the beginning.

Here are some questions you can ask yourselves as a team in order to find these opportunities:

  • At what stages are we currently not optimizing for user-centric metrics?
  • At what stages are we communicating with the wrong emotional tone?
  • Where are we falling short and failing users?
  • What known conversion, engagement, or churn issues do we have, and how can our UX journey map inform new solutions?

The point of a UX journey map is for it to get used. So get to work!

10. Reiterate and continually update your UX journey map

As we all know, things change. You solve new problems for users based on a deluge of demands. You bring in a new user persona. Your company moves upmarket and the needs of your core user persona slightly shift.

For all of these reasons and more, a user experience journey map is never truly final. We recommend that you review yours at least twice a year, and of course if you make any big pivots, then redo it then too.

Key takeaways

We just learned a lot. Let’s review.

  • A user experience journey map details important interactions between the user and the product from the user’s point of view.
  • A user experience journey map showcases every aspect of a user’s journey, even the emotional side.
  • User experience journey maps are meant to be utilized—that’s why doing real research and collaborating with team members are key to its success.
  • A user experience journey map is a great tool that can make your product and marketing decisions more successful while saving your team from pointless development work.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that building a UX journey map is incredibly fun. 😊

About the Author

Dayana Mayfield is a B2B SaaS copywriter who believes in the power of content marketing and green tea. She splits her time between Northern California and Northern Italy.