Understanding Customer Needs with Personas and Journey Maps


Traditional product design can put the product first, and the customer second. Incorporating principles of human-centered design builds understanding of your customers, leading to products that are closely aligned with their needs.

How many times have you developed a product or service, only to hear later that it doesn’t meet customer needs? It’s easy to fall into this trap when our design patterns are so focused on the product that we lose sight of our customers. Human-centered design puts the focus of product design squarely on the personal perspectives of your customers. By thinking more broadly about our customers’ personal needs, challenges, and aspirations, we can create products that go above and beyond customer expectations, and address problems that we may have never thought of during planning.

While there are a variety of tools and approaches in human-centered design, in this article I focus on two aspects of the process that can immediately help you understand your customers: the persona, and the journey map.  At the end of the article, I provide a downloadable example of our quick persona and journey map template for product design. There are nearly endless templates for these tools, and you can incorporate aspects of several of them to meet your needs. No two product design groups are the same.


Personas are fictional characters that represent segments of your targeted customers. Personas should be as close to real-world characters as possible, and it is preferable to work with potential customers to develop them. These tools help us think of our customers as real people, and gain empathy for their goals, pain points, and responsibilities. Always put a face to a name when developing your personas; at a subconscious level, it keeps our focus on them as real people, and not abstractions. As you design products, you should return to your personas frequently, ask whether the product meets their needs, and brainstorm new features that could help them further. 

Example of a customer persona

Example of a customer persona

Journey Maps

Just as personas help humanize our customers, journey maps help us understand how they navigate their priorities and jobs, as well as their personal lives. Journey maps are flexible based on the type of product you’re designing; they may be based on a single activity, or a group of activities that form a complete experience (the sample at the end of this article shows how this looks). There may be aspects of your customer’s journey that seem irrelevant or superfluous, but by including them, you gain a more complete picture of customer needs and challenges. Just as with personas, it is ideal to work side-by-side with a customer to develop your journey maps. When a map is completed, you can compare your product vision with the map, and identify how your product design can improve the customer’s journey, or deliver novel benefits that may not have been obvious at the start of design.

Example of a customer journey map

Example of a customer journey map

Getting Started

Here is a free example of Breakthrough Strategy’s persona and journey map template. In this sample, we explore a nurse’s journey through his day, and how an online learning system can help improve his personal and professional life. We seek to keep these personas and journeys to a single page when possible, so they can be quickly reviewed and spark creative conversations. As with most things, it’s best not to try to “boil the ocean” with your personas and maps: simple, concise tools often get the best results and keep teams engaged in design.

We hope you find this introduction and sample tool useful, and would enjoy hearing your feedback on how you use these tools in your projects!