Difference Between User Flow and User Journey in Simple Terms

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As UX Designers we put users front and center of our design process. The process we follow for solving design challenges is quite iterative yet interesting. To empathize with users, we need to put ourselves in the users’ shoes. And for this, we use various tools at different stages of the design process.

A user flow and a user-journey map are two such tools that equip us to understand the user and her path through the digital product. These are excellent techniques that are tried and tested and have been proven to deliver real value in UX projects. Both these techniques are employed in the research phase of a project before diving into designs.

A user flow depicts the path traversed by a user to achieve a goal whereas a user journey map includes a series of experiences a user has as they achieve that specific goal. A user flow is similar to a flow chart starting from a point. However a journey map is more descriptive, more than a flow, it’s like a table that captures all improvements, feelings, tasks at each and every step

Although similar in definition both these tools cater to different purposes. Let’s take a look at each in detail. 

Understanding User Flow

Let’s take a simple real-life example to understand the concept of user flow better. Imagine you are purchasing peanut butter from Amazon, how will you go about it?

  • First, you will log in to Amazon (action)
  • Now you will browse through the category till you find a brand that suits you (decision)
  • Next, you will press Buy now (action)
  • Now, you will choose a payment option (decision)
  • And finally, you will place the order (action)

As you can see, the flow from logging in to placing an order completes a goal. In this case, the goal was to purchase peanut butter. 

A simple user flow for this scenario can be depicted as:

an illustration of user flow

In the real world, user flows are not as simple as this because of edge cases or unpredicted situations. Imagine if the peanut butter can’t be shipped to your location, or your payment fails for some reason. What can be done? How will the flow be? 

User flow should account for all edge cases to ensure seamless navigation. Hence the purpose of creating a user flow is to address the possible circumstances that users could encounter. By doing so, we can create intuitive, efficient, and beautiful designs with minimum confusion and conflicts. Since user flow describes the layout of an app/website, it is also used as a communication tool among designers, clients, and teams.

A user flow is synthesized during the earlier stages of the design process in order to get clarity. It is built upon the information architecture and sitemap. Starting the wireframes or designs from scratch without proper research or tools like user flow, user journey maps, etc. is not a healthy design practice.

Defining User Journey Map

User journeys are built off the user personas and stories you’ve already created during your user research. It’s a more sophisticated version of user flow incorporating the emotional journey of the user.

Let’s go back to the original example of purchasing peanut butter from Amazon. 

  • First, you will log in
  • Then, you will browse through the Food & Groceries section to choose a brand that suits you (confusion)
  • Next, you will press Buy now (excitement)
  • Now you will choose a payment option (anxious)
  • And, finally, place the order & complete the flow.

While developing the user journey map for this eCommerce UX design, we are also observing or understanding the user’s pain points as they go through each step. So we can come up with opportunities for improvements to mitigate their pain points. 

For this example, the user journey map would look like this.

an illustration of user journey map

A user journey map helps UX designers create obstacle-free paths for users. That’s the first benefit of user journey mapping. A user journey map reduces the impact of designer bias, the tendency for the designer to design according to their own needs and wants instead of the users. 

Creating a user journey map lets you thoroughly document the entire sequence of events and 

interactions a user experiences, including the user’s interaction with your design. 

That way you can focus on how a specific persona, not you, thinks and feels at every step of the journey.

Conclusion

In general, one can say that a user flow is the bird’s eye view of the ‘flow’ taken by a user, her decisions, and actions. While journey mapping also incorporates the emotion of the user as she makes these decisions and actions paving a way to highlight new pain points that we might have overlooked earlier.

It completely depends on the scope of the project whether to omit using a user flow or user journey map. It would be great if both techniques are employed as it showers more light on the frustrations of users. However, proceeding with the project without any of these tools would be a bad idea as it would result in bad designs.

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