Creating a Lifetime Journey Map

The Journey of a Lifetime

As Cooper has expanded its practice in Customer Experience Design, we often create journey maps in coaching and consulting projects. Most journey maps are for user journeys that range in time from a few seconds to a few months. However, a few clients have asked, “What happens when the journey is especially long, maybe even a lifetime?” Here’s our answer:

The Project

A journey map is a valuable tool for zooming out, visualizing, and comprehensively understanding an entire customer experience. Previous journey maps I’ve worked on included shorter, more service-blueprint schematics, like buying medical scrubs from an online retailer and engaging with a physician resource website. These journey maps focused on discrete moments in time and narrowed in on specific contexts and scenarios.

Enter The University of Connecticut Foundation. As the primary fundraising vehicle for UConn, they’re responsible for serving a massive alumni population that’s diverse in age and almost every other demographic. Successfully engaging this group meant understanding their varied stories and identifying opportunities that would serve them best. This was the task that the Foundation approached Cooper with, and a journey map was a natural step in the process.

A traditional journey map

A traditional journey map


As with any artifact we create at Cooper, my design partner, Shannon McGarity, and I strove to make it grounded in research, with real stories from real people. We first tapped into our most accessible and willing group of experts – our client stakeholders. During an all-day experience workshop, we asked stakeholders to take a first stab at creating a journey map. Through a flurry of Sharpie-scribbled Post-its, they poured their collective institutional knowledge and understanding into a blank template we provided. The final product erred on the side of a service blueprint, with a focus on the specific value exchanges and touchpoints happening in multiple parts of the organization. From this exercise, we gained a better understanding of the customer experience from the Foundation’s vantage point, and how easy it could be to get mired in the daily details of such a large and complex operation. We were an objective pair of eyes, and we took the stakeholder perspective and married it with user input to paint a fuller picture. 

Part of the user journey, by the stakeholders

Part of the user journey, by the stakeholders

Armed with a better understanding of the annual giving industry, our next job was to interview alumni and donors — from recent graduates to retirees. We came away with a sense of who these alumni were, and anecdotes of what they experienced throughout the years. We captured much of it within six personas. But personas without context and environment are just like avatars you create for yourself in a video game; they’re not real without a world and stories to exist in.  

The Process

We’ve mapped out hundreds of user journeys at Cooper, but most of these were for discrete, packaged UX projects where the exposure to a product or service was at maximum, a few years. Annual giving efforts strive to maintain a lifetime “cradle to grave” relationship. The traditional journey map format couldn’t possibly address the breadth and complexity of how people’s lives change over that amount of time. 

Or so we thought…

We needed to ground our personas in the real life experiences of our interviewees, and link them together so we could confidently identify the right opportunities for Annual Giving to engage. What could we expect from alumni over a long period of time? We wove elements of anecdotes together into a cohesive narrative, and we learned for future projects to make our interviews more targeted as to elicit even more stories and important milestones. 

The Journey Map

As a service design project that considered the alumni and donor experience over a lifetime, our journey map needed to reflect an appropriate level of zoom. There was some trial and error to figure out what that would be, but after talking to alumni, donors, and partially from reflecting on our own experiences, we understood how people’s relationship to their alma mater changed over the ages and through different life events. We decided to think about people’s lives in phases. 

Alumni Life Cycle

Alumni life cycle diagram

With an emphasis on life phases, The Game of Life board game inspired us. It was important to approximate when milestones happened and anticipate the motivations and feelings of the alumni currently experiencing them. For example, we learned that many recent grads felt disconnected from their communities post-graduation – which brought to light an opportunity to create more cohesive alumni groups and events. As we continued to craft the story of our primary persona, more and more opportunities revealed themselves in this way. 

Our primary persona's journey

Our primary persona’s journey

We created two journey maps—one for a recent millennial graduate, and another for a middle-aged alumna. This way, we could cover the entire life cycle without having to speculate about the alumni giving experience 20+ years in the future. 

If a Journey Map Falls in a Forest…

A critical part of a journey map’s success is to socialize it within the organization and prime it for application. We held a final workshop, and had stakeholders take turns reading aloud, until we’d reviewed both journeys in their entirety. It gave them a chance to engage with the material, sparked discussion, and breed new ideas based on a more fact-based donor story. To encourage further use, each stakeholder received an individual paper copy, and we printed out large copies for the Foundation to hang on their wall, to hopefully act as a source of inspiration and a constant reminder of the constituents they serve. 

Our journey maps uncovered 11 main opportunity areas that spurred 100+ opportunities and solutions that could help UConn engage alumni and donors at different points of life. We prioritized these into a high-level road map so the Foundation could begin its implementation immediately. 

The 11 opportunity areas identified by research

The 11 opportunity areas identified by research

What We Learned 

We had reservations about generating two big, beefy journey maps. Would it be an excessive amount of detail? It turned out that the gra
nularity and nuance were exactly what was needed. Vague, fuzzy ideas about the alumni story were transformed into a clear and relatable narrative. The opportunities became obvious and were grounded in real experiences. 

The fun format helped, too. Everyone we spoke to had their own challenges and struggles over a lifetime, and there was a sense of gamification when seeing them translated into a board game-like format.  Our stakeholders responded positively to the journey map being designed to reflect that. 

Vida's journey, zoomed in

Vida’s journey, zoomed in

We learned that future projects of this scope could benefit from even more targeted interview questions, focused on teasing out the textured, narrative elements of an experience. These stories are the crux of a lifetime journey map, though maps of any duration would certainly benefit as well. 

It was initially daunting to try and encompass all the detail and complexity into a single final deliverable. But as with any life journey, both in map or real-life format, you just have to start, and see where it takes you.  

Tammy Su

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