Alan Cooper invented the concept of ‘personas’ in his early software development days and made it famous in his book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. The idea of developing a fully fleshed-out description of a typical user was a great stride forward from the stick men that represented people in UML diagrams, but today we know that isn’t enough.

Personas can give people a false sense of security that they fully understand their audience. A typical persona description might read:

“Jane is a married mother of two, aged 32, stay-at-home mom. Likes shopping at Target and Wegmans. Is price-conscious and buys store-brands.”

Designers often illustrate their personas with photos, back stories and personality traits. They may even create large poster-sized versions and plaster them around their design war rooms.

Unfortunately, most designers only produce a handful of personas for a given project. Fewer than five personas are normally created, but unfortunately that doesn’t provide enough information about the breadth and depth of the people using your software. While a full-color poster of Jane and her back story is more life-like than a stick figure in a UML diagram, it doesn’t come close to understanding the complexity of a single customer, let alone the full range of customers.

It’s like comparing Shakespeare to Twilight.

The same can be said for the latest incarnation of customer research: the customer journey map. A map of the customer’s journey is a huge leap forward from flowcharts and workflow diagrams (regardless of the number of swim lanes you add), but again it falls short of any depth or understanding. Similarly, when customer personas are one-dimensional stereotypes, the customer journey map falls flat. Ultimately, customer journey maps can turn the complexity of life into a children’s story: Jane Goes Shopping.

Designers have added many flourishes and keep expanding on the maps, but they still fall short of understanding our busy, multi-faceted lives. It’s like comparing Shakespeare to Twilight. Story arc visuals and simplistic emoticons don’t even come close to replacing the reality of a simple shopping trip.

A customer journey map of a shopping trip would likely illustrate a shopping trip as a single, focused activity:

  • Make shopping list [emotion: neutral]
  • Drive to store [emotion: happy]
  • Go aisle-by-aisle, finding items and putting them in your shopping cart [emotion: bored]
  • Stumble across a ‘sale’ item and impulse buy [emotion: delight]
  • Go to checkout [emotion: neutral]
  • Wait [emotion: unhappy]
  • Pay [emotion: neutral]
  • Load car [emotion: tired]
  • Come home [emotion: satisfied]
  • Unpack shopping [emotion: tired]

If you looked past the fancy visuals that would normally accompany a journey map, you would be left with a simplistic story. Maybe it’s mapped to a consumer purchase process and includes notes from the ethnographic research. Maybe it’s tied to a persona (or five), their photos and back stories. Ultimately the journey maps still don’t provide much more information or, more importantly, understanding than a workflow diagram.

Some designers and researchers claim that ‘personas’ and ‘customer journey maps’ are mental-reminders of actual people and their experiences. They are not meant to be taken too literally or the be-all and end-all of customer understanding. This is true up to a certain point because, like other design heuristics and artifacts, they become the focal point for the team and start becoming thinking short-cuts; i.e. WWJD (What Would Jane Do). The ‘customer journey map’ falls prey to the same misconceptions that turned usability into the ‘less clicks’ mantra [See my talk on Motivational Design at TEDxPennQuarter for more on this and why usability engineers shouldn’t be allowed on golf courses]. The customer journey map becomes the gospel and replaces months of research and understanding.

We’ve been working on the next evolution of the customer journey maps to add more depth and understanding to the design process. Similar to our work on personas grids, which map multiple personas onto behavioral and motivational axes in order to get a more comprehensive understanding of the customers (personas grids can be as large as 8x8 grids or multiple 4x4 grids, resulting in 64-96 personas for some complex projects), we have been looking at all of the dimensions that make up a customer’s journey. We have developed what we call the 3D Customer Journey:

  • Layer 1: The Inner Journey captures the internal needs, motivations and unconscious behaviors of customers
  • Layer 2: The Contextual Journey captures the complete context of the customer, including location, social setting, time of day, etc.
  • Layer 3: The Outer Journey captures the elements of traditional customer purchase paths
We are only one of many personas that span multiple dimensions.

The 3D Customer Journey incorporates a variety of artifacts that capture the complexity of life. It helps our customers understand the myriad of goals and needs that compete for their customers’ attention. A shopping trip is rarely an isolated task. We might be dropping off our kids at a friend’s house while we’re on the way to buy hot dogs, beer and chips for a barbecue later tonight. We also need to fill up on gas and go through the car wash. And we can’t forget to pick up a card and a present for the wife’s birthday next week. The complexity of these competing demands and needs are further complicated by our individual motivations and buying style. This is woven together with the multiple locations we need to visit, the people around us and the date, day and time. At the moment we walk into the grocery store to buy hot dogs, beer and chips we are in the middle of a complex multi-dimensional journey–physically, mentally and emotionally. And let’s not forget that we are only one of many personas that span multiple behavioral and motivational dimensions.

Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School Professor, has written about a fast food restaurant chain that wanted to improve milkshake sales. The company took the traditional marketing approach: segmenting their customers and conducting focus groups. The research suggested the restaurant chain increase the variety of milkshake flavors they sold, but after doing so, sales were unaffected. Another researcher was brought in who conducted ethnographic research and observation. The researcher discovered that 40% of milkshake sales happened before 10am. Further investigation lead to a better understanding of the problem: customers were buying milkshakes for breakfast to consume on their daily commutes because they were easy to consume while driving. Using this new understanding, they developed a plan to address this unique need and sales improved.

A traditional customer journey would have focused on the steps in purchasing milkshakes and considered alternative fast food options. Without an understanding of the full context of the customers needs (replacement for breakfast, drinking while driving, etc.) the solution would not have been obvious.

Our lives are complex; software and technology needs to meet the challenge of creating the right kind of experience across the right kinds of devices for the right mix of people. Our design toolkit needs to expand to be able to meet these ever-more complex demands. Let’s not settle for stereotypes and children’s story-like artifacts.


Clay Christensen's Milkshake Marketing – HBS Working Knowledge
Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure – HBR December 2005
The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity by Alan Cooper

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