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As part of our research into customer experience, we asked people going through one of four life events to map that journey for us using words or pictures. User journey mapping is a great technique for understanding the customer experience of events. It can also be used by organisations to get a better picture of all the steps a customer needs to take to complete a transaction.

The life events we mapped were:

  1. beginning university study
  2. becoming a parent
  3. immigrating to New Zealand
  4. retiring from the workforce.

The real world

The maps people created for us are rich, varied and — most importantly — real. While user journey maps have become fashionable in government lately, there is still a reluctance to use 'real' rather than 'illustrative' user journey maps. Having maps created by actual people rather than those who work in the public sector is important.

The distinction is significant: real user journey maps show the end-to-end customer experiences with all the inconsistencies and complexities of life. They show us that life is messy and sometimes things fall apart. Illustrative user journey maps are often very clean; made by a designer or analyst without the full picture of what can happen in real life.

One young mother wrote about the birth of her son on her map: how much easier it would have been if the umbilical cord was longer, if the birth had not resulted in a c-section, and weeks of neo-natal care. For us, it placed her experience with government agencies in stark perspective.

Maps like hers helped us see how relatively insignificant government is in peoples’ lives: government only became important when it placed an obstacle in front of them. It is unlikely we would have come to appreciate this fully had we used a research technique that placed more emphasis on scripted engagement.

How we did it

So how did we do it? We organised workshops with people undertaking one of these life events through intermediaries such as universities, parenting support services and community groups. We introduced ourselves, explained to participants we would like them to map their experience, handed over butchers’ paper, pens and a few stickers and left them to it.

The groups were small so we were able to spend some time with participants early on to reassure them about the process. We also gave them a template at the start — asking them to use a pseudonym — to find out their age, location and hobbies. We posed the question: When it comes to dealing with public services I feel….

We also asked them about their channel preference (in person, by phone, online etc). And left space for them to draw a representative picture of themselves. We collected demographic data, such as age, income, education, and ethnicity, which we kept separate from their map. This was for us to know about the mix of people who had participated.

Once their maps were done, we spoke with them individually about their maps, and prompted them about their engagement with government if it was unclear. The technique worked really well with students and new parents, but less well with immigrants and retirees, so we adapted our approach with them, using more prompting and traditional interview-based approaches.

Visualising the maps

For the final research report we re-created a handful of the original maps. We lost some of the charm and quirks of the originals, but we protected the privacy of participants.

The saying 'life is stranger than fiction' is true. When we were deciding which user journey maps to visualise, we selectively edited information to ensue people could not be identified. For example, one woman wrote about her experience of alcoholism and rehabilitation. We were confident that the benefit of removing this would be greater for her privacy than any potential impacts on authenticity.

Initial reaction to the maps from public sector colleagues was mixed. Reactions to the maps were individual, just like our customers’ experiences: some were challenged by the maps or found them confrontational. Others were quite moved.

Some colleagues thought the maps did not reflect well on particular agencies or thought the role of government was not prominent enough. They wanted us to temper the emotion of participants or tweak the process participants had taken. Others wanted participants’ ethnicity to be clearly stated on the maps as they felt this would explain why people had the experiences they did. We did not agree.

Other colleagues thought we had deliberately sought out participants who had difficulties accessing services, when in fact we had not screened for experience beforehand (a choice worthy of another blog post in itself) and most participants had good as well as bad experiences.

Dealing with the real

The response to the user journey maps has also been extraordinary. Displaying the originals in workshops with colleagues generated much discussion and helped us all gain an understanding about who our customers are.

We now talk about Kelvin, Olive, Charlie and Ramazon like they’re real people. Of course, they are real people. And when we come into work every day it’s to design services that are easier for them to use.


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