Going underground - mapping the customer journey

Written on 28 January, 2009 by Jonathan Crossfield
Categories Small BusinessTags customer behaviour

Just one week ago I was navigating the London underground system to find the easiest journey with the least number of stops and changes to get from Liverpool Street Station to Heathrow Airport. We were tired, laden with baggage and under a deadline as planes don’t hang around for you to get there. To achieve this task, I referred to the London Underground map; a masterpiece of design created in 1931 by Harry Beck. Travel in London would be virtually unthinkable without this iconic multi-coloured diagram. If London were a website, Beck’s ground-breaking and oft-copied design would be the Site Map.

Consider your own website. How easy is it for a customer to get from A to B to C, from home page to desired product to credit card payment? Is it obvious to a new visitor how to find the product or information required with the least number of clicks? Do your visitors risk getting lost or frustrated as they attempt to find what they need?

Keeping it simple

The reason Beck’s design for the London Underground map is considered genius, was his realisation that the map would be considerably more useful when divorced from the geography of London above. Prior to 1931, London Underground maps were overlaid on the geography of the London streets, creating a confusing spaghetti of twisting and turning lines, crisscrossing and tangling with each other (see right).

Where Beck’s genius lay was in realising that the geography was not important at all; once underground, the streets above were meaningless. He understood that the traveller only needed to see how the stations and lines related to each other to clearly identify the ideal route from origin to destination. By simplifying the various routes into coloured straight lines, with clearly marked intersections and neatly spaced stations, it immediately became easier for the underground traveller to determine the best journey between two points. Below is Beck’s original map, released to the public in 1933.

Over the decades, Beck’s map has expanded as new lines and stations have been added, but the same principles remained. In fact, Beck’s approach has been copied for transport systems across the globe, including Sydney’s rail system.

By designing a map based on the needs of the traveller, Beck demonstrated the basic principles of information architecture decades before the first website would be coded.

Mapping the customer journey

Information architecture refers to the layout of pages and items within a website and strives to provide the easiest and most logical path for the user, not the whims of the designer or the convenience of the business owner. The goal of information architecture is to make website navigation not only simple but instinctive. It should be obvious from each page how to navigate to the next most appropriate point, without having to decode complex layouts or continually double back to the home page. If one piece of information is reliant on another, the two should be linked to provide easy comparison or processing.

Sadly, information architecture and site mapping is not as common as it should be, even among large multinational websites. I recently spent hours becoming frustrated with virgintrains.co.uk – ironically – when trying to book a simple train journey from Manchester to London online. A search for fares would not present all the options available, instead separating different ticket types and special offers into unconnected sections of the site. I was forced to click away from one page to another, returning to the home screen and searching again down a different path and back again in order to find the best deal and most convenient journey. There was little explanation of how to find the best offers or how to combine different deals to produce a connecting journey. With ticket prices varying from nine pounds to over three hundred pounds for a single one-way ticket, a mistake could be extremely costly to a tourist unfamiliar with the privatised British rail system.

The designers of the website needed to apply Beck’s principles to their structure. If the designers drew up a site map of the Virgin Trains website, divorced from the site geography but focussed on customer pathways, the limitations would become glaringly apparent. The journey from home page to the best deal on a specific journey to a ticket sale could be mapped, understood and then simplified to provide the best user experience for the customer – and therefore more sales. After all, the biggest problem ecommerce websites face is customers who abandon the site without completing a transaction.

Station to station

Reducing the number of stations (clicks) and line changes (switching between disconnected sections of the website) could dramatically improve sales and increase positive feedback.

Whether you include a site map within your website for customers to refer to or create one to help design and simplify your information architecture, understanding customer flow is essential in creating a website to which people will return.

We made it from Liverpool Street to Heathrow with just one change at Paddington and the minimum number of stopping stations, despite London being one of the biggest, busiest and most complex cities on the planet. We were confident that we had the best solution to our journey that saved us time and effort despite a number of variables. On the other hand, I’m still not convinced I got the best ticket deal out of the Virgin website.

Have you mapped your customer journey lately?