Customer Experience Maps: A Holistic Approach

In the previous post, I highlighted the role that design thinking plays in problem identification and solution design. Within the design thinking approach, several tools and practices helpful to entrepreneurs as they seek an optimal solution for customers. These tools support the development, articulation, and documentation of your early assumptions about the customer’s experience with the problem they are grappling with or the job to be done. In addition, several design thinking tools incorporate graphical visualization to support your conceptualization of the customer experience.

One approach that can help you identify and articulate a customer’s problem and related context is called a customer experience map, sometimes labeled as a journey map. One way to differentiate between the two labels is to consider a journey map as the customer’s experience with your product solution (post-purchase). Journey maps focus on the customer’s engagement with your brand at each touchpoint, from initial awareness through purchase and post-purchase engagement. A customer experience map focuses on the customer’s thoughts and actions before having access to your solution (pre-purchase, typically pre-awareness). Experience maps look at how customers are engaging with other brands to find a solution to their problems. This information is invaluable to understand how the customer goes about looking for answers, what their decision process looks like, and what options currently exist in the marketplace. The focus is on the customer’s experience with the problem, emphasizing all the challenges throughout the process. Your solution has not yet entered the picture.

Mapping the customer experience is an excellent way to articulate your core assumptions about the customer’s problem, experience with current solutions, and what benefits they expect from a better solution. As you will see it, it allows you to visualize the steps and actions that the customer takes to solve the problem, the challenges they face, and their mindset throughout the process.

Supporting the Customer Discovery Process

Applying customer mapping as part of the discovery process helps you prepare and learn from interviews and surveys about the customer experience. Creating a visual map illustrates how the customer is experiencing the current problem allowing you to think about the best way to structure the interview and ask questions to elicit the customer’s perspective on the problem and their experience. One way to think about this is to outline what you perceive as the customer’s story about experiencing the problem you are hoping to solve. And like all stories, there is a beginning, middle, and end. You will be better prepared to listen to the customer’s story if you have anticipated the arc of the customer’s narrative before the interview. That said, you cannot let your assumptions get in the way of listening in an unbiased manner throughout each customer interview.
Additionally, this mapping activity helps in building your customer profile. Thinking about the customer’s story and experience helps to anticipate various challenges that they may be experiencing (pain points) as they attempt to solve the specific problem and identify special reasons why the customer is looking for solutions. You most likely will discover that different customer segments follow a different story arc. Thus, their solution needs may differ. Visualizing how each customer segment approaches the problem and attempts to solve facilitates more refined customer profiles and personas.

Visualizing the Customer Experience 

One of the optimal ways to create an empathetic understanding of what a person is trying to accomplish and how they are feeling along the way is to use tools that allow you to visualize the situation in context. In design thinking, visualization is a core approach to developing a deep understanding of your customer and experience. Let’s explore the use of a holistic mapping process. Taking a holistic approach allows you to consider what is going through an individual’s mind while moving through the steps of a specific job or task.
As a starting point, always begin with a simple template to help decide on the various components of the customer’s experience. Start by thinking about the customer experience as a story, beginning, middle, and end. As noted in an earlier post, an essential part of framing the customer’s problem is to decide on the timeframe. At what point do you see the story beginning? The answer to this question can be challenging. Commonly, we visualize the problem and attempts to solve it at an obvious point of occurrence. For example, if the customer has trouble getting to work in the morning on time, one might be tempted to begin learning about the customer’s morning routine. But maybe, the story starts the night before or earlier.

As you work on this basic map, you can begin to add more components to the customer story, more details about each phase of the story, along with specifics about what they are doing and how they are feeling at each stage. There is no limit to the number of phases you identify, and some problems can occur across several periods and contexts. I have had many entrepreneurs work on new health care ventures, always looking for ways to make the diagnostic and care process more seamless. In exploring the experience, the customer has moved from initial awareness of symptoms to going to the doctor and making an appointment. As you layout each phase, you can begin to isolate where potential challenges exist as the customer works their way through the steps. Maybe the customer tends to delay deciding to go to the doctor because of barriers to access (lack of insurance) or managing other responsibilities (challenging to take off from work). Each step in the experience may offer insight into the most significant pain points and where you can best provide value to the customer.

 Another approach to visualizing the customer’s experience is as a system – there are inputs, throughputs, and outputs. You can break up these system attributes in terms of functional and social-emotional elements. Functional elements often involve specific tasks and behaviors. Social-emotional components range from one’s manifest emotions to cognitive models applied to the task at hand. Later, as you listen to and observe individuals’ functional behaviors, you will identify patterns of behaviors and events. Additionally, you will define underlying structures and practices (external to the individual) that drive behavioral patterns. By expanding the way we look at the problem at hand and how individuals deal with various challenges, we will increase our solution choices and the long-term efficacy of selected solutions.
Combined, you can begin to visualize the functional tasks from the beginning to the end of the job in question. At the same time, you can consider what the person is thinking and feeling throughout each stage.  Finally, you can collect observations and data beyond behaviors and thoughts and consider contextual elements such as external structures, policies, and practices. 

An integral part of the customer’s experience in identifying and visualizing the customer’s mindset throughout the experience. One can define mindset as what the customer is thinking, saying, feeling, going for information, and looking for guidance. These elements are similar to what you can identify using what is called an empathy map. A standard empathy map template asks you to determine the customer’s experience in quadrants, what is the customer doing & saying, hearing, seeing, and feeling. There are plenty of variations, but it is another good way to approach the customer experience holistically. 

Creating Customer Experience Maps 

Here are the steps for creating your first map. The first step is to select the customer segment or community you believe best represents those experiencing the problem in question and are interested in finding a solution. As mentioned earlier, the focus on a specific segment enhances your understanding of your customer profile.

With your target customer in mind, you should generate a step-by-step list of activities and behaviors manifested during the customer’s current attempts to accomplish a task or solve the problem. At this point, you should label the phases of the customer’s experience. Each phase should serve as a rational container for the customer’s activities and challenges at that point of the overall experience.

Once you have these steps outlined, go back, and add any challenges or obstacles that the customer experiences while doing the activity. These should correspond with your current assumptions about the customer’s pain points, discussed while framing the initial problem. I find the identification of customer pain points at each stage of the experience valuable when designing effective customer solutions. By pinpointing the exact time and location of the pain point, you can develop targeted solutions with measurable outcomes to support the overall solution. Please note that you should also record any steps or activities that are going well. Your future solution designs should incorporate what the customer sees as positive elements of their experience.

Then, continue to fine-tune the map by adding your assumptions about the customer’s thoughts and feelings throughout this specific experience. At this point of the map creation, you should consider all aspects of the customer’s mindset. Like an empathy map, document what the customer is feeling, what they are saying and hearing throughout each stage. Here, you can identify what channels they are using to research information about the problem and what solutions exist, and by whom. 

As a final step, you should add any necessary situational conditions that you think are important to understanding the customer’s experience in “context.” For example, is there anything about the environment to note? Is the experience always in a specific type of location? Indoors? Outdoors? Maybe it happens at a particular time of year or associated with special events? Are there any cultural areas to consider? Context is any condition or situation outside the individual but may influence their experience, either as an enabler or obstacle. I think it is essential to consider the goals of the customer throughout the experience. It is common to witness changes in what the customer wants to accomplish at different stages of the overall experience. Goals also vary across different customer segments. Changes in what the customer wants or needs can lead to potential innovative solutions leading to process improvements.

The good news is that designing a customer experience map does not have to be complicated. You don’t need any special tools, templates, or software. Many of the entrepreneurs I work with use graphics available in go-to presentation software. However, there are plenty of options ranging from general visualization applications like mind mapping tools to dedicated customer experience software supporting persona development and map design.

Mapping: An Iterative Approach

One of the best things about customer mapping is that you can build on it as you continue to engage customers and associated market research.  Through customer discovery, you learn more about their current experience. Then, you can work with your team to generate potential solutions and finally help document experience with early product experiments and prototypes. 
The early customer experience maps focus on articulating your assumptions about what the customer is doing and thinking. This first version focuses on recent experiences without any reference to your proposed solution. It is in this version that you establish the customer’s basic story. How do you see the story playing out? Where does it begin? What happens in the middle? How does it end? At each component of the story, you identify what the customer is doing, thinking, feeling, obstacles faced, solutions tried, and any contextual factors. 
The second iteration of customer experience maps comes after you have interviewed several customers, documented their experiences with the problem, and attempted to solve it. Here you are looking for patterns across stories and refining the customer experience map across all components. I label this version as the “validated” version, where customer discovery corroborates the customer’s experience. Now you possess a map representing the problem from the customer’s perspective and not based on your early assumptions.
The third version of your map aids in generating innovative solutions, focusing on minimizing customer pain points and creating desired value across the customer experience. You will begin to prioritize desired benefits and identify design criteria for an effective solution. The “innovative” version is where you start to identify and integrate your solution designs into the customer’s future experience.

From Customer (Problem) Experience to (Post Purchase) Journey Maps

Once your customer starts to use your solution, you can switch to customer journey mapping. You now focus on the customer’s experience with your solution, interactions across all product sales channels, and overall brand engagement. The mapping approach shifts from focusing on the customer’s experience with the problem and competitive solutions to your specific offer and business model. As opposed to the customer experience with the problem, the phases in this map typically correspond with your venture’s sales funnel – awareness, consideration, decision, and later advocacy. You can learn a great deal by mapping the customer’s experience with your venture and its offerings. This activity helps to increase brand interaction, engagement, and loyalty. Journey mapping provides insights into customer satisfaction, reasons for attrition, and opportunities for new products and innovations.

For more on this subject and other entrepreneurship topics, get a copy of Patterns of Entrepreneurship Management, 6th Edition.

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