Book Review: The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love

September 21, 2020

Cover: The User's JourneyThroughout my time teaching and conducting training on the subject of User Experience, I’ve stressed the point that much, if not most, of a user’s experience with a product or service is not visual. This understandably annoys some people—particularly those who, like myself, have a background in visual design. It’s also understandable that there is a bias toward focusing on visual attributes, which are the easiest for many people to identify and critique. More than 50% of the human cerebral cortex is dedicated to image processing.

But, whether people are trying to order furniture from a Web site, interact with a call-center agent, schedule the installation of cabinets, or find their way through an airport, they are trying to accomplish some goal. That experience can become the basis of a story. With this understanding, we can see that the user experience of a product relates much less to where things are on a screen and how they look and much more to users’ motivations and the obstacles they encounter in trying to achieve their goals.

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Journey mapping and task flows are both useful methods of diagramming a user’s experience. However, even the simplest of tasks—when we diagram it in a task flow—can be quite complex, especially when we consider all of the user’s potential errors. Nevertheless, creating task flows is very useful in streamlining tasks and understanding how to build a user experience. Journey maps are generally at a higher level. While a task flow might focus on a discrete interaction or task, a journey map can incorporate multiple channels and span minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or even longer periods of time. They effectively diagram the relationship the user has with a company or product.

Book Specifications

Title: The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love

Author: Donna Lichaw

Formats: Paperbook and Kindle

Publisher: Rosenfeld Media

Published: March 22, 2016

Pages: 160

ISBN-10: 1933820314

ISBN-13: 978-1933820316

The Role of Story

In her book The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love, Donna Lichaw introduces story as a tool for building customer journeys—and a powerful tool for communication. This makes a lot of sense. People are natural storytellers. In realizing this, we can see that an experience is a story, and people are the heroes of their own story. The intent of a user journey should focus more on creating a positive narrative and less about mapping out a task.

Stories help us to remember important events and learn from our experiences. As I read Donna’s book, I realized that the inclusion of story in customer-journey maps helps answer the question So what? that we might encounter with less engaging design deliverables. Telling a good story is good design.

Reviewing the Story Arc

You are likely familiar with the idea of a story arc, which is illustrated in Figure 1. The formula is commonly understood and works. Here is a refresher:

  • exposition—A story first introduces a situation and the main character’s goal.
  • inciting incident—Something occurs that impedes the main character’s progress toward a goal and creates an emotional response.
  • rising action—The main character makes a journey to correct a wrong that is preventing the achievement of a goal.
  • crisis—At the point of no return, the character encounters a dilemma, the outcome of which alters the outcome of the story.
  • climax, or resolution—At this emotional high-point, the outcome is revealed.
  • falling action, or denouement—This phase provides closure and the release of climactic tension.
  • end—At the end of a story, the character has changed as a result of his or her journey.
Figure 1—The story arc
The story arc

Image source: The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love

It might seem counterintuitive that we would build a crisis into a user’s journey, then continue past the story’s climax—which might equate to a person’s successful use of the product or a conversion of some kind. But the story arc does provide a useful template upon which to build realistic, meaningful user journeys. For example, in the case of a hypothetical SaaS accounting application, an inciting incident might be a small-business owner’s realizing that he needs a better way of tracking expenses and income. The rising action could be researching, comparing, and selecting a software solution, then the crisis might correspond to onboarding. The climax might be the successful creation of an account and integrating a bank account. However, stopping there wouldn’t really tell the user’s whole story, For the experience to be meaningful to the user, it is necessary for the user to undergo some change—the denouement of the story. Perhaps the user finds that his days are much more productive as a result of this journey to find the hypothetical SaaS application.

This phenomenon could be useful in explaining why so many mobile apps simply do not have much staying power beyond a few weeks. A statistic from 2018 suggests that the average app loses 77% of new users just three days after installation. Perhaps many of these apps simply do not offer sufficient engagement to support a longer relationship with the user.

Frictionless Apps Might Not Delight Users

Lichaw provides several anecdotes about how the use of story can help in designing user experiences. A particularly good example is the onboarding experience for Twitter. In this example, a user does not simply sign up and begin tweeting. During signup, Twitter takes the user through a journey during which the user discloses interests, starts following people, and so on. Only after the user has completed this onboarding journey does he reach the climatic point of the story, when he has converted to a user, changed his behavior, and begins tweeting.

Frequently, when companies are developing new software or services, they consider it desirable that the onboarding experience be as easy—even mindless—as possible. However, while it is true that we should avoid presenting obstacles to a user who is signing up, introducing small challenges can actually create a more engaging experience that keeps users coming back. Consider the example of video games: those that are too easy are typically less interesting than those that introduce some challenges to overcome.

Similarly, story can help add an element of gamification to certain user experiences. While a user might not appreciate encountering either obstacles or a mini-crisis when using an ATM, introducing small amounts of friction—such as small and very achievable challenges—can give users a sense of accomplishment that keeps them engaged and makes an experience sticky. For example, Waze is a perfectly fine map app, but for people who actively participate in identifying accidents or traffic conditions, these small crises make them active participants in determining the outcome of their commute story.


I think this book will be very helpful in taking my journey-mapping skills to the next level. I look forward to using this technique on a few projects I have in flight right now, applying it to scenarios involving multiple personas with unique perspectives.

While the examples in the book get a bit repetitive, they are useful in seeing how you can use story in a variety of scenarios. This book is somewhat advanced, so I recommend it for UX professionals who have already had some experience with journey mapping. They will definitely see the benefits of this book. 

Owner and Principal Consultant at Covalent Studio LLC

Akron, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen’s global design and technology firm specializes in software design and development for the Web, mobile, and ecommerce. The company serves clients ranging from small startups to some of the largest companies in the world, including General Electric, Rio Tinto, and Fidelity. His career in User Experience began in the late 1990s. Ben has held diverse roles, including UX management at a global B2B firm, full-time and part-time academia, and executive roles. He enjoys solving complex business problems and coaching talent to be competitive UX design professionals. Ben earned his MS in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management at Kent State University and is a graduate of the Executive MBA program at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. He has presented long-format talks, speed presentations, and posters at many conferences and events and has conducted training and workshops for organizations throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.  Read More

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