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User flow vs. user journey: what's the difference?

The fine line between user interface (UI) and user experience (UX).

By Narrandum team
21 July 2020

When writing a guide article for the Narrandum website, we try to cover topics which can be mysterious or confusing for people who are new to the world of service design. Often, these are the kind of questions people feel afraid to ask, because everyone around them seems to get it, and they're afraid of looking stupid. There's really no need for anybody to feel this way – every specialist field has its jargon, and everybody had to learn what it all means at some point – but it happens.

After many years in the business, we can usually provide clear and straightforward answers for these questions. But this one even made us put the thinking cap on for a moment. We're pretty sure there will be people out there who respectfully disagree with the premise of this article. But that's OK, we would welcome your feedback if you see things differently.

So here's the question. What is the difference between a user flow and a user journey? Are the two terms really interchangeable? Is it merely a matter of different organisations having different conventions?

Or is there a meaningful distinction?

We think there is. This article is an attempt to explain that difference.

User flows

Any interactive software has a flow. It could be incredibly simple – Ask a user to enter a word, then display that word on the screen. It could be linear - think of online surveys which ask a list of questions in a set order. It could be branching – if the user answers "yes" to this question, go to section A, if not, go to section B. Or it could be highly complex with no clear end point, like a video game. In all cases, the user's path through the software can be represented as a diagram, which we refer to as a user flow.

Process flows are, of course, nothing new. According to Wikipedia, The first formal method for creating flowcharts was described almost a century ago, long before general-purpose computing had become a reality. These flowcharts turned out to be eminently applicable to the loops and branches of computer programming, and they became widely adopted by software developers everywhere. Soon enough, people also started thinking about how to interact with computers, and so the concept of a user flow was born.

Today, there are some great tools specifically for creating user flows, such as Overflow. These allow designers to map out paths through their apps and services, drop in screens, and navigate smoothly along the entire user experience. Not only are they a convenient way to visualise and understand a complex system, they're also very useful for helping key stakeholders understand how their high-level ideas translate into practical reality.

Overflow makes creating user flows quick and easy.

But you may already have spotted a flaw with this approach, and it's at the heart of the reason why we wrote this article: the only thing this describes is the app itself. Screens, text, clicks, taps, input, output. It exists only in the abstract, free of context.

And this is where the user journey comes in.

Its focus is somewhat different. A user journey may not get into quite so much nuts-and-bolts detail about the path through an app or site. It probably won't cover every decision, every outcome, every edge case. But crucially, what it will provide, which a user flow doesn't, is context.

What does the user need at each point of the journey? What are the user's goals, expectations, concerns? What do they already know, and what will they need to know to proceed? What else is going on in their world right now? Are they sitting down, on the move, hands-free? Is it quiet or noisy? Bright or dark?

There is so much which can affect a user experience besides the user interface. A truly great digital service will keep all of this in mind, and provide the user with an experience which makes them feel truly understood.

Narrandum helps you to think about all of these things, and much more besides. For while user journeys typically only refer to events in the digital domain, customer journeys might encompass real-world interactions too. So whether your journey is 100% virtual, 100% physical, or somewhere in between, you can model it and improve your understanding of your customers with Narrandum. Sign up for free today and let your journey begin.

Thanks for reading.

We hope you enjoyed the post. We love helping people to understand their customers better, and producing articles like this is part of how we do it.

But of course, these posts are just the sideshow. The really interesting part is the app itself. So while you're here, why not sign up and try Narrandum for free?