The User Is on a Journey

Each year, Pauillac, a village nestled within the Médoc region of France, hosts a marathon. The Marathon du Médoc weaves through 44 kilometers of bucolic Bordeaux countryside. Points along its route include the iconic vineyards of Château Lafite Rothschild, Lynch-Bages, and many others. Green, combed hillsides of grape vines meet revival architecture capped in spires and surrounded by manicured gardens. Race day begins with a fashion show and ends with a fireworks display. Festivities throughout the morning and afternoon entertain onlookers, but each pales in comparison to the main event. If you run this marathon, you will have an unforgettable experience. If you study this marathon, you will learn a lot about user experience design.

The Marathon du Médoc is unconventional. For starters, the marathon’s atmosphere is relaxed. Competitors are given six and a half hours to finish, which gives them about 15 minutes to complete each mile of the course. Duration, not distance, measures the so-called, “longest marathon in the world.” Some runners cheat and start halfway. Others hide bicycles along the path. A few dress up as comic book characters, nuns or the Village People. And nearly everyone is a little bit drunk.

Approximately 8,500 runners begin their journey with a glass of wine. The aid stations all supply additional glasses of red and white wine, as well as oysters and steak. Completing any marathon is a remarkable achievement — even more so with a belly full of Cabernet Sauvignon and entrecôte. Perhaps unsurprisingly, several hundred runners do not finish the race. The runners were certainly motivated, possibly inebriated, able to cheat without consequence, and presumably don’t get lost. So why do some quit? It is hard to say. (A long run fueled by alcohol and shellfish stands as one possible reason.) A runner may encounter a sudden injury or slowly run out of steam under the baking hot, French, summer sun.

A person quits an experience in the same way that a marathoner quits a race: either suddenly or over the course of time. People get distracted. Life gets in the way. Stuff happens. And, although some people will quit, others will succeed. Their experiences unfurl across a figurative landscape, crisscrossed by pathways and populated by a mix of happenstance and design.

Many experiences, such as a marathon, may first appear as a linear path—start to finish. But, upon further discovery, they reveal themselves to be complex journeys, beginning in several places and ending in many possible outcomes.

A helpful way to think about a user journey is to imagine a marathon full of drunk runners. The runners wish to reach the finish line, but they are susceptible to exhaustion and easily distracted. Their senses are dulled, and they are unaware of how to reach their goal.

…imagine a marathon full of drunk runners.

The road they travel on contains several intersections. Upon encountering one of these crossroads, runners must either continue on their current course or make a turn. Without guidance, they stumble around looking for clues about how to proceed. Such moments may determine the success or failure of a runner’s entire race, keeping him or her on-track or steering him or her off-course.

Aid stations along the way provide brief respite for the runners, where they receive help, swig wine, and slurp oysters. However, if the runners stay too long, their bellies fill and their legs grow tired. Too much aid can be a bad thing when a person pursues a goal.

Now, instead of a drunk person running down a road in France, imagine a person buying a plane ticket online. This buyer may be unaware of how to reach her goal. She may become distracted or give up out of exhaustion. The journey she takes contains several intersections, as well. She visits a website, enters a credit card number, and receives an email confirmation. At any one of these crossroads, she could choose another path. For example, visiting a website may lead her to complete her purchase over the phone. Entering a credit card number could generate a confusing error and cause her to shop elsewhere. Her email confirmation may entice her to join the airline’s loyalty program. Each of these events serve as a potential off-ramp from one experience and an onramp to another.

We can offer help to users during such a journey. However, like an all-you-can-eat aid station, too much assistance can slow down a user’s pursuit of his or her goals. Repeated alerts dull their senses. Long explanations nauseate rather than alleviate. We must not place too many treats on the table, lest we lose users to the comfortable apathy of effortless abandonment. The easiest choice a user makes is doing nothing at all.

The easiest choice a user makes is doing nothing at all.

So, how do we design experiences based on a user’s journey? We cannot force a user to do anything, but we can pave the way to preferred outcomes. We do this by removing obstacles, planning detours, and offering guidance when needed. Yet, knowing where to focus our efforts often proves to be the biggest challenge when designing an experience. We can determine these locations by studying three things: where a user was, where the user is, and where the user is going.

Where the user was…

The user begins our journey at the first intersection along the road, where her path and ours meet. After all, she comes from somewhere else. She has walked other roads before ours. When we meet the user at this crossroad, she either decides to join us or ignore us. More often than not, she fails to even take notice — many distractions compete for her attention.

We want to know where the user was before we met her. We want to know her context. The user’s context is arguably the most important part of a user’s journey, for it often determines which path she will take next. If the user comes from a context applicable to the path we constructed, she may join us; if not, she will likely take another route. For instance, buying a plane ticket online would be applicable in the context of planning a vacation, whereas it rarely would be in the context of planning a meal.

Where the user is…

With a bit of coaxing, the user elects to travel down our road. Her journey with us will continue or end at the next intersection. For instance, she will reach a crossroad where she will debate buying from us.

We can guide the user to a preferred path if we know where she is within the journey. If she is ready to learn, we should teach. If she is ready to buy, we should sell. But, if she is not ready for an experience, anything we say or do about it will be misplaced.

Too often, a misplaced experience leads users astray when a request comes too early or an incentive comes too late.

For example, some apps request permissions as soon as they launch, such as a dialog that reads, “Acme App would like to use your current location.” The request asks users to choose either “Don’t Allow” or “OK.” Although such behavior provides flexibility for the following experiences, it only does so after the user has accepted. Acceptance requires trust, and a new app upon its initial launch is unlikely to have earned it yet. If the user denies the request, the following experiences may be crippled. Like a tall hurdle placed in the middle of a road, some users skip the request to jump and simply walk around it. The request came too early.

I once worked with a major online retailer that offered free shipping on their checkout page. Free shipping is a proven conversion incentive, but users view checkout pages only after they decide to buy. Like an aid station that is just out of sight over the next hill, most users never saw the incentive. The incentive came too late.

We can predict these intersections by researching how other users behave. Each user is unique, but groups of users tend to follow similar paths along a journey, thereby allowing us to anticipate where a user may confront an obstacle, make a detour, or veer off course into the vast wilderness of countless possibilities.

Where the user is going…

If our research is correct (and with a bit of luck), we can anticipate the intersections, points of interest, and dead ends along a user’s journey. We design accordingly.

Each design decision becomes a result of the user’s goals. If we know that users first search for a product, we should direct our awareness-building efforts towards search engine marketing and optimization. If we believe users make purchase decisions only after an app’s download, we should focus on post-installation conversion. If we understand that users abandon their accounts within 90 days, we should foster retention within the first few months of use.

Despite their many similarities, a marathon full of drunk runners and the journey of users do differ in at least one key way: running a marathon is a solo-act, driven by the skill and passion of an individual. In contrast, a user journey is a partnership between a user and a designer, driven by the designer’s empathy for the user and understanding of the user’s goals.

The more you understand a user’s goals, the greater the chances are that you will reach yours as well. A user journey is merely the road map to achieve them. Place yourself in the user’s shoes and design the paths that he or she will travel. It is the only way to win. So, open a bottle of wine, crack open a few oysters, and sizzle up some steak – you have a marathon to run.