What You’re Getting Wrong About Customer Journeys


Idea in Brief

The Context

Marketing experts agree that the best way to keep your customers coming back for more is by facilitating a compelling series of experiences called a customer journey.

The Problem

Most experts promote an effortless and predictable journey—or a routine—as the gold standard. In many instances, that’s a mistake.

The Solution

Companies can keep customers engaged with not just routines but also joyrides, treks, and odysseys. All four types of journeys can help companies achieve long-term success in the marketplace.

Most marketing experts agree that it’s not enough to give customers a satisfying initial experience with a product. Instead, product managers must offer them a compelling series of experiences—a customer journey—to keep them coming back for more. The design of customer journeys is the new marketing battleground.

However, marketing experts have yet to develop a framework that can help managers with that design challenge. Too often they tell companies to routinize customer journeys—to make them as effortless and predictable as possible. Our research shows that this advice is overly simplistic. In fact, following it can sometimes backfire on a company.

Though some journeys might require little effort (for example, watching movies on Netflix or reordering meals on Seamless), others demand considerable mental or physical exertion (learning a new language on Duolingo or working out on a Peloton bike). Customers value both kinds of experiences.

Likewise, some journeys tend to be comfortingly familiar (like using Old Spice aftershave or grabbing lunch at Panera Bread), while others are unpredictable, surprising, and exciting (like meeting and chatting with other users of the dating app Bumble or playing World of Warcraft with friends). In many circumstances, customers actually relish the unexpected.

Drawing on five years of research into customer experiences across a wide range of product categories and on feedback from workshops with marketing academics and executives, we have created a framework to help managers design compelling journeys that keep customers returning many times over. We call it the customer journey matrix. It includes four archetypes:

  • A routine is effortless and predictable.
  • A joyride is effortless and unpredictable.
  • A trek is effortful and predictable.
  • An odyssey is effortful and unpredictable.

None of the archetypes is universally superior to the others; all four can be used to keep customers returning frequently. They can be applied to a variety of physical and digital goods and services (all of which we refer to as “products”). Each kind of journey can unfold at any pace—daily, weekly, or monthly—and last for any duration of time, from a few weeks to several years.

In this article we’ll first describe the four customer journey archetypes and their corresponding design principles, and then offer managers a guide to creating the ideal journey for their product.

The Routine

A routine is a simple procedure for completing a recurring task and typically involves a trigger for an activity that produces a reward. (For instance, the morning is a trigger to brush your teeth and be rewarded with fresh breath.) While all journeys follow patterns, routines are especially repetitive. They’re sometimes also called customer habits or rituals.

Routines are well suited for utilitarian products that make tasks incrementally easier and more predictable. For example, ultrasonic toothbrushes increase the efficiency and effectiveness of customers’ oral care regimens. Mobile banking apps allow busy people to skip unnecessary trips to the bank. Quick-service chains give commuters an easy way to pick up food and beverages. In any routine, the less friction encountered, the more satisfied the customer is.

Product managers can help customers build enduring routines using two design principles—streamlining the user experience and ensuring consistency across encounters. The goal of streamlining is to eliminate all non-value-added touchpoints, whereas the goal of ensuring consistency is to help customers learn the routine and perform it without much thought.

Routines are well suited for utilitarian products that make tasks incrementally easier and more predictable. The less friction encountered, the more satisfied the customer is.

Among quick-service chains, Starbucks has been especially relentless in streamlining its mobile ordering process, especially for grab-and-go customers at high-traffic locations. The Starbucks mobile app remembers customers’ preferred stores and payment methods, enables rapid reorders of favorite items, locates the nearest store and estimates the wait time, and shows where to pick up orders inside the store. The chain has even opened Starbucks Pickup stores that fill only mobile takeaway orders. And it has mastered consistency by creating standard protocols for preparing menu items. A caramel macchiato is made the same way in Los Angeles as it is in Omaha.

Amazon leads online retailers in facilitating shopping routines. Conveniences such as one-click ordering and next-day delivery streamline its customers’ journeys. The site’s ordering process rarely changes—and only subtly when it does—minimizing the need for customers to relearn it.

The Joyride

Joyrides are amusing journeys that allow people to escape the tedium of everyday routines. Effortless, unpredictable, and a lot of fun, joyrides work well for products that deliver an on-demand thrill, such as music-streaming platforms, sports media, and video games. Joyrides can also be used in brick-and-mortar settings such as fast-fashion stores with high product turnover, local cinemas with weekly releases, restaurants with rotating menus, and bars with happy-hour specials.

Just as it is for routines, streamlining is necessary for joyrides, though it isn’t enough to create them. Streamlining only mitigates pain points; it doesn’t induce pleasure. To facilitate joyrides, companies must also apply the design principle of endless variation across the customer journey to generate frequent moments of delight. In the game Candy Crush Saga, for example, players swap adjacent candies to create rows or columns of three matching candies. To make that activity fun, the game varies the candies, color schemes, sound effects, challenges, and constraints across nearly 10,000 levels.

Many movie theaters facilitate joyrides by premiering a new film every week, but those of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema go a step further by frequently updating their menus. The company’s chefs also occasionally plan themed menus based on the movies shown (such as African cuisines for Black Panther).

Consumer-generated content is another way to provide endless variation. On TikTok, new users are instantly immersed in a For You feed with trending videos they can swipe through. One video might feature a cat pouting while sad music plays; the next might show a cooking demonstration set to pop music. The staggering variety is part of the fun. Over time, users might like or comment on videos and discover creators they want to follow. TikTok’s algorithms constantly process the engagement data and use that information to customize the feed.

The Trek

Treks are predictable journeys in which customers labor to achieve challenging long-term goals such as learning a language, recovering from surgery, and saving for retirement. Typically associated with personal service providers such as tutors, coaches, and financial advisers, treks are now increasingly facilitated by mobile apps and smart products, including educational apps like Babbel; wearable devices that monitor health indicators, such as the Apple Watch; and financial-planning tools like Mint. Customers return frequently to products that enable treks because they need considerable support to make progress toward their goals.

Companies often ease the work involved in treks with the design principle of goal-posting. Essentially, that involves breaking ambitious objectives into increasingly smaller ones until the next goal is so small that it spurs the customer to act. Rewards for hitting each target—which can be as simple as a few words of congratulation (“Good job!”) or changing colors from red to green on a tracking dashboard—are often added to motivate the customer.

In his X-Ray Cars series, Heiko Hellwig overlays several photographs of toy cars to create the impression of a multilevel reality.

A product that excels at goal-posting is MyFitnessPal. One of the app’s core features is a food diary, which breaks a customer’s long-term objective (such as losing 20 pounds) into weekly, daily, and per-meal targets. Per-meal targets are further broken down by macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates), net calories, and other things that the customer might wish to track, such as sodium. The app streamlines the work of entering meals in the diary with tools such as a searchable library of foods and the ability to copy friends’ meal inputs when dining with others.

The budgeting program You Need a Budget facilitates treks for customers with the relatively large and abstract objective of saving money. It encourages them to set concrete goals for major outlays, such as a home purchase, college tuition, and retirement, and break those goals down into smaller targets. The program also invites customers to set spending limits and debt repayment goals. All these goals can be scheduled in a variety of ways, including weekly, monthly, or according to specific dates. Immediate positive feedback from an intuitive interface encourages customers to keep making progress.

Some marketing experts argue that high-effort journeys must be infused with exciting gamelike features to keep customers motivated. In other words, they advise product managers to convert treks into odysseys. This advice is worth considering, but not all customers love the bells and whistles of gamified services. A trek with a well-defined series of achievable goals and affirming rewards can be just as motivating as an odyssey.

The Odyssey

If routines are the most ordinary type of customer journey, odysseys are the most extraordinary. Odysseys are challenging, thrilling, and unpredictable adventures that are fueled by a customer’s enthusiasm, determination, and sense of purpose. They tend to require great effort and generate a lot of excitement. While customers follow many routines in their lives, they usually have only a handful of odysseys at any given time.

Odysseys are perfect for products that facilitate passion projects that customers are already highly motivated to pursue, such as cultivating a social media following, playing a strategy game, learning a performance art, filming a documentary, and training for a fitness contest. They keep customers returning to a product because they want to learn and grow. Unlike treks, odysseys don’t need a set end point; as outdoor enthusiasts often say, the journey is the destination.

Odysseys are particularly common in the recreation industry. A key design principle here is substantive variation, which involves offering a diverse mix of customer thrills and challenges for functional reasons. Take CrossFit. In a typical session, coaches lead athletes through warm-ups, skill development, and high-intensity workouts that incorporate aerobic, calisthenic, and weight-lifting exercises. No two workouts are the same. Another key design principle for odysseys is journey tracking. CrossFit athletes closely track their own progress, but there’s no defined end goal. The journey is effortful, unpredictable, and seemingly never-ending—a true odyssey.

Odysseys are also common in creative fields. Consider the intensive journeys facilitated by Adobe Creative Cloud’s portfolio of design, photography, video, and web-editing apps, or by the Juilliard School’s performance arts programs, which help actors, dancers, and musicians reach their potential. What Adobe Creative Cloud and Juilliard have in common is that they facilitate personal and professional development. (For more on the strategy of marketing personal transformation, see “The ‘New You’ Business,” HBR, January–February 2022.) Elements such as passion and purpose lend odysseys a unique sense of transcendence above the relatively ordinary experiences of routines, joyrides, and treks.

Designing an Ideal Customer Journey

A five-step process can help you craft the right kind of journey for your product and customers.

1. Identify the best archetype for your product.

Is it relatively effortless or effortful to use? Is the experience predictable or unpredictable? The answers to those simple questions reveal whether a routine, a joyride, a trek, or an odyssey will be most appropriate.

2. Put the archetype’s design principles into action.

If, say, your product’s archetype is a routine, strive to deliver a predictably satisfying experience by ensuring consistent touchpoints in familiar sequences. Marriott’s standardized check-in and check-out processes, for instance, make stays at its hotels easy for travelers, even in a new context such as a visit to a foreign city.

If your archetype is a joyride, generate endlessly varied moments of delight, perhaps with in-house teams of content producers or machine-learning algorithms, or by crowdsourcing content from consumers (as Instagram’s feeds do).

To create the goal-posting that a trek demands, partition the customer’s long-term objective into a series of much shorter term goals and reinforce the customer for achieving every small target. Fitbit, for instance, reminds users to take walks throughout the day and rewards them with badges, check marks, or progress icons when they do.

For the journey tracking and substantive variation that an odyssey requires, you might set up a performance dashboard and offer a diversity of individual and communal activities that collectively advance the customer’s goal.

3. Cue purchase decisions at the right time.

The best time to invite these largely depends on the predictability of the journey. With routines and treks, which have knowable outcomes, customers are generally motivated to sift through pricing details at the outset. Once customers have developed a routine or embarked on a trek, however, they usually don’t want to be bothered with those details again.

For joyrides and odysseys, which have unknowable outcomes, customers generally aren’t motivated to make big decisions at the start. Instead, they’re eager to get a taste of excitement as soon as possible. Only later, once they’ve become more involved in the journey, are they willing to invest in a major purchase or subscription. You need to give them ample time to use the product before asking them to make cognitively demanding and financially significant decisions. If providing free services at the beginning of the journey is too costly, consider offering a cheap starter option.

4. Streamline the journey at every opportunity.

This is the design principle that applies to all four archetypes. To keep their brands competitive, product managers must continually find new ways to eliminate non-value-added touchpoints from the customer experience.

To facilitate routines, for instance, PayPal lists customers’ frequently used contacts on the landing page so that payments can be sent to those people within seconds. Customers just tap on a contact’s name, input the payment amount, review the transaction, and hit “send.” Customer routines should be so obvious that they require almost no thought or effort.

plainpicture/Spitta + Hellwig

Companies that provide other types of journeys have found new ways to streamline as well. Singapore Airlines’ in-flight entertainment system, which offers joyrides, recalls where passengers stopped watching movies on prior flights, so they don’t have to fast-forward to where they left off. To simplify its treks, MyFitnessPal offers a barcode scanner feature that customers can use with packaged grocery items to quickly log their calories and macronutrients. And to help streamline their customers’ odysseys, some Equinox gyms allow members to order a post-workout smoothie at the front desk on their way in so that they can avoid a wait afterward.

5. Consider different journey archetypes for different customer segments.

We’re often asked whether a single product can facilitate multiple types of customer journeys. The answer is a definite yes. In fact, many leading brands provide two or more journey archetypes in parallel.

Tinder, one of the world’s most popular dating apps, facilitates different types of journeys for casual and power users. Some casual users are interested only in swiping through other users’ profiles and occasionally chatting with a match; their journeys are joyrides. In contrast, power users not only swipe through profiles but also message matches, juggle multiple conversations, meet potential mates, and then continue or end those connections after good or bad dates. Their journeys are odysseys.

When companies have customers enrolled in multiple types of journeys, they’re more likely to retain them. As some journeys lose their allure, others might begin to gain momentum.

We’ve also observed joyrides among casual users and odysseys among power users at Pokémon Go, the mobile augmented-reality game. The aim of the game is to catch virtual creatures called Pokémon that randomly spawn throughout the electronically mapped world. For casual players the game is an occasional joyride during walks or work commutes. For passionate gamers, however, it’s an odyssey that can consume much of their leisure time. People in the latter group band together for in-game battles and go to great lengths to find rare Pokémon.

Meanwhile, Amazon facilitates both treks and routines. Before purchasing high-ticket durable items like microwaves, sofa beds, and televisions, customers often sort through pricing information, ratings, and detailed reviews to make informed decisions. One could interpret those laborious experiences as treks. However, in consumable, low-ticket product categories, such as groceries and household supplies, Amazon encourages rapid repurchases via a buy-again feature and automated routines using its subscribe-and-save feature.

When companies have customers enrolled in multiple types of journeys, they’re more likely to retain them. As some journeys lose their allure, others might begin to gain momentum. The net effect is that customers are continually engaged with the company’s products on one journey or another.

. . .

To succeed in today’s hypercompetitive market, products must facilitate compelling customer journeys. But there’s no one right way to design them. The customer journey matrix offers product managers four proven archetypes to choose from—routines, joyrides, treks, and odysseys. Each of these archetypes and its design principles can help companies keep their customers returning again and again.

A version of this article appeared in the July–August 2022 issue of Harvard Business Review.





Credit byHarvard Business Review

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