Plotting your customer’s emotional journey

March 22, 2011


Aaaargh! Oh, we're not in real danger. Image by Freakazoid on flickr

In which I mix metaphors. Be warned.

I want to think about emotional journeys. Some context: I’m thinking about those extended online conversations that take place in e-courses, online workshops, and online  communities.  The content is created with some end goal in sight – typically, a transformative purpose.

The intention is that by the end, something will have changed.  The participant may have learned something important, maybe acquired a new skill. Perhaps the convenors will have learned something about their audience.

A lot of online courses that I see are parcelled into neat chunks, delivered regularly, piece after piece.  A steady drip of content, to be absorbed and digested bit by bit.


The reality of taking part is much more uneven.

It’s more like a road trip, or a movie.  There are highs and lows, boring bits and exciting bits.  There may be self-doubt and conflict.  There will almost certainly be uncertainty (heh).  Headaches. Anticipation. Frustration. Moments of deep connection.

So, a question for you if you are putting together a course: what’s the nature of the journey you’re creating for your people? Is it a simple, pleasant tour, like a coach trip around English villages? (That might be perfect for teaching scary technical stuff).  Perhaps there’s a natural high point in the trip – the jewel in the crown?

It might be an adventurous journey. That could be a safe yet somewhat challenging exploration: let’s say, a camel trip in Morocco, with a bit of camping thrown in.  Or it could be a journey that tests nerves and endurance to the limit.  An Everest climb, fully supported but utterly demanding.

The good tour leader creates the right kind of itinerary.  A journey and a story.

What’s the ideal shape of your journey?  Perhaps we can borrow from literature and film. .  The writer Christopher Booker proposed seven basic plots in literature, re-told in thousands of stories.  We can strike some of these out as unsuitable for applying to business and online self-development (tragedy, anyone? Maybe not).  That still leaves us with many plots. Rags to riches.  Slaying the dragon.  The hero’s journey.  Or a more simple plot of discovery, connection and natural resolution.

Some thoughts on plotting your customer’s journey:

Sketch it out
Think through what you will provide and how it begins.  What they will feel, at each stage. How one section leads naturally to the next.

Begin from a place of safety
Make sure that people know what they signed up for and are comfortable with the process.  Start small and build confidence.

Include high points and deep points
Use natural ebbs and flows of energy in the work you’re creating – gradual builds, deep insight, personal payoffs.  Little rewards after hard work.

Build in time for recovery
Mix simple and light with complex and hard.  Allow enough time for recovery and integration of the pieces into a bigger whole.

Create dramatic tension
Hollywood blockbusters are built to a tight formula – the double reversal near the end where the heroine nearly gets the guy but nearly ruins it through her own folly and then has to run 8 blocks to the airport.

Place your biggest challenges near the end – providing an emotional stretch that’s informed by all the parts that went before.  A simple tour can be grand, but there’s more power in the personal challenge. You decide.

Final thought: You can’t control everything.
Be ready for the fallout from difficult tasks.  People respond differently to the same material. You might find some of your people on somewhat different psychic trips – one is having a nice day at the seaside, while another is fighting a tremendous battle with a sea serpent.

Thoughts? Have I, er, lost the plot? Does your work have natural stories in it, and do you use them?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy March 22, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Alison I love this metaphor! I often see business owners so focused on “Will they buy this or not?” that they, ummm, really HAVE lost the plot and point. They haven’t done all the steps to ensure that their customers will love what they offer and eagerly purchase. (Perhaps they are right to be nervous??)

When you take all the steps that let you know you are offering a perfect match for your right people, you have nothing to worry about. That’s a story with a happy ending for everybody :-)

Great post! Thanks.


Ali Mac March 22, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Personally, I think it’s difficult to make a self-paced course or ebook that has the same emotional punch as a facilitated course that’s running to a timetable. There are some great exceptions but on the whole, I think it’s the facilitated ones that are really capable of going deep. There is the extra layer of accountability, typically, and the adrenalin rush of doing it in real time.


Nanci Panuccio March 22, 2011 at 7:36 pm

This is so, so useful, Alison!! I’m in the process of creating courses, both online and off, so I’m really excited with the idea of creating an experience for my people that has its own momentum and narrative arc. Awesome, awesome post! Thank you!!


Ali Mac March 22, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Glad you liked it Nancy! I was just thinking about the courses (of all kinds) which have really made a difference, and it’s definitely been the journeys.


Ann March 22, 2011 at 7:39 pm

As a fellow explorer, I looooove this Ali. I’m hoping for a little bit Wallace Arnold, alot Rough Guide / Lonely Planet for my peeps. Is that too confusing?


Ali Mac March 22, 2011 at 11:05 pm

That sounds perfect. You need regular scheduled stops with toilets and cream teas, countered by off-the-beaten track exploring. I’m fond of the guided adventure, at least as a metaphor!


Elena Yatzeck March 22, 2011 at 11:38 pm

OMG, this is exactly the post I needed today! Woo hoo! Thank you!


Ali Mac March 23, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Elena! Hi! Now I’m curious about why this works for you…glad you enjoyed.


Ellis Pratt March 23, 2011 at 9:29 am

We’ve been promoting the idea of including an emotional (or Affective) element in user guides for about a year now. I suggest you look at some of the work by Russian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the emotional state of readers. You may also find an article Design for Emotion and Flow by Trevor van Gorp of interest.

Ellis Pratt
Cherryleaf Technical Authors


Ali Mac March 23, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Thanks Ellis – coincidentally, I’ve just bought his book on Creativity – that work sounds interesting, I will have a look out for it. Yes, I think people in user experience/usability often assume that users are unemotional, when that’s very often not the case.


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