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People Will Forge Their Own User Flows — and Design Should Follow Suit

Ben Gremillion
Ben Gremillion

Users’ interactions with your digital products can travel down bumpy roads. People may encounter obstacles to finding the information they want, sometimes driving them to your competition. Design can help. Solid user flows are the key.

Mapping a typical user flow shows how people move from one touchpoint — a moment in their interactions with your brand — to another. They also describe how they feel at any given moment, and where people are likely to leave. These insights are great for improving how people feel about your organization. What makes them happy, and how can you keep them that way? When do they get confused, and how can you prevent it?

Here are four tips to improve your user flow.

Follow known paths, not ideal ones

Especially when your site or app already exists, use analytics to figure out the routes customers are taking. When you match your workflow to what comes naturally to them, they’re more likely to stick around.

User flows in Google Analytics

User flows like this example from Google Analytics visually represent how users navigate through your site, where they come from, and at what points they leave.

Determining where users enter and leave is harder to do when you’re starting a project, and easier to track if you prepare from the start. But in both cases, it means collecting data — the more, the better. The sooner you start tracking how customers navigate a site or app, the sooner you can start tweaking your ideal user flows to match reality. User flow diagrams are useful for examining your project, noticing where people leave, and fixing problems as you go.

Bear in mind that your project is likely to change as you learn how users want to navigate it. In fact, it should. You can’t ask users to change their preferences or points of view. They’re going to behave as they would naturally. It’s up to you to fit your site or app to their ways of thinking.

Use different maps for different customers

Your user flow maps — plural — should be as diverse as your ideal customers. Not that you can follow every individual, but you can look for trends.

For example, you may discover that many people visit your site via social media, avoiding the home page altogether. That would put the burden of introducing your brand on pages beyond the home page. Can people glean what your organization is about from any given page? Or they might depart after reading a blog post on your site. If so, would stronger calls to action help them see the benefit of continuing to interact with your brand?

The answers vary per project; the point is to determine if different people have different goals, and how you can adapt to serve various needs.

Don’t treat every touchpoint as an equal

Touchpoints occur when people interact with your site, app, or brand in general. But not every touch carries the same weight. Reading a tweet is different than clicking a link within it. Deciding to buy a product is more of a commitment than adding items to a shopping cart.

The differences often lie in the customers’ emotional states. Whether they’re frustrated or curious, intense feelings determine their next moves more than passive feelings. If a user is frustrated, they’re more likely to leave; excited customers are more likely to proceed. In both cases they’re active participants in the journey, and will steer a course you need to pay attention to.

Don’t use Keynote or PowerPoint

Distilling an entire user flow into a few slides doesn’t do it justice. Instead, illustrate the maps as if they were infographics or flowcharts — which, in fact, they are.

From discovery to action, detailed maps give you a bird’s-eye view of what people experience when interacting with your brand. It’s more than mapping pages or views; it’s the moment-to-moment stories of how people think, what they feel, and the actions they take. User flows are timelines, not bullet points.

Driving to success

Users ride along roads in your product — and not always in ways you intend. Matching your site to the ways you intend is key to meeting your business goals.

Ben Gremillion

by Ben Gremillion

Ben Gremillion is a Content Strategist at UXPin. He’s worked as both a web designer and a back-end developer. On the side he builds and maintains a CMS for webcomic artists, and participates in annual NaNoWriMo challenges.

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