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Journey Map: why your project needs one.

Author: Muhammad Ali Abid (@abidma09)

The design lab team huddled around our first iteration of the journey map. Trying to sort and theme the sticky notes.

Last summer, I became part of a project where the design lab team was tasked to improve the service experience for children and youth who are struggling with mental health and illness. When I first started this project I felt overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and complexity of this problem. Luckily, being a design thinker helped me tackle this bite at a time.

Before I started solving the problem I wanted to understand what was going on. I wanted to spend less time on the desk reading reports and more time talking to people who are experiencing the problem first hand. Although desk research is a good starting point to understand an issue, talking to those affected brings a great level of depth and appreciation of the problem.

I spent several weeks interviewing many families that had experienced the mental health system. Some of these interviews were virtual, some in my office and some families were gracious enough to invite me into their homes. My goal was not to get their feedback on one particular agency or service provider. Rather my goal was to learn about their entire journey as a family and all the players they interacted with. The families walked me through their lives from the day their mental health journey began to where they are today.

These interviews were not easy. They were intense and quite emotional. The parents talked about the first time they realized their kid was struggling with mental health. Shared their best and worst moments. Not a single interview went without tears. At times, the family shared how angry they were at the system for making it so difficult for the patients and how it failed them. Some shared moments when an amazing nurse or doctor or therapist came and made miracles happen. The families didn’t hold back. They told me everything.

One family shared a story of how they had to call the police on their daughter as she was threatening to kill herself. “It was the most difficult thing I ever had to do as a call the police on my daughter as I had no other option. I didn’t want her to hurt herself.”

It was hard for me to control my emotions. At times I shed tears listening to the hardships these families faced and perplexed of why our current system was so broken and difficult to navigate.

As the interviews progressed, I began to notice themes emerging, but I still faced the challenge of how do I communicate so much information in a simple yet powerful way? The emotions I experienced listening to the stories, how could I get others to feel them too?

The numbers never tell the full story. For change to occur people need to ‘feel’ first. This is where design thinking shines as it focuses on building empathy for our users through storytelling.

Too often on projects, we are obsessed with data and putting a number on everything. There is a strong emphasis on quantifying and communicating the issue through spreadsheets and percentage. The numbers never tell the full story. For change to occur people need to ‘feel’ first. This is where design thinking shines as it focuses on building empathy for our users through storytelling. Empathy helps teams to appreciate the problem from the user perspective and help create the desire in the team to look for opportunities to solve the user problem. I wanted to communicate the stories via a medium through which others could walk in these families’ shoes. The journey map was the answer.

The journey map is a powerful storytelling tool that helps you get insight into, track and visualize how a user experiences a challenge. The tool depicts a timeline of how the user moves through different stages as they interact with an organization, a service or a system.

This was our cleaned-up version of the journey map that we asked family and staff for validation.

The interviews of these families were filled with emotions and frustrations. Reducing their experiences to a spreadsheet or a simple flow chart would have been a disservice to them. My emphasis was to relay with as much detail the thoughts, feelings, pain points these families experience as they navigate through the complex mental health system. What makes the journey map different from any other tool is its emphasis on highlighting the practical and emotional experiences of the user throughout their journey, whether it be with a service or over a lifetime.

With the help of my team, I created my first draft of the journey map, which was a long roll of paper with extensive rows and columns of sticky notes. I then brought in the families and got them to validate our map. We asked them whether the map represented their journeys adequately. All of them fell in love with it. A mom (who has a child with mental illness) said: “I wish someone had handed me this journey map”. I just needed to have a sense of what was likely to happen when we first found out.”

The journey map helped the team understand a complex problem and create actionable insights that they could develop solutions around.

The journey map helped the team understand a complex problem and create actionable insights that they could develop solutions around. The map clearly defined the problem by identifying the key pain points and barriers families’ face, which provided opportunities to change the current system.

That feedback validated my work and I knew that we had something powerful. All across Canada and the world, some families are experiencing similar journeys. How might this map help families who are just beginning their journey? How could other teams learn from this map? For our team, this map needed to be shared far and wide but a table with text on it would be rather boring and undermine the value of the map.

The power of aesthetics and visual design is as crucial as the content itself. However, my team didn’t have a budget to outsource the design but we got super lucky and found an amazing in-house graphic designer, Aaron Russell. Our team worked with him for several weeks and he came back with an illustration that blew us away. We shared the map over social media and we got an overwhelming response! Even our CEO retweeted the map.

The final product.

In the end, I was surprised – that the steps to understanding these families led to a product that they found useful. The journey map itself became a tool to communicate with families about what to expect on this journey. Today this project is in the prototyping phase. I am still working with this community to improve supports for youth and families – but I take comfort that we have already given back to the community.

Whether you are working on a simple or a complex problem the journey map is a great place to start. If you are still not convinced, here are four reasons why you should create a journey map for your next project:

1) It helps you understand your user better: Before, I had an assumption that when a child was struggling with mental health, the family would know who to go and talk to for help. However, as I developed the journey map, I realized that many families were spending a lot of time, sometimes months, to find help for their child. For the user, this way-finding process was just as important as being provided with good service. A journey map helps a user uncover the pain points throughout their experience and illustrates what matters to them.

2) It allows you to apply a systems thinking lens: When I interviewed families, I learned that some of them relied on Google to learn more about their child’s condition and what to do about it. This discovery helped the team think about how they could provide reliable evidence-based education to caregivers even before they meet a healthcare provider. The journey map puts a systems lens and helps the team to understand the user journey holistically.

3) It gets the team on the same page: The journey map became a great way to communicate about the family’s experiences to the whole team. It also got the team on the same page about what the mental health system looks like. The simplicity and visual style gave everyone a common language which made the topic easy to talk about when discussing macro and micro issues.

4) It helps pinpoint opportunities: In the journey map we created, the first stage was where the user experienced the most emotional distress and poor experience. Instead of trying to tackle the system all at once, the team focused on improving the user experience in this stage of the journey.

To help you get started, we created a journey map canvas tool. If you wish to learn more about journey maps or are interested in redesigning a user experience, feel free to contact me or the design lab.

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