Arne van Oosterom
5 min readOct 13, 2016


Personas, Journey Mapping & some thoughts on implementing Design Thinking

- I participated in a series of articles on Personas and Customer Journey Mapping published by my good friends at MyCustomer. You’ll find some snippets of my writing, and other authors, in these articles. This is the first article.

But I thought it would also be good to share my contribution in one article. -

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I am often asked to explain and teach how to use personas and journey mapping. But these are just tools and every good process needs to start by asking the right question. So when you want to use journey mapping you should first ask yourself what you are trying to do. It’s a tool to help you, not a goal in itself.

Ask yourself things like, are we looking to innovate (something new) or to improve an existing service? Are we researching the as-is-journey or are we designing an ideal future journey? Where are you in the process?

If you want to understand patterns in behavior of a user or stakeholder group, mapping the journey of a persona will allow you to uncover them. These patterns lead to customer insights, better ways to frame your challenges and see new opportunities. If you then want to create an ideal future scenario, personas help to build empathy and stay focused on real human needs. This way it is essential for any human centric design process.

I am convinced that in order to build a good and useful persona, mapping the persona journey needs to be part of it.

Using personas should however never be an excuse not to talk to real people. If you don’t you will base your personas on biases and your own perception of reality.

The persona should be based on real and deep user research, but it is not a “person”. It is representative of a group of people behaving in a specific way within a specific context. A persona shows attitude, behavior, emotions and anything that will give more context to understand the personas behavior.

Demographic information, as used in traditional target audience segmentation, is often less relevant.

Developing a persona is part of a design research or qualitative research stage. It will tell you “why” people do what they do, when quantitative research will mainly tell you “what” people do. Simply put: it gives you context and without context data is meaningless.

Sometimes I think that people don’t realize that journey mapping is doing research and being a researcher is a profession, a skill, maybe even a craft. It takes a lot experience and practice. However, having said that, the main point of a persona is to build empathy with your users. A persona should not be a static thing, a poster on your office wall. And it is really not hard to build empathy. We do it all the time.

But you need to get away from your desk and computer, get out of your building and go! Talk to people, listen to them, meet your customers and stakeholders. Be curious, realize you are full of biases, let go and open your mind. Ask people about their lives, their goals and frustration. Ask open questions and let people tell you stories. Write everything down, make picture and video’s. Get together with your team and cluster all the things you heard and try to discover patterns. Then get some customers to help you map their customer journey to enrich your understanding. Keep doing this until you know enough to move on. That moment will come.

Don’t forget that design thinking is an iterative process, so you don’t need to make your personas and journey maps perfect before moving on. Don’t analyze things to death, you should always be able to come back and adjust your data. If you can’t do this, you’re stuck in a linear process trying to use an iterative method. That is simply not going to work. The key is to keep moving fast in small iterative cycles.

Design thinking will help you take a step back and build empathy with users, really listen and walk in their shoes. It is also the mindset that will allow you to build empathy for your other stakeholders and create multidisciplinary teams to truly co-create, develop a common language of innovation, a shared understanding of how to interpret data and a much-needed new way of working. Without this a customer journey map will just be a tool without a process to make a real change to your organization.

A persona or journey map is not a poster on your wall, it is a small part of an ongoing process to understand your stakeholders, deliver real value and create the tools for change in your organization.

Design thinking is a mindset not a fixed process or a set of tools. Fist and foremost design thinking gives us a language to express our need to humanize organizations, build empathy, embrace complexity, be optimistic and learn by doing. Design thinking does not replace a process; it complements it by adding the human connection to everything we do.

Design thinking enables you to first find the right question and then fit the process to it. Design thinkers are people with an open mind, curious to learn new things with a bias towards learning by doing and experimenting.

Although design thinking is getting very popular a lot of organizations are struggling with it. And this is not a surprise. It might sound silly, but I can’t say it enough: you have to use design thinking to implement design thinking. You can’t use a linear approach to develop an iterative approach. So start small, try, fall down and get up again, reflect, learn and find ways to slowly scale up. Make it exciting and fun, share the story everywhere; make it an open project so people can join. Start a movement! It will attract the change agents you need. Believe me, any organization has scores of people hungry for positive change. Give them a platform and empower them.

It is all about changing behavior. And this also means you’ll have to first align your incentives and kpi’s with the way you want people to behave. If you don’t people will get very confused.

Infusing your organization with design thinking just begs for a new style of leadership. Leaders need to become enablers and facilitators. A creative organization needs leadership, not management.



Arne van Oosterom

Podcaster, Founder Future Skills Academy, Blue Sky Republic, Creative Leadership Coach, Founder DesignThinkers Academy and Group