User-centricity: It starts and ends with user journeys

Headshot of Mille Clausen

Senior Service Designer

4 minute read

To be truly user-centered, organisations need to align around user journeys in order to research, design and manage those journeys on an ongoing basis.

Many organisations see value in being user-centered. Their visions and value statements say things like ‘We focus on user needs,’ ‘we put users at the heart of what we do,’ or ‘we are customer obsessed’ (the latter is perhaps slightly concerning from a customer’s perspective, but it is nevertheless terminology that exists out there). For all of us in design jobs, this is great, it’s what we’re here for. From a business perspective it makes sense too, as it has been proven that design and its user-centered properties, can increase:

  • Growth: Companies that put design at their core outperformed industry-benchmark growth with as much as two to one (McKinsey, 2018)
  • Revenue: "For every £1 businesses invest in design, they can expect over £20 in increased revenues, over £4 increase in net operating profit and over £5 in increased exports." (Design Council, 2012)
  • Customer satisfaction: 71% of companies say that they have improved customer satisfaction through design (InVision, 2019)

However, the reality of how organisations operate day-to-day is often quite far from the user-centered vision they set out. Not because they don’t mean what they say, but because:

  1. It is unclear what ‘being user-centered’ means in the context of the organisation, and so it is hard to know which steps to take to achieve it. 
  2. Becoming user-centered is really hard. More about this later.

Being ‘User-centered’ - what does it actually mean?

Being user-centered is usually defined in a broad sense as understanding and acting on user needs. But if we look at the term more literally, it describes a situation where users are at the centre. Thinking about user-centricity in this way goes beyond caring about user needs and leads to a place where the products and services an organisation provides revolve around users. Organisations that take this approach are not only on a mission to understand user journeys, their aim is to organise their teams and projects around them.

An illustration of a person walking. Behind them a line of connected dots illustrated a user journey

Illustration 1: teams and projects are organised around journeys

For example, instead of the ‘train booking app team’ you might have teams focusing on ‘book a ticket,’ ‘enable employees to book business trips’ and ‘make the same journey every day.’ The teams would work in a ‘journey-centric’ way and would be empowered to support the users from start till end.

Does that sound hard to achieve? That’s because it is

Organisational structures are traditionally shaped around business functions such as sales, marketing, engineering, finance and customer service. That structure inevitably ends up dictating how work gets done, resulting in initiatives that are centered around those individual functions. But user journeys are not following that logic and will flow across departments, communication channels and sometimes across different service providers or companies. 

An illustration showing a line of dots running through different organisational silos, represented as small symbols like shopping baskets and vehicles

Illustration 2: journeys flow across organisational silos

This is the main barrier for organisations to become user-centered: They are simply not set up to support user journeys. Some organisations are not even aware of what those journeys look like. Changing that is a big undertaking for any organisation.

What a journey-centric approach looks like

To be journey-centric, organisations need to be set up in a way that enables teams to understand, design and manage journeys, on an ongoing basis:

Understand journeys: The end-to-end journeys are researched and visualised, they are shared and understood across the organisation and teams are aligned on which journeys to prioritise.

Design journeys: Journeys are intentionally designed (as opposed to users having to work them out) and improvements are prototyped and tested.

Manage Journeys: Journeys are assigned to specific teams so that there is a clear ownership, they are measured regularly and improved ongoingly.

An illustration of a person walking. Behind them a line of connected dots illustrated a user journey. Speech bubbles surround them with the words 'design', 'manage' and 'understand'

Illustration 3: Organisations must understand, design and manage journeys

To get to a point where teams are enabled to understand, design and manage journeys, organisations have to change how they think and operate: They must think differently about what is important and shift their focus towards user journeys and they must operate in a way that enables work to cut across the traditional organisational structure.

In the service design team at Nexer, we are working with clients to help them become more journey-centric. Recently, we have helped teams in the Department for Education’s Schools portfolio understand their priority end-to-end user journeys through research and mapping, design those journeys through prototyping and testing and manage the journeys by defining outcomes and identifying ways to align existing products and services around user journeys.

As part of a long term engagement with Nest, the UK’s largest workplace pension, we supported their teams through a large-scale modernisation of their digital services. We helped them understand how their services fit inside wider user journeys, we advised them on how to design services with those journeys in mind and we introduced them to ways of managing the journeys within a long term time horizon that the pension life cycle requires.

Why you should do it

Changing how an organisation does anything is hard, messy work. But if we don’t, there will always be a limit to teams’ ability to act in a user-centered way. Investing in a journey-centered approach would, on the other hand, help you to:

    1. Work more efficiently: Give teams clarity of which initiatives are happening elsewhere to avoid duplication of work, spot ‘patterns’ that can be used across teams and share research and knowledge across the organisation
    2. Be more aligned: Get a shared view of which journeys to prioritise, who are responsible for specific journeys and understand how problems might be connected
    3. Be more effective: Understand whether users can do what they need to do and enable teams to better prioritise things that have an impact
    4. Better measure impact: Understand how journeys perform and enable people to make decisions based on up-to-date knowledge

Where to begin

If at this point you think ‘yes, that makes total sense, but (sigh of resignation) how do we even begin?’ Then here are some small steps you can take:

Investigate your user journeys: Look into how much your organisation knows about them. Have a conversation with some colleagues about what you find. Getting other people interested is a great first step.

Review your definition of being ‘user-centered:’ How is it defined in your organsation, does it have detail to it, are there clear steps towards achieving it? Look for opportunities to bring up any lack of clarity or progress with senior stakeholders, this is a route into talking about how being more journey-centric could help.

Create a ‘journey inventory:’ If you have a lot of journey maps in your organisation already, then that is a great starting point for creating a journey inventory: Map out your customer lifecycle and underneath it, the high level journeys you support. You can add more detailed journeys below, creating a hierarchy of journeys. Show this to others and ask for their input.

Suggest journey-centric metrics: What gets measured gets attention, and so try suggesting to measure ‘whether users are able to do what they set out to do’ - this will open the door to mapping and thinking about the journey they are on.

Find an exec sponsor: Look for senior stakeholders who would be interested in supporting journey-centric initiatives and discuss with them the steps involved in order to get started with a journey-centric project. Doing one project will help show the value of the approach and for the organisation to learn about how best to do journey-centered work.


McKinsey: The Business Value of design

Design Council: Designing Demand

InVision: The New Design Frontier

Headshot Francis Rowland

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