Anatomy of a Customer Journey

Laura Seargeant Richardson

“The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between.”― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

As a tool for innovation, nothing stands up to the customer journey. Revered by designers and the C-suite alike, it has the power to persuade, excite, and unify teams and organizations. I believe it is one of the most versatile tools capturing time, touch points, emotions, process, and platforms. But most importantly, a customer journey is the symphonic expression and orchestration of a company’s customer experience. A customer journey reflects the “in between” that matters most.

Audit or Ideal?

For any tool to work well, we first need to understand our goal for its use. A customer journey is no different. When approaching the design of a customer journey, we consider its outcome — is our goal to audit the existing customer experience for the team, or is the goal to envision the ideal journey for our client? Regarding the former, the audit often serves as a framework for design research, whether primary or secondary. It becomes the container for our discovery. For example, on a recent client project we started with huge foam core boards and Post Its and began to capture customer barriers, desires and values. By building to the boards, we made visible our thinking as well as created a shared mental model with each other. This rough process was then transferred to a beautifully rendered poster of the current customer experience, which we shared with the client.

When our goal is to communicate our ideas and concepts representing the ideal customer experience, we may show a single path or a clustering of ideas along the spectrum. For one recent client, we used both approaches. When pitching the client, we presented a customer journey filled with new ideas from the design team that were grouped by the stage in the journey, but otherwise randomly organized. However, after winning the work and conducting research, we created a singular path show a high fidelity ideal journey from the customer’s perspective based on stitching and weaving a storyline from disparate concepts.

Common Components of Any Customer Journey

Regardless of the journey’s purpose, every customer journey has some common underpinnings. First, a journey implies time. Time expressed as a linear process is the most standard component. For example, when auditing the journey for an automotive client, we created a journey that started with the awareness of the brand, moved to building and buying an ideal car and culminated in selling the car — a complete lifecycle.

Next, a journey is typically two axes. If time is the most common axis (often represented horizontally), the other axis may list platforms (e.g. store, website, app, text message), different customer personas, design lens (e.g. perception, people, personalization), tools or objects used along the journey, or levels of touch point importance (high, medium or low). I’ve only used touch point importance as the vertical axis when a singular journey representation was not enough (see section below).

Finally, where the two axes meet (e.g. time and platform) represents a touch point. The data that is ultimately plotted in the “in between” are touch points of the current or ideal customer experience.

Adding Layers for Depth & Dimension

When two axes are not enough, three or four dimensions may be required. We frequently use icons and color to convey more information than would otherwise be possible for a printed two-dimensional graphic or poster. We consider these layers on the customer journey. Other types of dimensional information may include an emotional continuum as the customer experiences the touch points along the journey, the experience values or design principles being violated, and gaps or areas of focus.

When One Journey is Not Enough

As designers we often use various “lens for looking” to gain perspective on the customer journey challenge. For one client we used behavior, objects, environments, and process as our lens. For another, we focused on lens like perception, people, personalization, and platform. When there are too many data points or when the goal is clarity around a specific lens, one journey will not be enough to convey the information. Recently, we created six unique customer journeys to emphasize each design lens.

What Clients Value Most

Do clients value the audit-focused customer journey or the conceptualization of the ideal experience? Both are valued, but the audit-focused customer journey brings risk. I recall at least two clients who felt that the audit of the customer experience as delivered did not reveal any new insight, while I have had several other clients who felt the audit was extremely illuminating. Regardless, the real value in the audit is for the team’s discovery and for the client’s traceability. In other words, you should do the audit to help generate the ideal journey as a team and for the client to believe the ideal concepts proposed are

Bringing it All Together

The culmination and power of an ideal customer journey is that it becomes the roadmap for the entire organization. It’s a macro view of the future and without it, clients and their employees cannot easily orchestrate the desired customer experience. argo’s most recent customer journey was for our client, FlightCar, a startup that enables travelers to loan and rent cars. We worked with FlightCar to establish their new brand as well as the entire customer experience. This customer journey has time as a process across the horizontal axis and the two personas, owner and visitor, along the vertical axis. Layers add depth, such as key sketched vignettes, existing features, new features, and most valuable features.

When to Leave the Tool Behind

There comes a time when everyone involved in the project intimately knows the “in between.” As soon as you have agreement and understanding, it’s time to question the tool’s usefulness. In the past, design firms would continue to painstakingly update and rely on the customer journey as a continued vehicle of expression. However, smaller and leaner teams will discard it to focus on the tangible. Once you move to making explicit touch points and they begin to take form and shape through prototypes, the customer journey may no longer be needed. At some point it is no longer the map of where we are going, but a photograph of where we have been.

A version of this story ran in HOW Magazine on August 30, 2016.

Laura Seargeant Richardson is a Creative Director at argo design, a product design firm. She specializes in customer experience strategy, research and design. She is also a writer and speaker on the topics of innovation, creativity, and technology.

We are a product design firm. We love design – for the technology, for the simple joy of craft, and ultimately for the experiences we create.

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