Pick Your Tools Wisely: Think Before Jumping on the Journey Mapping Bandwagon

Apr 15, 2016 9:57am
Posted by: Frank Capek


“Life is a journey, with problems to solve, lessons to learn, but most of all, experiences to enjoy. “

We’ve all seen many quotes like this, often accompanied by laser-quality images of winding paths through the wilderness.  Yes, these might be a bit cheesy.  However, there are good reasons why quotes like this resonate with us.  The experience of being on a journey is one of the most meaningful aspects of life.  The journeys we take, intentionally or unintentionally, end up defining who we are as human beings.

Since journeys hold such a special place in our lives, we should be selective and intentional about the journey’s we take.  However, if you watch what’s happening in the rapidly maturing field of Customer Experience Design, it looks like we all might be surrounded by hundreds of organizations trying to influence the hundreds of journeys they believe we’re on in every aspect of our personal and professional lives.

I don’t know about you but this feels overwhelming and misdirected.  I don’t want to be on a “shopping for groceries” journey, “going out to dinner” journey, “dealing with an insurance company” journey, “implementing a new system at work” journey, “buying office supplies” journey, etc, etc, etc.

My colleagues and I have been involved in the design of influential experiences since the early ‘80s.  We’ve worked with more than 100 major organizations on the design and delivery of differentiated and compelling experiences for customers, employees, and other stakeholders.  Over this time, we’ve had the chance to explore a wide range of productive and unproductive approaches.

Recently, we’ve watched as “journey mapping’ has emerged as a central tool and almost a de facto standard approach for experience design efforts.  The little voice of Abraham Maslow is getting louder and louder in my head.  In 1962 Maslow observed,

“I suppose it’s tempting. If the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s natural to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

One of the most important lessons we’ve learned is… getting the metaphor right is critical.  Designing around the right metaphor helps you create products, services, and experiences that are magnetically attractive and intuitively easy for people to navigate. 

Envisioning an experience as a journey is a appealing metaphor.  Journeys are made up of a series of steps that intuitively correspond with what people do to accomplish tasks.   Journeys also intuitively correspond with a series of interactions a person might have with an organization over time.   Thinking about an experience as a journey can help reinforce an empathic perspective on the paths people follow to accomplish things that are important to them.

However, I can’t overstate the importance of picking your tools wisely.  Whatever tool you pick, it will exert a powerful influence on your thinking and the results you get.  If you envision, analyze, and design based on a journey metaphor, the resulting experiences are likely to look and feel like journeys to customers.

Before automatically jumping on the journey mapping bandwagon, you must recognize…

If your customers don’t want their experience with your organization to feel like a journey, then journey mapping may be the wrong tool based on the wrong underlying metaphor.

We’ve encountered many situations where different tools based on different underlying metaphors are not only more productive but attempting to use journey mapping in those situations has led to confusion amongst designers and frustration amongst customers.


The Importance of Metaphor


People make sense of complex situations, their goals, and the choices they have available to them using relatively simple physical metaphors.  Dr. George Lakoff, cognitive linguist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is most famous for his ideas about the centrality of metaphor to human thought, emotion, and action.  Lakoff surmised that the mind is "embodied” and that almost all of human cognition, up through the most abstract reasoning, depends on the use of concrete and physical metaphors.

These metaphors have a powerful influence on how people think and what they do.  The metaphor of a “container” is particularly common; we’re surrounded by situations we envision as containers.  For example, most people apply a container-based metaphor to the human body. We’ve all heard, “you are what you eat.” When people think about diet and exercise, they tend to think about calories in and calories out.  In reality your body is NOT a container, it is a very complex system. One of the fundamental reasons people struggle with maintaining weight is that their behavior follows a metaphor for thinking about diet and exercise that doesn’t fit with how the system actually works.  Designing effective health-related products and experiences depend on addressing this disconnect.

A “journey” is also a common metaphor people use to make intuitive sense of the world.  For example, time is a completely abstract concept.  A theoretical physicist would argue that time is just a dimension within which events happen.  However, with the exception of these theoretical physicists, virtually everyone else on the planet applies a “location- and journey-based metaphor” to understand time.  We’re HERE in the present. The past is BEHIND us.   We’re moving forward towards a future that is somehow IN FRONT OF us.  In reality, time has nothing to do with any of these things.  The physical location and journey metaphors are just mechanisms we use to make sense of this abstract concept.

Other common metaphors include connections (e.g., people or things we’re attached to), resources (e.g., what we have available or in short supply), transformations (e.g., the changes that define our lives and the elements of our world), balance (e.g., how we remain centered or what throws us off center), etc.


The Common Issue of Metaphor Mismatch


Another important lesson is… the metaphors providers use for understanding what they DO are generally not the same as the metaphors people use for understanding the situations they’re in and what they WANT.  This is one of the primary reasons why many customer experiences are confusing and frustrating.   This happens for several reasons:

  • First, the providers are the like the theoretical physicists in the discussion of time above. They know too much about the domain to ever think about the problem from the relatively naïve perspective customers have.  It’s really difficult to set aside everything you know about the business your in, all of the intricacies of every interaction with customers and what it takes to deliver.  When the metaphor is wrong, the best you end up with is company centric attempts at being customer centric.


  • Another reason why providers get the metaphor wrong is that their goals are often misaligned with the goals of their customers.  Framing a customer experience as a journey often subtly but powerfully focuses on designing journeys we want customers to be on rather than their goals.   Most providers dramatically over estimate their customers’ interests in having a relationship with their organization. Customers generally don’t want to have a relationship with each of the hundreds of organizations they deal with on a weekly basis.  They just want to live their lives and get things done.

Examples of Metaphor Mismatch 

Metaphor Mismatch


Unless your audience thinks about their situation and what they’re trying to accomplish as a journey, then applying a journey based metaphor to analyzing, envisioning, and designing experiences is just another example of this metaphor mismatch.


Getting the Metaphor Right


There is tremendous power in getting the metaphor right.  For example, in our work with a leading automotive insurance company, we identified that all the promises regarding “safe driver discounts” relied on a resource based metaphor; receiving a % off the premium.  As a result, these abstract promises didn’t really register with customers.  Our research surfaced the fact that customers were applying a container based rather than resource-based metaphor.  This led to the design of new product called the “Vanishing Deductable;” every year a customer stays with the company and drives without an accident, their deductable is reduced by $100. Advertising about this concept depicted the deductable as a big boulder always hanging above the customer’s head. The Vanishing Deductable made this boulder shrink. The product and communications about the product turned out to by highly successful since they were designed based on the customer’s metaphor not the provider’s.

Across the wide range of successful experience design efforts my colleagues and I have had the chance to contribute to, the journey metaphor is occasionally the right metaphor.  I’m certainly not suggesting avoiding it when the time is right.   I am suggesting, as I mentioned earlier, to pick your tools carefully based on the nature of the situation.

in many cases we’ve found that the right metaphor has been a set of containers that represent states of connection customers have with their needs and surrounding experiences.  With one recent client, these containers were characterized by customers that are “dabblers,” “amateurs,” “connoisseurs,” and “devotees.”  Customers took highly idiosyncratic action within each category based on different situations and desires.  In some situations, customers might transform from one state to another.  However, customers’ actions within a category and the conditions under which they transformed from one category to another were not journeys.   Previous efforts to inflict the journeys the provider hoped customers might be on were actually undermining the quality of experience and the desired results.  The better solution was to create experiences that just gave customers what they wanted within each category and established the conditions for more effective transformations when customers were ready.

In other situations, we’ve found the best way to think about a product, service, or experience is as a resource for customers.  They just want you to do what they expect you to do.   If for some reason, it’s more difficult than customers expect, the journey metaphor will tend to prolong a process customers may not have any interest or tolerance to engage in.  They just want you to do your thing and get out of their way.   After you do that, perhaps you might earn the right to move them towards a more compelling destination and evolve the relationship in the process.

Over the past 20 years, Customer Innovations has been using a structured Metaphor Elicitation approach to surface the underlying physical framework the target audience uses to make sense of, evaluate and act on their situations, needs, and experiences.  This is a critical part of designing experiences that are powerfully attractive and intuitively easy for customers to navigate.

I’m hoping you find this a value-added perspective.  I recognize this might be a bit controversial given the growth of the journey mapping bandwagon.  In the end, I’m just suggesting that you be thoughtful about the tools you use.  Those tools have a powerful influence on the way you frame the opportunity and often impose unintentional limits on the results you’ll get.

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