What's the difference between a user journey and a customer journey?

They may sound similar, but they're really quite different. Read on to find out why.

By Narrandum team
6 June 2020

If you have been in or around the digital world for a while, you've probably heard the term user journey used in the context of a website or app. It's a very widely-used phrase, and has been around for at least a couple of decades. It typically refers to the interactive elements a user is offered in some scenario, and the decisions and behaviours the user takes. This usually means a series of screens linked together in some kind of flow diagram, with interacions showing what the user does on each screen, and what happens as a result.

User journeys are a very useful tool for user experience designers. They make understanding the path through a digital service quite straightforward, and allow UX designers to work through different situations before getting to deep into the detailed design. But it's not only designers who find them handy. They're also very valuable for software developers when figuring out how to build the system. And of course, for product owners and other stakeholders, they're a great way to develop an appreciation for the complexities of what the product team is creating for them.

So that's all pretty clear and straightforward. But lately you've heard people talking about customer journeys. And you've found yourself wondering if this is just a new markeying buzzword for the same old thing, or if it's actually something different. Well, we have good news for you - we've written this article to clear it up for you. Read on!

The venerable Nielsen Norman Group states that "The terms ‘user journey map’ and ‘customer journey map’ can be used interchangeably". Far be it from us to contradict such a renowned institution, but we disagree. We think there's a distinct difference between the two.

To understand why, let's start by thinking about the two words "user" and "customer" within the context of user experience and service design.

User journeys start and end in the digital domain

If I'm on your website, browsing and interacting with it, I'm a user. As soon as I leave it, I'm not a user any more. This is why we can talk about someone as an "occasional user", "regular user" or "frequent user" – there are moments in between those periods of use when I'm doing something else. However, I can be a customer of your business before, during and after visiting your website. The user journey covers just one scenario, one set of user needs, and one set of user goals.

There is such a thing as a multichannel user journey, which features a number of digital touchpoints. For example, I might use my phone to look up details about your product while I'm on the bus, and then switch to my computer to make the purchase when I get home. These mode switches could be driven by environment, by context, or simply by preference.

Capturing these mode switches in the user journey is important, as it helps us to construct more accurate and realistic models of how real users get things done, which in turn helps us to understand their needs better, and hopefully, ultimately, to make better products.

But even though the user is moving from device to device, we're still describing only digital interactions, and only within a single scenario taking place at a single point in time. Once we start stringing together multiple scenarios which happen on different occasions, we've gone beyond a user journey, and we're starting to create a customer journey.

I become your customer at the moment when I give you money in exchange for whatever goods or services you're selling. But the process of me becoming a customer started some time before this moment – it's just that this is when we both become aware of it. The beginning wasn't when I first entered your store, or when I arrived at your website. Not even when I first had the idea that I might want to buy what you're selling. The story started when I first realised that I needed what you have to offer. This is what we mean by a customer journey.

Just as it didn't begin with our first interaction, it also doesn't end when the transaction is complete. After all, I bought this thing for a reason, and now I'm eating it, driving it, reading it, playing with it. Maybe I'm recommending it to my friends. Or maybe it's defective and I need a refund. In any case, our relationship is developing and evolving. The customer journey continues.

To strengthen that bond we have started to develop, and retain me as a customer in future, you might want to keep in touch with me. Newsletters, exclusive special offers, an invitation to the launch of a new product – all these, and many more, help make me feel valued as a customer and keep reminding me that you exist, that you care about me as a customer, and that I should keep you in mind.

User journeys only cover interactions

A user journey is primarily concerned with describing a user's path through a website, app or other kind of digital service. It describes in detail the screens they see, the data they provide and the buttons they click.

Customer journey maps don't usually get into this level of detail about interactions (although they can, and with Narrandum we plan to move towards allowing users to add ever greater amounts of information). But they often contain information you wouldn't normally see in a user journey. The stages of a customer journey might be grouped into phases, such as before, during and after purchase. Within each stage, you're likely to find much more contextual information about where it's taken place, what's on the user's mind, and what else might be happening at the same time.

User journeys are repeatable

Because they describe sequences of tasks and processes, it's possible that a user journey will unfold in exactly the same way every time. In fact, this is usually desirable, as a consistent system allows users to become familiar with it and find their way around it more easily. With a customer journey, this isn't the case. The purpose of a customer journey is to document change – at the end of the journey, everything should be fundamentally different, and things can never go back to how they were.

We hope this article helps you to understand what a customer journey is and how it differs from a user journey. It's a little confusing, isn't it? This is just one reason why at Narrandum, we like to talk in terms of stories. Everybody knows what a story is and how it works. We're all about making things easier to understand, and that begins with eliminating jargon from our own terminology wherever possible.

If you have any feedback on this article, we'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading.

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