Journey Mapping: A research tool for empathy

Originally posted on Leo in Bloom Issue 01: From Awareness to Acceptance and at Bootcamp on Medium

As a conservation researcher whose work focuses on the interactions between conservation efforts and communities, a critically important part of my job is to better understand people. Those who aren’t particularly familiar with conservation might be surprised to learn that there is often conflict between conservationists and communities. This is generally because conservationists want to save XYZ species at any cost, which often involves substantial disruptions to the way of life, livelihoods, and well-being of people whose activities happen to impact – or even just overlap with – the species in question. Conservationists also, unfortunately, tend to come from “outside,” often from wealthier countries, and impose their beliefs and values on local people without bothering to understand, let alone respect, the experiences, perspectives, knowledge, and needs of those people. It is not uncommon to have a situation where communities view conservationists as intruders who don’t care about them and who threaten their continued existence, while conservationists might view uncooperative communities as ignorant, inconvenient obstacles (or, worse, as environment-hating villains).

The reality is generally more nuanced (though of course there are individuals who fit both of those extreme descriptions), and I – and many others – could write on and on about these dynamics. What I’ve learned, through conducting and overseeing thousands of interviews with villagers over the past ten years, is that people’s values and perceptions are not as divided as one might expect, and that where important differences do exist, it is illuminating to delve into why these differences exist.

So, research that helps cultivate greater understanding of different parties’ (or, as we’d call it in the field, “stakeholders”) perspectives, values, and experiences can help foster stronger mutual respect and future cooperation to devise solutions that achieve conservation goals without violating human rights and dignity.

There are many tools that researchers use for this purpose – interviews, group discussions, games. I’d like to share a tool that I first learned about five years ago, when I started collaborating with Point B Design + Training, a Design Thinking research and training lab in Myanmar. One of their recent graduates, Wint Hte, was just starting as my field assistant to study fisher experiences in the market chain. As we outlined our research questions and our approach, he suggested Journey Mapping. I’d never heard of it.

It turns out that Journey Mapping is a tool commonly used by User Experience (UX) designers (so, people who work to design products that align with what a user needs and can use). Basically, in designing a product, you would select your potential users/customers, and chart out their experience through a relevant process. It could be a person’s typical weekday, or a more specific process, such as buying groceries, or commuting, or choosing a new surfboard – whatever would inform how they might benefit from and be able to incorporate a given product in their lives. That process is broken down into discrete stages, and questions are asked about each stage: what are the person’s actions during this stage? How do they feel about it? What’s challenging to them during this stage? What works well?

Though it is indeed a very results-oriented, success-driven exercise when used in business, this approach cultivates an understanding of who the target users are, what they experience, what they need, and how they feel. This is the foundation of empathy!

For our purposes, we decided to divide the fisheries market chain process into these stages: fishing; unloading the catch; processing the fish and shrimp; selling the freshly caught and/or processed products. For each stage, we asked: What do you do? How do you feel about it (with options from very negative to very positive, and room for explanation)? Why do you feel that way? What would you like to change about it?

We brought our Journey Map templates – with each stage illustrated by the talented Sein Sein Lin, an artist who collaborates closely with Point B – to our field site, a small fishing village at the end of a locally popular beach spot. Over a handful of days, we interviewed both men and women, since labor in the local fisheries tends to be clearly divided by gender (and since, regardless of labor, the lived experiences of men and women tend to be vastly different).

We heard of the women waking up early, early, early to prepare food for the fishing crews to bring on the boats; men enjoying the feeling of being outside, on the water, but also juggling intense stress if the catch wasn’t good, or fear if the weather turned bad; the demanding workload and stress handled by the women who worked to dry fish products, fighting pests, mold, and greedy pigs and dogs to keep the fish safe while also hoping for continuously dry weather; the challenges in getting fair prices for their products, and the stress of debt to moneylenders, some of whom were exploitative, while others were more like family.

One moment really stood out to me, because I learned something so specific and small that I never would have thought to ask about before. We were interviewing a lovely family of women – several sisters – and when we asked, “How do you feel?” for the processing stage, they all immediately looked to their fingers. “They hurt! They get raw because we’re working with salt. We can’t even eat our rice when it’s freshly cooked because it’s too hot and it hurts our fingers too much!” (as in many countries, it’s common for people to eat with their hands).

It’s not the most stunningly important revelation – it doesn’t hold great implications for sustainable fishing or conservation. But it did point to a part of these women’s lives that could be improved, fairly easily. And I don’t think that any of the interview methods I’d used previously would have elicited that information, certainly not within just ten to twenty minutes of interviewing someone.

I’m definitely a Journey Map enthusiast now. Wherever relevant, I encourage my mentees to incorporate it – or elements of it – into their research. I use it myself, less formally, to plan training activities and programs for young researchers. And I do actually use it in my personal life, when I’m realizing I need to pause and cultivate more empathy for any given person in my life.

It’s certainly not the only tool that achieves the goals of cultivating greater awareness and understanding of stakeholders – far from it. But I like that it’s a fairly simple method – though good note-taking and interviewing skills are important – and the visual nature of the template (like a table, with the columns representing each stage, and the rows representing each question) is helpful for research teams and interview respondents alike. I highly recommend anyone who needs to work to better understand user, stakeholder, human experiences consider incorporating this into their toolbox if they haven’t already!

Here are some additional references on Journey Mapping:

Using Journey Mapping within Extension: A Tool for Supporting Behavior-Change Programs

Four Customer Journey Maps (And Why You Might Need Them All)

A Beginner’s Guide to User Journey Mapping

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