User journey vs user flow: what they are, differences & examples

User journey vs user flow: what they are, differences & examples
Steve Tsentserensky
April 12, 20227 min read

Although we’re framing this like a celebrity deathmatch for comparison’s sake, it’s less user flows vs user journeys and more user flows and user journeys in practice.

They’re both used to describe interactions with your service, product, website or app, they just go about it in different ways and in varying degrees of depth.

Bottom line though, while you need to understand the differences between the two you should be utilizing both in real life as they both play a significant role in user experience design.

What is the difference between user journey and user flow?

The difference between user flow and user journey is largely in the scope of the analysis. There are more differences which we’ll break down as we go but this one is key.

User flows are confined to the specific actions a person takes to complete a task. User journeys, on the other hand, take into account the thoughts, feelings, pain points and motivations of a user through all touchpoints with your product, site or app.

What comes first user journey or user flow?

Mapping an effective flow is going to be tough without a deep well of knowledge to inform why your flow is the way it is. The user journey guides the flow of a user through your site or app.

What may be an intuitive user path for you could very feel like a dead-end for your users. Once you understand what motivates your visitors, you can align the UX design and user flow with their needs more seamlessly.

Long story short: user journey first, user flow second. Doing it the other way around is putting the cart before the horse.

What is a user flow?

A user flow is the complete, step-by-step actions a user takes to achieve a task on your site or app.

They start with the entry point, track each step in the process or task and end when the user’s goal has been accomplished.

The series of steps is represented as a simple flowchart and they’re generally able to be understood at a glance.

When should I use user flows?

From new product development to upgrading a site, you can and should use flow diagrams throughout development and after. Being able to see the entire flow through a task in one place makes it easier to pinpoint problem areas and refine the interaction.

Additionally, user flows give you a chance to craft alternative paths that help users reach their end goal.

They’re critical for avoiding endless iterations in the design process and also serve to streamline the user experience and user interface in accordance with the path. These are also helpful when establishing or working on your information architecture. It might sound like we’re drifting into the territory of sitemaps now but check out our post that details user flow vs sitemap differences to get a more thorough understanding of the two.

User flow example

User registration and account activation is a task common to the vast majority of sites out there. It’s such a ubiquitous process that we all basically know the steps to complete it by heart.

However just because we know the steps, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t map the flow. Maybe your registration process has a unique element or CTA. If nothing else, putting together this deliverable gives your UX designer and product design team a roadmap to follow when moving from concept to wireframe to final product.

Registration user flow exampleRegistration is fairly straightforward but diagramming tasks really makes a difference when you get into more complex user interactions. User flow tools like our Diagram Maker are indispensable for creating effortlessly suave UX/UI design that users can, well, flow right through.

What is a user journey?

A user journey map, also known as a customer journey map, explores different aspects of the user experience.

Just ponder the word “journey” for a second. It’s got gravitas. It’s heavy. It’s meaningful. You go on a journey.

Where user flow focuses on the clicks and user actions required to move through your site or mobile app, the user journey focuses on those elements plus everything outside of them. All of the motivations, expectations and emotions that go into the relationship between your product and customer — across all channels.

Making a successful and useful journey map requires strong user research built around a crystal clear target user persona.

When should I use user journeys?

User journey maps are what give you the best shot at meeting user needs. Point blank.

Because they’re more holistic in nature, no other tool can put you in the customer’s shoes better than a user journey map can. They paint the fullest picture of what a visitor or customer is experiencing before, during and after interacting with you.

Journey mapping is a particularly powerful tool to help product teams define the minimum viable product (MVP).

They’re also great for deciding on new features and prioritizing which user needs should be met first.

User journey example

User journey example diagram

Creating detailed user journeys allows you to better shape user experience, start today with our journey map template.

User journey vs user flow comparison

We’ve been mentioning differences throughout but seeing them compared in place is always helpful. Here we’ll put them head to head: user flows vs user journeys.

ComparisonUser journeyUser flow
Scope of analysisDeeperSurface
Emotional considerationTotalNone
Degree of design-focusLessMore
TouchpointsAllSingle
Starting pointBrand awarenessEntry point

Scope of analysis

User journey maps take a significantly deeper dive into the whole user experience, looking into user behavior before and after they interact with your product. Striving to understand the point of view and motivation that drives a user or customer and, in turn, what you need to deliver to meet those expectations. They identify phases of the journey and emotional states/mindsets along the way that show you where people struggle. Additionally, they even encompass which team member or department is involved in each interaction.

User flows, however, are confined to interactions on your site or app and are more literal in that sense. They skate along the surface, only taking into account movement from the entry point to the completion of a task.

Emotional consideration

The user journey, and any journey really, is ripe with emotion. It’s vital to understand the emotional state and mindset of a potential user throughout their journey because playing to, and incorporating, those insights is how you draw people in.

Meanwhile, user flows don’t care a lick about emotions, the process of mapping flow is a mechanical one; Step 1, step 2, step 3 and so on.

Degree of design-focus

User journeys aren’t concerned with the look of a site or app. It doesn’t matter what the pages look or feel like. The user journey is a visual representation of a user persona’s entire experience with your company, across all touchpoints.

User flows, on the contrary, are more heavily focused on design and the elements that facilitate a silky UX flow en route to a conversion. Be it eCommerce or signing up for a subscription, user flow is a diagram of movement through a system and what’s required to make that possible. They’re a rich resource to improve functionality and usability.

Touchpoints

The user journey encompasses all touchpoints, on all channels (email, social media, on-site, in-store, etc.), across the entire interaction over time.

Perhaps we’re beating a dead horse here but each user flow deals with only one touchpoint or interaction.

Starting point

The user journey begins all the way at brand awareness. From awareness, the journey proceeds to the moment a potential customer or visitor recognizes a problem that you can solve, through to purchase. The endpoint generally stretches past completing the main task and includes mapping retention and advocacy.
User flows, conversely, start wherever the customer or visitors enters your site. It can be the homepage, a landing page, a product page, whatever. Where they enter is the starting point. The end of a user flow diagram is the point at which they achieve the goal they came for.

User flow vs user journey: key takeaways

User flow is the tool you use to shape the various paths a user can take to complete a task while a user journey serves as a guide to help you understand the layered nuances of a user throughout their entire relationship with you.

They’re both core to creating a better and more fulfilling overall customer experience.

Thing is, great UX is born from a collaborative process. Try out Slickplan’s infinitely collaborative Diagram Maker today and work with your whole team to enhance user experience.

Steve Tsentserensky is a freelance copywriter, video producer and photographer with a knack for making the complex consumable. A passion for travel has led him to the digital nomad lifestyle and an ever-changing office from which he creates content for companies large and small through his production company, SBT Productions. Find him on LinkedIn.