Mobile app user journeys: Definitions, analysis, and best practices
User journeys are one of the most powerful tools for building great mobile apps. And when employed with thoughtfulness and rigor, they can be your golden ticket to first-class rates of conversion, retention, and engagement.
The problem is user journeys are often misunderstood and conflated with other industry concepts like user flows and funnels, leading them to be poorly applied or overlooked entirely.
In this article, we’ll explore what user journeys are with nuance, why they’re crucial for successful mobile apps, as well as provide best practices for getting investment-worthy results.
What is a user journey?
A user journey (or mapping a user journey) is a technique for gleaning insights about your users by putting yourself in their shoes. And the key to understanding how it works to produce these insights is right in its namesake: journey.
The word “journey” triggers an array of associations. We think adventure, obstacles, and a variety of experiences. We think about a spectrum of emotions complete with highs and lows. And we often think about a journey being framed around something specific such as a career journey or fitness journey or personal growth journey. Regardless of whether an explicit goal is involved, the emphasis when talking about a journey is always about what the person on the journey did and experienced at various stages along the way, whether they achieved the goal or not.
Likewise, a user journey is an attempt to document a holistic account of the journey a user takes as they attempt to do something with your app. And that includes not just what happens when they use the app’s features, but also what happens before they know your app exists, as well as what happens between and after uses.
Why do we need user journeys?
If you want people to download your app and do something (e.g., convert), then you need to understand what they’re going through before they even realize they need to do something. You need to understand the problem driving this need, why they are encountering it, the steps that led up to them encountering it, and what they’re feeling and thinking in response to encountering it. Furthermore, you need to be aware of how they might become aware of your app as a solution to the problem, whether that involves ads, advice from friends, or another channel. With this data in mind, you can then take intentional steps to increase the likelihood that they will seek out and download your app as the solution to their problem.
User journeys provide you a comprehensive list of experiences about which you can intentionally conduct interviews and run analytics experiments so you force these insights to the surface before they become serious issues.
Similarly, if you want people to continue using your app once they’ve downloaded it (e.g., engage and retain), you need to understand their thoughts and feelings as they encounter each step in your app’s UX. You need to know if they’re closing the app out of frustration or using your app plus an additional third-party tool because they don’t realize your app can do it all. And if they do abandon the app, you want to know what they do and why so you can prevent future users from making the same choice.
By mapping out a user journey, you force yourself to empathize with your users with a whole new level of rigor. First, you do work to identify all the ways in which they may encounter your app, brand, or the problems your app solves. Then, for each of these “touch points,” you create holistic accounts of problems, needs, feelings, and potential wants that you can then use to make changes that either resolve pain points or introduce new and irresistible value. The user journey map forces you to cover all your bases, and it forces you to get so specific that you can’t help but notice high-value next steps.
Trying to launch a successful app without user journeys is like playing a guessing game. Sure, you might get lucky and discover an important pain point during a routine user interview or notice some patterns in your product analytics data, but critical insights may never come up. User journeys provide you a comprehensive list of experiences about which you can intentionally conduct interviews and run analytics experiments so you force these insights to the surface before they become serious issues. It’s like having a heat map of where to look before problems really become problems, not to mention where to look to create new and lasting value!
Who needs user journeys?
Since user journey’s are essentially a tool to empathize with your users, their value transcends a variety of roles:
Understanding pain points, wants, and needs at different stages helps UX designers refine existing features and introduce new experiences that positively impact key metrics.
Understanding what happens before conversion helps marketers drive conversion. But understanding what happens after also drives conversion, engagement, and retention by allowing marketers to frame value and more effectively set expectations.
The high-level product insights that come from understanding actual feelings and behavior, and the opportunities for value creation around them, can drive important roadmap decisions.
Founders and solo developers
As an app founder or solo developer, you often perform all of these roles, so user journeys are essential for making your life easier by adding structure to all the noise.
What’s the difference between journeys, flows, and funnels?
User journeys are often conflated with user flows, sales funnels, and marketing funnels because they all involve a user moving through a process with various steps or stages. However, that’s where the similarities end, since each of these tools exist for very different purposes.
Flows vs. journeys
User flows are defined by user experience (UX) designers and are comprised of every little micro step needed to make something happen in the context of your app’s user interface. For example, the following steps might constitute a simplified login flow:
- Open the app
- Tap login
- Enter email address
- Enter password
- Tap login
- Respond to error messages if necessary and repeat steps 3 through 5
- Display login success message
- Display app home screen
While a user journey may reference these steps in some way, the flow exists to define how a UI is to be built and the journey exists to glean insights on what the user is experiencing at each step of the journey so future flows can be improved.
For example, a high-level user journey, perhaps one focused on making a purchase, might represent this entire login flow as a single step: login. Next, one would assess details about user feelings, wants, and other perspectives in order to glean insights for how we can better encourage purchases at a high level, including but not limited to tweaking the login flow.
On the other hand, a more granular user journey, say one focused on login, might include every step in this user flow as a step in the journey for the sole purpose of optimizing the login flow. Each step in the flow wouldn’t just appear as a flow chart, but include all the aforementioned user details for the purpose of creating a better login flow going forward.
Funnels vs. journeys
Funnels are another tool to track users through a series of steps, but again, exist for different purposes than both flows and journeys.
A marketing funnel is a tool used to generate leads. That is, it’s a series of steps a potential customer goes through, resulting in a conscious interest in purchasing a product. A sales funnel is a tool used to turn leads into customers. It’s yet another series of steps that sales teams push prospective customers through in order to convert them into customers who’ve made a purchase.
Like user flows, the steps in a sales or marketing funnel may be represented as one or more steps in a user journey, depending on the focus of the user journey and level of abstraction. Moreover, a marketing or sales funnel may represent steps completed by all of your users in order to become leads and subsequently customers, while user journeys are the nuanced steps (and reactions to those steps) a specific class of user (as represented by a persona) is taking in order to do something in your app, whether that’s making a purchase or simply sharing the app with a friend.
Finally, there’s one more type of funnel worth mentioning: the Funnel tool in Mixpanel. This is a product analytics tool used to track which users complete any arbitrary series of steps, whether those steps are part of a user journey, user flow, or something else attempting to be measured. Once you define a user journey, the funnel tool in Mixpanel can be used to run experiments to test the degree to which your assumptions align with the reality of your user behavior.
How does one create strong user journeys for mobile apps?
There’s a variety of ways you might approach crafting your user journeys, including opting for a different ordering as needed, but I find this series of steps to be particularly helpful in creating high-quality journeys:
1. Clarify your goals and choose your framing
User journeys do not exist in a void. They are created with the explicit purpose of gleaning insight about something specific. Do you want to drive more purchases? Then you want a user journey that focuses on making a purchase. Are you exclusively interested in downloads? Then purchase activity may or may not be relevant. Do you want to test a specific feature of your app to the exclusion of others?
The answers to questions like these are essential to framing your user journey so you can decide which steps and details are relevant to your mapping. You might even decide to prioritize multiple goals and framings, each requiring one or more user journeys of their own to provide sufficient insight.
2. Research your users and define personas
Creating user journeys is both an art and a science. In part, you’ll combine anecdotes and your experiences to intuit your users perspectives, but that can only take you so far. Your user journeys should reflect real perspectives, steps, thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs of real users, so you’ll need to do the legwork to collect real data in all of these areas by running experiments and conducting user interviews.
Once you have sufficient data to start, synthesize your research into personas. A persona is a concrete way of documenting a class of real users with real characteristics—complete with a name, specific demographics like age, location, and income, as well as roles in life, attitudes, needs, and the like. Without this defining this all well, a user journey is largely meaningless because it’s too abstract to serve any actual category of user.
Luckily there’s tons of articles on defining user personas out there, and defining the full set of personas that are relevant to your app is a step that should be taken as early as possible in the product development process.
3. Brainstorm touch points and channels
A touch point is any point at which a user interacts with your app or your brand, before, during, or after installing and using the app itself. For example, a user might see an ad for your app on Facebook, notice it in the App Store search results, or hear it mentioned in a podcast episode. Once they start using the app, different screens or functions could serve as touch points through which the app might communicate with the user. For example, a user might submit a form in your app for review and then receive an email when the form has been processed. That email is as much a touch point as the form itself, along with the website, customer support chats, or any other way the user might interact with you or your company.
When brainstorming touch points for a user journey, it’s important to consider only those that are relevant to the focus of the journey. Does the user have the ability to contact support before making a purchase? If not, then it’s likely not a touchpoint to list out in this step if you’re defining a user journey around purchases.
Additionally, touch points can be further organized by splitting them into different channels. For example, you might classify a touch point as “submit loan application” but provide the user multiple channels to submit the application: via the mobile app and via the website. This simply provides an additional level of granularity that can help you cut through the noise.
4. Pick your steps
Now that you’ve brainstormed your touch points, you have more of a concrete sense of the steps the user is going through in order to complete the action you’re trying to measure with the user journey. You can now use these touch points as a basis for revealing the high-level steps that are relevant in going from the start of the journey to achieving the result.
There is no standard set of steps for mobile app user journeys because they can be created for so many different levels of abstraction. As we already established, a user journey about your login process might include all the steps of your current user flow with maybe a few others leading up to and preceding the user flow.
That said, if you’re trying to map something high-level like a journey to making a purchase (also referred to as a customer journey), chances are others have attempted to do this, as well, and have come up with some clever ways of organizing touch points into journey steps for their mobile apps.
If your steps are a comprehensive account of the user’s path toward doing the action you’re trying to measure, you’re good to go.
5. Prioritize details for analysis
Now that you have your steps, it’s time to decide what data you want to collect for each step. For mobile app journeys, I recommend collecting the following:
- The touch points for the step (see above)
- The user’s goals and wants at this step
- Expected user behavior vs. actual user behavior (to the best of your knowledge)
- The user’s emotional state, miscellaneous thoughts, and reactions at this step
- Causes of user friction (related to emotional state)
- The opportunities and ideas for providing additional value at each step
The above are a great starting points for most mobile apps. However, depending on your app’s niche, you may track additional details for each step in their own right:
- A fitness app may track the user’s perceived fitness progress at each step
- A to-do list app may track the user’s sense of productivity at each step
- A meditation app may track the degree to which a user feels peace at each step
6. Lay out your journey into columns and swim lanes
Now that you have the ingredients for your journey, we want to see it laid out in a way that’s easy for us to reason through and digest. That’s why user journeys are most often laid out with one column per step and one row or swim lane for each detail being analyzed.
7. Experiment and iterate
Finally, it’s time to apply what you’ve learned! Refer to your journey regularly. Systematically walk through each step and create a backlog of experiments and user interviews about specific topics to test whether the assumptions you’ve laid out are correct. Where they are, use that validation to update your feature backlog and marketing strategy. Where they are not, run experiments to find out what’s really happening and adjust your journey accordingly as you craft a deeper understanding.
About Joseph Pacheco
Joseph is the founder of App Boss, a knowledge source for idea people (with little or no tech background) to turn their apps into viable businesses. He’s been developing apps for almost as long as the App Store has existed—wearing every hat from full-time engineer to product manager, UX designer, founder, content creator, and technical co-founder. He’s also given technical interviews to 1,400 software engineers who have gone on to accept roles at Apple, Dropbox, Yelp, and other major Bay Area firms.
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