Consilient Design
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Consilient Design

Journey Maps to Hell and Back

a critical survey

Cross Section of Hell. [1]

People who design products and services are fond of creating charts that they call “maps”. One kind of map is variously called a journey map, experience map, customer experience map, and customer journey map. You want to cover all bases you could call them customer-experience journey maps, or customer user-experience journey maps. Strangely, “journey maps” almost never describe the movement of people from one place to another.

Sometimes one hears the term “story map”. Story maps are used by writers to plan the major episodes in a story. From a naming standpoint, story maps are spot on. The map of Dante’s Inferno is a map that comes from a story about a journey.

Some people inappropriately use “journey map” to refer to things more accurately called “roadmaps”, “process diagrams”, “user interface screen flows” and so forth. To be understood, you need to draw a line somewhere. So to put a stake in the ground, “journey map” will herein be used for diagrams that describe an experience, usually entailing technology or services that pass through multiple steps, stages and/or phases to arrive at a goal. In Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven are stages in his travels. He even has stages within stages such as the nine circles of Hell. In the story, his ultimate goal is to hang out with his best girl, Beatrice, in heaven. Sweet.

Note that visualizations of Mr. Alighieri’s travels violate the rule that journey maps never describe physical travel let alone metaphysical travel.

To understand how people make and use journey maps, I surveyed various examples and their attributes. I didn’t collect an exhaustive sample using a clever methodology. I didn’t dignify my survey with statistics. I instead relied on collections of examples and templates offered by others using Google and Pinterest. If you are looking for scientific rigor, then you don’t belong in this article. Stop reading now.

I noted recurring patterns and motifs. I critiqued practices that I found problematic . To be fair, I admit that I have committed most if not all of the sins that I accuse others of. I am guilty of hypocrisy which puts me smackdab in the eighth circle of Hell. This is a pretty harsh outcome, I think. So just in case, I hereby abjure and renounce these practices.

This is an exercise in meta-analysis. It analyzes types of diagrams that designers use to analyze experiences.

A proscriptive journey map [2]

Journey Map Functions

People, or more precisely, designers make journey maps for different reasons. Sometimes they make maps to describe and analyze an experience. The experience described may be the way a journey is today. These are called as-is journey maps. Joyce and Kaplan [3] describe three approaches to journey map construction: stakeholder hypothesis first , quick and dirty based on existing knowledge and research first. In a perfect world, as-is maps would always be based on research. It is usually better if you don’t just make things up. However, the stakeholder hypothesis approach is can be useful for political reasons — with the caveat that it is properly followed by research to validate or disprove the stakeholders ideas.

Designers also create journey maps to describe how great the trip will be after they make some design improvements. These are called to-be journey maps. Given the degree to which a design as-implemented often fails to actually reflect the design as-designed, more realistic terms might be should-be journey maps or wishful thinking journey maps. Either way, they help product design and development teams share the same notions of what their customers’ experience is or should be.

Finally, some people create prescriptive and proscriptive journey maps. These don’t describe what the journey is or should be. Instead they describe what people should or should not do on their journey. The Road to Success illustration depicted above is a prescriptive journey map because it describes both.

Dante’s story is about a journey through Hell, in poetic rather than map form. His goal was to communicate his feelings about the relative importance of different kinds of misbehavior. He also sought to troll some famous historical figures and contemporaries in his13th Century Italy.

Journey maps may be very general (e.g. “The B2B customer journey”). They may describe the collective experiences of multiple people on journeys with the same purpose. They may also be very specific and describe the experiences of a single person on a particular journey.

Journey Map Styles

Journey maps come in different styles and formats. Boy, do they.

A popular style is a table where columns denote stages or phases, and rows denote almost anything. A common version of this approach uses a row of the table to show the ups and downs of the experience. The peaks describe positive experiences and the valleys are potholes in the path. Designers care about these potholes, more commonly called pain points, because they identify what they should fix. They are also known as opportunities. In other words, a customer’s pain is the lifeblood of an experience designer. Ponder that for a moment.

A prototypical journey map of the car buying experience [4]

Edward Tufty [5] coined the term “chart junk” to refer to graphical features, usually decorative, in information diagrams that don’t convey useful information. Chart junk abounds in journey maps.

A common example of chart junk in journey maps is the use of continuous curves to chart changes in the degree of dissatisfaction/satisfaction, unpleasantness/pleasantness, or misery/ecstasy experienced on the trip. OK, that last one refers to a different kind of trip.

The point that I’m making here is about using continuous, roller-coaster curves to represent data that was almost certainly not granular and copious enough to create a smooth plot. I get that this is just a symbolic way to say that a journey has its ups and downs; however, I’m suggesting it would be best to avoid this shortcut and base mood charts on actual user responses.

Journey map with roller-coaster mood graph and emojis [6]

Graphs in journey maps can also be used to display other qualities. In the map below, up represents “digitalness” and down represents “physicality”. That’s potentially useful. However, digital versus physical is a binary distinction rather than continuous data. So again, the curvy, roller coaster effect is misleading.

Journey map with digital and physical touchpoints [7]

Another common style is more cute than useful. It resembles a board game with squares or arrows representing moves that the user makes in a journey. We might call this a snake diagram. Or if you want to be fancier, call it a boustrophedonic squamatiform itercartograph. But if you go around using words like that people are just going to laugh at you behind your back. You will deserve ridicule but there isn’t a level of Hell for this kind of verbal sin.

A snake diagram for the car buying journey [8]

The trouble with snake diagrams is that they don’t display any more information than a simple list while taking up far more space. Furthermore, they are arguably less readable than a list. The graphic pattern of snake diagrams is merely decorative.

A journey map usually describes a single pathway from beginning to end. However, it can include branching pathways. When a snake diagram has these, it might be called a chutes and ladders diagram. These at least illustrate alternative pathways although this could be done in a simpler, easier to read manner.

A chutes and ladders journey map [9]

Stripped of chart junk, a journey map consists of a use case, a beginning, an end, stages that move someone from the beginning to the end and activities within stages. If the goal of map designers is to convey the essence of the journey this is all they need.

Bells and Whistles

Although the core features of journey maps are stages and activities within stages, many details are often included. Such as:

  • A persona or description of the type of person who undertakes the journey. This is useful if the journey is applicable to a specific type of human being.
  • Persona/journey goals. Journeys are undertaken for one or more reasons. Sometimes the motives are obvious and don’t need to be explicitly stated. Sometimes they aren’t and should be called out.
  • Starting conditions and scenarios. It may be useful to list the preconditions that must be fulfilled before starting the journey.
  • Stages. Stages or phases are usually useful. They help to chunk a large number of steps into manageable groupings. Moreover, they often encapsulate parts of the journey that end in achieving subgoals.
  • Stage goals. Sometimes a stage will have a goal that delivers more than the simple completion of part of a journey. For example, accessing a website to perform some task often includes a registration stage that must be completed before moving on to the task. If the site will be accessed multiple times in the future (why else should it require registration?) completion of the registration stage has future payoffs — the user no longer needs to register and secure access to the assets managed on the site are assured. As a bonus, the user will sometimes be rewarded with a new source of spam.
  • Stage duration. Stages last a certain amount of time. This may be useful diagnostic information. If a stage lasts too long, it may indicate excessively delayed gratification. A long lasting stage in a journey may also afford a large window of opportunity for screwing things up.
  • Mood. One of the primary reasons for creating a journey map is the elucidation of journey events or activities that have emotional impacts on the journey-person. Designers should pay attention to these. Understanding rough spots in context can lead to powerful insights. Occasionally journeys also offer little rewards and pleasant activities along the way. These are the things you don’t want to screw up in a redesigned journey. Many people use emojis to represent mood. Others (i.e. me) find them hokey. Another reason for avoiding emojis and their evil twins Chernoff faces is that although they are intuitive the viewer must visually fixate on each face to read its mood. This makes it impossible to read the overall mood trajectory of the journey at a glance. Color (with due regard for accessibility), placement and brightness are superior for revealing mood issues at a glance.
  • Touch-points. It may be useful to list the individuals, services, tools, devices, channels and user interfaces encountered along a journey. The user doesn’t actually have to touch these things. That’s just what they are called. Indicating touchpoints may provide diagnostic value. The number of ways a journey can go awry is directly related to the number of touchpoints.
  • Choice points and branches. These are useful but are often neglected. This is probably due to the design practice of concentrating only on the so-called “happy path”. The assumption behind this approach is that designing for all possible pathways is difficult or infeasible. This is a dangerous cop-out because it is a scientific fact that occasionally things do go wrong.
  • Moments of Truth. This is a marketing term for highly significant branch points that can positively or negatively affect the trajectory of an experience. In marketing this may mean clinching or losing a sale. In experience design it means falling off the happy path. Insofar as less than perfectly happy diverging paths are often omitted this could lead to the user being diverted into a dark and mysterious wood where fierce beasts lurk behind every tree.
  • Quotes. Some people like to put quotes in their journey maps to drive home messages about phases or steps in the journey. Sometimes they are actual quotes from real people. Sometimes they are made up in order to give the map a narrative feel. This is another case of being loose with the truth in order to make a point. You should decide how to feel about this.

Other bells, whistles, kazoos, geegaws, and gimcracks are sometimes found in journey maps as well. Kaplan [10] surveyed UX practitioners on their use of journey maps and found (in decreasing order) that user actions, personas, scenarios, emotions, thoughts, channels and devices were included by at least 50% of users.

Uses and abuses of journey maps

Journey maps have many uses. First of all, a journey map may be used as a data-summarization and analytic tool. When researching how people experience the use of tools, systems, and services a map can be used to indicate useful information along a temporal dimension. As mentioned earlier, a cluster of pain-points or an overly lengthy stage can indicate problems. Identifying end and stage goals can illuminate motivations. By doing so, they may provide insights for improving the experience and making the service or product more desirable for customers.

When a journey is not well understood, it might be useful for further analysis to throw in as many bells as whistles as the research data affords. Most of the data may be useless but you might not know until you see it laid out in front of you. But this kind of data vomit should only be used for exploratory analysis.

Journey maps may also be powerful expository devices. When pitching the results of research on a particular experience, a well-designed journey map can convey findings very effectively. Kaplan [10] found in her survey that some of the strongest benefits obtained by UX professionals involved forming a common vision and growing a customer-centric approach.

These benefits accrue when a map tells a concise and clear story. A common error made by journey map authors is to confuse analytic uses by experience professionals with reaching consensus. Elaborate, data-rich journey maps constructed for analysis are often be the best one to present to your cross-disciplinary product team, unless you want to confuse or bore them. It will likely only dilute the message you should be trying to convey. The moral of this story is to include only relevant data in the map.

Too many design researchers make the mistake of dumping a ton of data in clever, elaborate, multi-dimensional visualizations onto their audience. Then they are puzzled and frustrated when the product planners and developers don’t agree with their conclusions. Why should they? A complex journey map can become a Rorschach test. If you believe designers and researchers should lead the design direction (and why wouldn’t you?) then you need to sell your conclusions to your audience. A researcher’s job is not just to collect and present data. It includes interpreting the data and telling a story that helps us understand and believe your conclusions.

Some inexperienced journey cartographers may be led into the complexity trap by picking up a snazzy template from the web and then attempting to fill in all the various types of data it includes. These things should be used for ideas not as forms to be filled out.

It is also important to consider the possibility of hidden motives for constructing a beautiful data rich map. Your primary goal may not be to understand or convey project requirements. It may be, and often is, to convince the audience of one’s research thoroughness or graphic design prowess. If you have an implicit goal of enhancing your status in the organization by showing off rather than improving an experience, then don’t be surprised if the project team doesn’t follow your conclusions.

The journey just completed

Journey maps are a powerful visualization tool for understanding and communicating the experiences of people engaging with technology and services in order to satisfy goals. Journey map designers often exhibit a great deal of creativity by incorporating multiple data dimensions in their visualization. This can be helpful if the goal of the designer is to explore data collected by research; however, it can be counterproductive when the designer seeks to convince a larger product team of desired design directions and problems to be solved. Just as in any other design effort, creating a journey map should be an intentional act focused on the goals of the design rather than slavishly following a template or scripted procedure.


[1] Caetani, Michelangelo (1855) Cross-section of Hell. Cornell University Library, Persuasive Cartography: The PJ Mode Collection.

[2] Unknown (1913) The Road to Success. Cornell University Library, Persuasive Cartography: The PJ Mode Collection.

[3] Joyce, Alita and Kaplan , Kate (April 7, 2019) Journey Mapping: 9 Frequently Asked Questions Nielsen-Norman Group.

[4] by the author.

[5] Tufte, Edward R. (1983). The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press

[6] Bodine, Kerry — cited by

[7] unknown. Journey map with digital and physical touchpoints. There are several instances and variations of this map on the web. I was unable to find the original source.

[8] by the author.

[9] 15-for-15. 15 powerful customer journey maps. Unable to find the original source.

[10] Kate Kaplan (10/16/2016) Journey Mapping in Real Life — a survey of UX Practitioners, Nielsen-Norman Group.



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