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Using Journey Lines: Insights and Ideation

Real-life stories are perhaps a qualitative researcher’s best friend. They foster empathy, reframe problems, and inspire action. In this case study, we share how we used the journey line technique during a two-part research and brainstorm project to put stories at the center of understanding customers and designing a better future for them.


In the spring of 2014, eBay introduced in-store pickup (ISPU) as a delivery option for certain retailers who sold on Consumers would make a purchase on the eBay site, select a local store for pickup, and then visit that store later that day to collect their items.

To gain insight into what ISPU could be, we decided to seek a deeper understanding of real-life ISPU experiences. What were the contexts in which people were using ISPU? What were they hoping to gain and in what ways were these hopes fulfilled or disappointed? We could only obtain answers by talking to real consumers.

Collecting stories

We conducted in-depth, one-on-one interviews with consumers who had recently used in-store pickup. Using a journey line template (with a horizontal timeline and a vertical line representing an emotional continuum), interviewees recounted their ISPU experiences from start to end and indicated how happy or unhappy they were at each step (see Figure 1). The open-ended nature of the interviews encouraged interviewees to share what was significant to them, rather than imposing a predefined framework. Understanding real-life situations, such as rushing to find a last-minute birthday gift and urgently replacing a dying laptop, helped the team expand their view of how ISPU might help consumers. Seeing ISPU through interviewees’ eyes allowed us to be surprised and identify unanticipated areas of opportunity.

The journey: (High) Find and buy gift online. Fast pickup at customer service desk. Go into aisles to find a gift bag. (Low) Long wait to pay for gift bag. (High) put gift in bag. Give gift to friend.
Figure 1. In-store pickup for last-minute birthday gift. The journey map identifies the low moments in the journey.

The journey lines served two important purposes. First, having the journey mapped out on paper helped the researcher and interviewee develop a shared understanding of the story (both what happened and how the interviewee felt about it). The researcher could then point to peaks and valleys on the journey line in order to probe further. The visual map made it easy to navigate from one part of the story to another and to zoom in and out as the conversation evolved.

Second, the journey lines enabled the team to effectively disseminate the stories internally. It can be a challenge for qualitative researchers to convey to others the rich learnings from in-depth interviews. With the visual aid of the journey line, however, team members could refresh their memories and easily communicate the highs and lows of a story with others. Stories were thus no longer locked in the researchers’ brains, but could be easily and accurately distributed.

Rewriting Stories

After collecting people’s stories, we decided that a brainstorming activity could help the team further digest the insights and generate ideas for how to act on them. We were inspired by a brainstorming technique called Brainsketching, due to its use of rapid sketching and the fact that brainstorming participants build on each other’s ideas. Because ISPU is a service that transpires both online and offline, we modified the method so team members wouldn’t focus on just the design of the website and app. We also wanted to ground the brainstorm in the real-life stories we’d collected.

We returned to the stories we’d collected as the catalyst for the brainstorm activity. Brainstorm participants were grouped into pairs and given a paper copy of a completed journey line and its key themes. We then challenged each pair to rewrite that story. How might the story of the single mom or the grad student unfold with fewer lows and higher highs if eBay were the service provider? Using blank journey line templates, participants created new versions of the stories using sketches, words, or diagrams. An unfortunate reality of brainstorming is that people often allow their creativity to be hampered by concerns (e.g., financial, technical, or operational) associated with specific ideas. We attempted to mitigate this by encouraging participants to focus on what the consumer would experience (i.e., the high-level plot of the story), rather than specifically what eBay would build to make it a reality.

To maintain the collaborative nature of Brainsketching, we had each pair swap stories with another pair. In Round 1, pairs were instructed to build stories based on capabilities available to eBay one year in the future (i.e., “the gold experience”). In Round 2, they were to take the other pair’s story to “the next level,” assuming capabilities available to eBay five years in the future (i.e., “the platinum experience”). Using this approach, we were able to gather a range of short- and long-term ideas. After Round 2, each pair had the opportunity to share their stories with the entire team.

Lessons Learned

We learned valuable lessons in our first attempt to use journey lines for both data collection and brainstorming. First, we gained insight into the power of visual communication. The journey line format enabled both consumers’ stories and team members’ ideas to be easily distributed and understood. They preserved context and transitions in a way that words on a sticky note cannot. We noticed that the journey lines that incorporated simple sketches (e.g., a mobile phone, a house, a store, and a person) were especially easy to understand. Looking back, we wish we’d encouraged participants to focus more on sketches and less on wordy descriptions. Though we didn’t want to cause discomfort to those who lacked confidence in their artistic abilities, we saw that within the context of storytelling even the simplest of sketches can have a big impact.

Second, we learned a lesson about time management in brainstorm facilitation. We designed the brainstorm session to take just one hour to make it a manageable time commitment for busy team members. However, we forgot that storytelling can be a passionate and, therefore, time-consuming activity. Though we finished within an hour, it was clear that participants wished they had more time to discuss the stories that they were so proud of. If time is a scarce commodity for your team, we recommend holding multiple sessions with smaller groups.

Finally, we were reminded of the importance of fun in collaborative storytelling. Swapping stories in order to take them to the next level yielded a healthy balance of cooperation and competition. The atmosphere was spirited and positive because Round 2 involved building on others’ ideas for a less constrained future. There was a sense of anticipation and fun, both in creating stories and in seeing how others would develop them.

From this experience, we witnessed the power of stories in helping people understand a problem, conceive solutions, and communicate those solutions. We hope that other researchers learn from and build on our approach to using the simple but mighty journey line tool for uncovering insights and guiding ideation.