"How do your customers buy your product?" Of all the questions someone could ask you about your business, this one seems far from the hardest to answer. Yet, with the emergence of new marketing channels, multiple screens and digital media, it’s now one of the most complex, dynamic and important questions of our time – one that sits at the very core of modern business. The companies that are able to most accurately answer it are the ones differentiating themselves and succeeding in the marketplace. This is why more and more companies are embarking on journey mapping projects to better understand the paths and needs of their customers.

It’s one thing to think about your customers, and a whole other thing to invest in truly understanding them.

However, not all journey mapping projects are created equal. Too often these exercises are done with minimal investment, based solely on the intuition of a handful of often-isolated executives. While these partial journey maps may have some value, they almost always fall short of revealing the types of insights and ideas that can truly drive innovation and growth.

So how do you unlock a journey map’s full potential? By creating more robust maps based on ethnographic research. It’s one thing to think about your customers, and a whole other thing to invest in truly understanding them.

What Is Ethnography?

In short, ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures. Pioneered in the field of anthropology to gain deeper and more nuanced understanding of human social behavior and cultures, ethnography emphasizes long-term, observational, field-based research as opposed to research conducted in laboratories or other controlled settings. It’s not a new concept as applied to business – Intel’s successful expansion into creating products for home use in the mid-1990s, for example, was driven by ethnographic research. Yet, ethnographic research, which often requires significant time and resources, is often cut out of the equation or not even considered in the name of "going lean" and "maximizing efficiency." Let’s take a look at why this is shortsighted.

Your Typical Journey Map

A journey map generally starts with a handful of executives gathered in a room, talking about how their customers walk through the purchasing process. More often than not, there are plenty of sticky notes and whiteboarding exercises. At this point, people are excited and feeling good – and they should! It’s a great start to understanding the process. The problem is, most companies and agencies stop here, resulting in less of a customer journey map and more of something like a customer journey best guess. If a few customer-facing people are involved, or user analytics data is incorporated, the results may be slightly better, but still underwhelming.

The Trap

Without knowing it, many journey mappers fall into the trap of only looking at what happens on the site or app in focus to understand a user. The problem with this is that there are factors that operate outside the site, or even offline entirely, that have tremendous influence on the user journey:

  • Context – Where is the user completing a step? At a library? On the bus? At home?
  • Comparison – Does the user have a competitor’s site open in another browser tab? Or perhaps multiple product pages in multiple tabs?
  • Influence of Others – Did someone influence a user’s decision in some way?
  • Real-World Interactions – Did a user arrive at the location and get what he or she needed easily? Was there confusion? Were the employees helpful? Are print materials in sync with the website? Did the user utilize a mobile device to enhance the experience? If so, how? (Price comparisons? Tap-to-Pay?)

This short list reveals gaps in knowledge that exist when journey mappers focus on interpreting a user’s data and activity in a vacuum, rather than understanding his or her holistic, everyday experiences.

The Solution: Real World Data Mining

The way to escape the trap is to escape the office. Go observe real users in their natural environments (or as close to it as you can get). If you sell dishwashing soap, go watch people wash dishes! If you have a running app, go watch people run! Conduct interviews and observe brick-and-mortar locations. Observe your users, write down details and interpret later. Look for things that others don’t see:

  • What are users doing while they wait?
  • What are they writing down?
  • Are they consulting anyone at particular decision points?
  • Are they using multiple devices?

What Your Journey Map Should Look Like

While journey maps will understandably look different (sometimes vastly so) depending on your industry and market, there are elements that you should generally always have:

  • Insights into what users are thinking at each step
  • Notes about the location(s) where each step is completed
  • Notes about the different people and job positions involved in the user journey
  • Insights into what is happening before users enter the sales funnel and why they choose to look into your funnel to begin with
  • Insights into what users do after the initial conversion (often, there is an ongoing relationship created)
  • Insights into what causes user friction in the process, usually identified as "pain points"
  • Insights into what happens in between direct interactions with the process (i.e., is there a wait time between steps?)

One Journey Map Is a Start, But It’s Not Enough

One journey map tells the experience of one user through his or her entire relationship with your company. For a more complete picture, map several users or focused user personas. Don’t rely on simple demographics for this – they’re too low resolution.

For example, your users aren’t 25- to 35-year-old mothers of two to four kids. They are "Clara," a 27-year-old single mother of two who lives in Connecticut with her parents and doesn’t know that she needs life insurance, or even what a "premium" is, and uses her cell phone for most things, so she can make transactions with one hand while pushing her oldest child in the backyard swing with the other, as her youngest naps in the house. This level of specificity helps you uncover the motivations and feelings underlying the purchasing decisions of your users, and these revelations are what can ultimately help you identify valuable opportunities to innovate and grow.

Leveraging the Ethnographic Research-Powered Journey Map

Now that you’ve done your research, you know more about your users than your competitors do. You can address key pain points with more compassion and precision. You can fill gaps in your content more accurately. You can more empathetically redesign your UX where it doesn’t meet user needs. You can take advantage of knowing what users are doing while they wait. The actions enabled by ethnographic research can help you create a user experience that uniquely and appropriately targets your users’ needs.

It’s why Disney has crafted an experience at Disneyland that isn’t about rides or shows, but creating memories. It’s why Uber has flourished into a paradigm-shifting disruptor in the personal transportation industry, solving consumer pain points around the taxi experience. It’s why The Dollar Shave Club has risen to prominence to challenge Gillette, providing a subscription service that eliminates the need for men to go to a store and buy razors.

In the end, investing in ethnographic research to create more nuanced journey maps isn’t just about understanding your customers better – it’s about, perhaps more importantly, understanding your business better. The first accurate maps of the world weren’t created by smart people in a room thinking about what they would find if they sailed to a particular part of the ocean. People had to actually sail to that part of the ocean. Break out of your office and explore your part of the ocean”.

Need help with your journey?

Ethology’s goal is to optimize every part of the digital experience to drive measurable results. Our team can help you create a customer experience that drives the right traffic to the right places, maximizing conversions and impacting your bottom line.

Get in touch with an Ethologist right now