ARTICLE: Anushka Shetty

Task flows, user flows, & journey maps: 3 tools worth their weight for alignment & UX design prioritization

When product leaders begin a partnership with an outside UX team, the discovery process presents a unique challenge. All stakeholders must gain alignment about the product problem to solve and come to a shared understanding about your users. And in order to understand your users, you need to consider their flows.

Task flows, user flows, and user journey maps can all be useful in the UX discovery phase. All of these tools share a sense of establishing and tracking user movement. But they are discrete tools that have specific purposes and appropriate uses. 

You should know what outcomes each of these three tools provide, how they overlap, and how they support each other. That way, you’ll know where your efforts will be best applied in our discovery work together.

Design a Single Task Sequence With Task Flows

A task flow is a visualization of specific steps undertaken to accomplish a goal in your product. Task flows are typically:

  • Linear. Task flows generally represent a direct, predictable, ideal way a user would accomplish a goal in your product. 
  • Sequential. Task flows are a series of steps to take a user from beginning to end of a goal.
  • Simple. Task flows tend to be straightforward and do not branch out with options or decision points. 

Task flows are useful for ensuring that you’re designing sequentially and thoroughly. Task flows serve a purpose — a picture of ideal user choices.  

But task flows have their limits. They’re static and reflect the thought process of the individual creating them. And task flows assume users all behave the same way. While these are serious drawbacks, task flows do serve as necessary precursors for designing more complex user flows.

Understand Various Paths Users Take In Your Product With User Flows

Task flows focus on steps to achieve one goal, and user flows focus on one user’s interaction with your product. Many task flows can make up one user flow. User flows reflect:

  • One user’s real decision points and actions. Users have different ways of interacting with your product. Each user’s specific needs, wants, and choices can be illustrated in a user flow. 
  • Multiple ways to enter and exit the flow. User flows document the way a user begins and ends their engagement with your product.
  • More complexity and nuance. User flows account for and honor user choice. They can help designers spot and eliminate “dead ends” — where users get lost in your product design.

It’s extremely valuable to create user flows to represent various user stories in discovery sessions. That way you can ensure you’re designing multiple pathways that work for different kinds of users interacting with your product. 

In order to build a strong user flow, you should ask:

  1. What is the user’s goal?
  2. What information does the user need to be able to complete that goal?
  3. What dead ends will the user run into that keep them from accomplishing the goal?

Our UX research team can provide answers to these questions. Qualitative research, particularly personal interviews and observation, helps you:

  • Understand users’ mental models. What processes are intuitive to them?
  • Observe obstacles they encounter while using your product. What product interactions cause friction for them? Where does their behavior diverge from what was expected?

It’s critical to visualize the various ways in which users interact with your product in user flows. All stakeholders can then see, agree, and prioritize user needs.  

Visualize Your User’s Entire Experience With User Journey Maps

User journey maps consider even more than task flows and user flows. Yes, journey maps illustrate the steps users take and the decisions they make. But they also incorporate user thoughts, feelings, and a fuller context of their lives in a narrative form. 

In short, user journey maps:

  • Allow you to intimately understand a user’s standpoint
  • Know and empathize with their thoughts and feelings
  • Consider what happened in a user’s life before and after engagement with your product
  • Understand the ecosystem of other tools that work alongside your product
  • Identify opportunities where your product can solve pain points

When you map many users’ journeys with your product, you may want to synthesize it into one user journey map. Or, perhaps your product would benefit from multiple maps. For example, instructors who teach small classes will have particular pain points and experiences. Instructors who teach to auditoriums full of students will have entirely different experiences. 

User journey maps are incredibly valuable and highly flexible. Our UX researchers can create a smaller, more focused journey map (like how an instructor assigns and assesses a final exam). Or it may be more appropriate to map out an instructor’s overall journey through an entire semester. Either map can yield the instructor insights you most need. 

Journey maps, like user flows, should be informed by UX research. Focus group conversation can provide honest, direct feedback from a number of participants at the same time. Surveys, when carefully written and structured, are another way to understand user needs and your product’s usability. 

In the discovery phase, user journey maps prevent any fragmented understanding amongst stakeholders. It’s everyone’s responsibility to look at the entire user experience and arrive at a shared vision. 

Task flows, user flows, and user journey maps can all play a role in the discovery phase. When we conclude our discovery with you, we’ll have clear alignment about the challenges we are trying to solve. We’ll know how to focus our combined efforts. And most importantly, we will have a deeper shared understanding of your users and their current needs. 

Interested in how Openfield can help you better understand your users? Let’s talk about which tools to use — and when to use them.

  • Photo of Anushka Shetty
    Anushka Shetty

    In her role as UX researcher, Anushka brings a wide set of experiences and skills that complement our team at Openfield. Prior to joining the company, numerous educational and professional experiences blended to inspire her interest in EdTech. Anushka earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Sarah Lawrence College before going on to earn a Master of Science in Human-Computer Interaction from the University of Michigan where she also conducted UX research for the Center for Academic Innovation and gained valuable on-the-ground insights as a graduate instructor of introductory psychology. Anushka enjoys being in motion – exploring her surroundings on foot and via public transit, curating Spotify playlists for friends and baking desserts to satisfy her own sweet tooth. She is currently learning the ukulele (in order to play the SpongeBob theme song) and says she is “an expert at poorly drawn sketches.”

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