Journey mapping powers better design thinking

4 min read
Jay Melone
  •  Apr 19, 2018
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Design thinking is a tool that equips stakeholders and product teams with a deep understanding of their users so that they can ideate, prototype, and test user-centered solutions.

That means the success of your team’s design thinking sessions hinges upon a solid foundation of user insights. Failure to know who you are solving for, what solutions they use today (if any), and what motivates and inhibits them means you’re operating in the dark. In other words, you’ll be doing what the overwhelming majority of organizations do by viewing design as an afterthought.

Related: Why you need design thinking and how to put it into practice

I’ve joined such design thinking sessions—where the user was not well understood but the team was expected to jump into ideation. More times than not, a discussion would break out about who the solution was for and why it was important. From that point, not only did ideation grind to a halt, but the team questioned the entire mission. Rightfully so.

If you don’t know who and why, you cannot answer how and what.

Read more from the New Haircut team: Designing a design team

So in this article, I’ll talk about one tool your entire team can rally around to answer who and why: a customer journey map.

With a customer journey map, the solutions your team ideates, prototypes, and tests will be much more informed—and they’ll ultimately save you from costly redos.

One more thing before getting started: It’s become popular for product people and designers to want to spend all of their energy focusing exclusively on the user. But your company’s journey, as it relates to your user, is vitally important to understand too. So I’ll also highlight how you can connect customer and business need inside your maps.

“If you don’t know who and why, you cannot answer how and what.”

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Please keep in mind that this article will not cover the necessary problem framing, research, interviews, etc. that precede your map.

And if you’re specifically looking to understand the relationship between mapping and design sprints, this article will help you.

Alignment diagrams, or maps

My teammates are big fans of Jim Kalbach and his explanation of alignment diagrams—or, more simply, maps. We’ve learned a ton from his book, Mapping Experiences.

As Jim notes in the book, maps help to:

  • Build empathy
  • Provide a common “big picture”
  • Break down silos
  • Bring focus
  • Reveal opportunities
Jim Kalbach’s Mapping Experiences book is gold

There are several maps you can use, depending on the problem you’re solving, and the way the team prefers to visualize the journey:

  • Service blueprints
  • Customer journey maps
  • Experience maps
  • Mental model diagrams
  • Spatial maps

Of those map types, I’ve used customer journey maps for the overwhelming majority of use cases I’ve worked through. That doesn’t mean the others are not effective. Again, it depends what you’re working on and how your team needs to visualize your user’s experience. Also, I predominantly work on building digital products; i.e. Service Blueprints are not as much a fit for my work.

So while I encourage you to read Jim’s book and decide which maps suits your project best, I’ll focus on this article on the application of a customer journey map.

Creating a customer journey map

As I’m preparing teams to create a journey map, the two questions I hear most are:

  1. How will it work?
  2. Who should attend?


I typically keep mapping sessions to within three hours. Anything more than that means we’re going too far too soon. The team will also burn out after three hours.

Certain exercises and experiences still need to be done in-person because technology disruptions will make you want to throw things. Creating a map is not one of them.

We use Mural to conduct the mapping session. It comes with lots of templates and frameworks to get you started. Eventually, you’ll develop your own library of templates to select from.

We begin by restating the design (business) challenge we’re tackling, and making sure the team is still aligned there. If they’re not, we spent no more than 15 minutes discussing and getting back on track.

Next, we create a proto-persona of whomever we currently consider our primary user.

By defining a proto-persona, we enable the team to visualize that user’s facts, behaviors, problems, and goals of our representative user.

Now, I realize that calling a single human being “representative” is an onion. We can have a week-long discussion about personas and jobs theories, while deconstructing who represents our prototypical user.

We try not to overthink this. We decide upon one person that best represents the personas / segments we previously defined, and invite them in. In the end, the goal is to confirm we know our user. So if after spending a few hours on a user map we discover we have the wrong one, we move on to the next one.

Then, with our proto-persona complete, we move on to our map.

A customer journey map

When creating your map, be sure to keep your design challenge and proto-persona in clear eyesight—you should be checking in with both references as you lay your map out.

The goal of this mapping exercise is to visualize the current state of your user. That means you’ll focus on filling in the purple User section.

Moving left to right through (green) stages, you discuss the actions, feelings, pain points, and desired outcomes your user experience.

Once this is done, we have the map printed out. We make it big enough that in future design thinking session, the entire team can huddle around it and collaborate.


We invite only two or three key team members to this session.

For one, the Product Owners (PO). Who the PO is will change significantly from company to company and project to project. It can be the CEO for one, the VP of Supply Chain for another, and the Head of Product for a third.

Regardless, the PO is the person who has the ultimate authority to move things forward (or kill them), as well as the greatest overall vision.

Next, if you can have a representative user join, amazing. Otherwise, if you can’t find that person, invite the best user proxy from your team (e.g. sales rep, customer service rep, marketing manager).

Finally, inviting a product person (e.g. Product Manager, Head of Product) is a great idea because they tend to have the most well-rounded picture of all of the moving parts.

Bringing the company’s journey into the map

Most business solutions fail because they focus exclusively on their business needs while completely neglecting the user.

So it’s appropriate that our map thus far has centered heavily on the user. However, if you’re not at all considering your company, you’ll miss opportunities to draw connections between the two.

In the blue (Company) section in the map above is where you can loop in the company’s activities, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, that map to the corresponding stage of the user’s journey.

Up until now, the majority of the map has been focused on the current state. The exception is the Opportunities row. While you should avoid the temptation to go deep into solution mode, this is your first chance, as a team, to begin thinking about how your company might impact or improve your user’s journey.

And finally, you bring your user and company together by ending your mapping exercise within the orange (Touchpoints) row. This can be virtual, in-person, digital, or physical.

Summarizing the benefits of journey maps

In the product and technology communities I’m a part of, I see so many product managers and designers asking for hard numbers on the benefits of things like design thinking and design sprints.

Some answers are easy. For one, you can talk about dollars saved by killing a project you invalidated before product development ever began. You can also mention the dollars saved or opportunity gains by bringing the right solution to market on the first try, versus building and rebuilding multiple times.

But then there are the soft benefits of design thinking that are hard to formulate in a spreadsheet or Keynote. A customer journey map is no different.

By creating a map, you visualize something that had previously been scribbled down in customer support calls or living inside people’s heads—each of whom have different language models and ways of describing your user and their journey. But because it’s now visual, anyone can look at it, contribute to it, dispute it, and use it.

It’s not easy to quantify, but the long-term benefits of a cross-functional team working efficiently and effectively will have a lasting impact on not only what the project the map is created for, but how people in the company generally trust one another and communicate when attempting to tackle big, important challenges.

For more on design thinking, check out the Design Thinking Handbook at

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