User journey and user flow are two tools that are used to describe the process of interaction between a user and a product. Many designers consider user journey and user flow the same thing. While both tools are used to communicate your designs through the lens of your users’ goals, they aren’t synonyms because they focus on different aspects of created products.

In this article, I will make a comparison of “user journey vs user flow.”

What is User Flow?

The term ‘flow’ depicts movement. Product creators need to consider the path in which the user will navigate through the website or app, prompting the creation of user flow. This path is divided into a series of steps that the user takes from the entry point through conversion funnels towards the final action (signup, purchase, etc.).

Example of user flows

A typical example of purchase flow for the eCommerce website would go as follows:

  • The user starts on the home page;
  • From the home page, the user navigates to a product category;
  • In a product category page, the user selects a specific item and navigates to the item details page;
  • On the item details page, the user adds an item to the cart and navigates to the cart page;
  • From the cart page, the user navigates to checkout;
  • From the checkout page, the user completes the purchase and sees a confirmation page.

The above example of a user flow is what we call a ‘happy path’— a simplified version of the user flow with a successful outcome. In real life, there can be a lot of alternative paths—the user usually wants to compare different products, read information about delivery, and so on. That’s why user flows are typically modeled as flow charts with many nodes for various paths that a user might take.

A user flow that depicts multiple pathways a user might take during their purchase process.
Example of user flow. Image by Ed Moss.

What role do user flows have in design?

User flows are a great method for segmenting and defining your user experience. They allow you to track what screens users typically see when they interact with a product and how they interact with those screens.

The user flow is very effective when it comes to communication with developers. Well-designed user flows have a screen name and a description of what happens at each step. This information is beneficial during the implementation phase of the design process.

When to use a user flows

User flows are beneficial when a product team works on information architecture and UI design of individual screens. User flows help the team to create an intuitive interface. User flows are also very helpful for evaluating existing interfaces. So the team can use this tool during design review sessions.

What to consider when building a user flow

The users’ objectives and business objectives are two of the most important things that you need to consider when designing user flows. The process of building a user flow starts with understanding the user’s needs and wants. This understanding will help a product team to design a flow that will meet those needs. Business objectives are the action (or actions) you want users to take. Business objectives might be getting users to sign up for something, purchase products, or join the email list. Start with user objectives and match them to the business objectives.

Here are a few basic questions you need to consider to build a strong user flow:

  • What is the user trying to accomplish?
  • What information does the user need to do it?
  • What barriers might prevent users from accomplishing a goal?

To answer these questions, you need to conduct user research. A series of interviews with your existing or potential users will help you find answers to the questions.

How to improve user flow

The key to designing great user flow is to present the right information at the right time while minimizing friction along the way. Users will be more likely to convert if the product provides the information they need at the moment they need it. Try to ask for the minimum amount of information in order to reduce the total number of taps/clicks required to reach a goal.

You need to:

  • Create a flow diagram. A flow diagram (also known as a flowchart) is a diagram of the sequence of movements or actions of people or things involved in a complex system or activity. This diagram is a skeleton for your user flow.
A flowchart depicting the sequence of movements or actions people take through a complex activity.
A flow diagram. Image by Naema Baskanderi.
  • Visualize the flow. If you have an existing product, take screenshots of the different pages, and create connections between them in a tool like Adobe XD. If you’re designing a new product, you can draw simple sketches or do wireframing for individual pages.
  • Describe what users do at each step. Write out what the user needs to do at each step to meet the goal.

The user flow is typically evaluated based on the conversion rate. That’s why the process of optimization starts with finding steps that cause friction. The product team finds the dropouts—steps where users leave without finishing the goal. For example, for a purchase flow that we’ve mentioned above, the dropouts can happen at the checkout step. Cart abandonment is one of the most common problems that many eCommerce products face. The product team needs to measure every step and see what causes friction in order to prevent it during future interactions.

Once you’ve generated a hypothesis on how to reduce friction on a particular step, you should design a solution and validate it. If you have a few different solutions, you can A/B test them to see which one works the best.

What is User Journey?

A user journey (or user journey map) is a visual trip of the user across the solution. The user journey considers not only the steps that a user takes but also their feelings, pain points, and moments of delight. It’s a visualization of an individual’s relationship with a product over time and across different channels. Channels are methods of communication or service delivery, such as the website or physical store. The user can have an excellent user experience in one channel (i.e. on a website when they purchase an item) but a terrible experience in another (i.e. in a physical store where they try to return the item). When we collect information about channels, it helps us to uncover gaps in the user experience.

In comparison with user flow, the user journey does not focus solely on individual states and elements that trigger those states; they have several layers of information — users’ feelings, thoughts, etc.

Example of user journey

While the user journey comes in many different formats, commonly, it’s represented as a timeline of all touchpoints between a user and a product. The timeline also contains information about all channels that users utilize to interact with a product.

A timeline depicting all of the touchpoints a users can have between media channels, including the opportunities to improve the journey.
A user journey map template. Image by NNGroup.

What role does a user journey have?

The goal of creating a user journey map is to create a shared vision. A user journey map is an excellent tool for product teams because it visualizes how a user interacts with a product and allows designers to see a product from a user’s point of view. A well-designed user journey tells a story of how a person interacts with a product.

The journey is well understood by people not related to the design industry. That’s why user journeys are very effective for communicating ideas with stakeholders.

When to use user journeys?

User journeys work best when the product team wants to understand the entire experience from the user’s standpoint. It usually happens during design review sessions – when the team released a product on the market, collected feedback, and now wants to prioritize requests for new features or improvements. User journeys help the team to prioritize tasks per the user’s needs.

What to consider when building a user journey

To build a decent user journey, you need three things:

  • User persona
  • Scope / Scenario of interaction (with expected outcome)
  • Touchpoints

A user journey is always focused on the experience of one main actor – a target persona. That’s why, before starting work on your user journey, you need to have a clear answer to the question, “Who is my user?” User personas should always be created based on the information you have about your target audience. That’s why always start with user research. Having solid information about your users will prevent you from making false assumptions.

Next, you need to define the scope. The scope of the user journey can vary from the high-level map, which shows end-to-end experience to a more detailed map that focuses on one particular interaction (for instance, paying a bill). The scenario describes the actual situation that the journey map addresses. It can be real or anticipated.

Touchpoints are user actions and interactions with the product/business. It’s vital to identify all main touchpoints and all channels associated with each touchpoint.

For example, for touchpoint “Buy a product,” channels can be — purchase online or buy in a store.

How to improve a user journey

Journey maps should result in truthful narratives, not fairy tales. That’s why one of the best ways to design a better user journey is to put a lot of focus on user research. Consider the user motivation (Why is the user trying to do something?) as well as common pain points (What challenges are users facing along the way?). It’s also important to consider the channels (Where do interaction take place?). You need to ensure that the user is getting the same level of quality of service across channels.

Put together all the information you have and sketch a journey in a format of a step-by-step interaction. Each step demonstrates an experience that the persona has with a service, as well as the emotional response they have.

A user journey map contains persona details, the scope summary, goals, research, application, enrollment, onboarding and activation.
User journey example. Image by Kimmy Paluch.

Even when a user journey is based on user research, it’s vital to validate it. Use the information from usability testing sessions and app analytics to be sure that your journey resembles a real use case.

Conclusion

After reading this comparison of user journey vs user flow, you will know when and how to use those tools in your product design. If creating a great user experience is your goal, you will need to add user flows and user journeys in your toolbox. Remember that it’s hard (or nearly impossible) to design a perfect user experience right from the start. You need to experiment and try various approaches before you find one that will work best for your users. But one thing’s for sure, user journeys and user flows will help you create a solid foundation for your experiments, and it will ultimately lead to the great UX.