By now, everyone’s heard of user journeys. Lots of high-profile UX folks have touted their benefits. And they’re not wrong — user journeys help you get a clearer picture of how people interact with your digital product. They’re indispensable. 

Even so, user journeys are not the end all be all. In fact, they lack the details needed to truly understand how your product assists a user in accomplishing a task. 

That’s where user task outlines come in. Similar to the trending “Jobs-to-be-Done” framework, a user task outline fills in micro-level details a user journey just isn’t meant to include. That way, the UX you and your team create matches your users’ needs in every part of your product or application. 

What You Need To Know About User Journeys and Their Limitations

For the record, a user journey is a chronological outline of a customer’s main interactions with a product or service. 

Take Venmo, for instance. A simple user journey might map Zack, a user, as he tries to pay Kristen, another user, for their lunch together. His journey looks like this:

  1. Zack opens the Venmo app on his phone.
  2. He searches for and finds Kristen using her first and last name. 
  3. He types “$20” to send to her.
  4. He presses send. 

What we don’t know from this user journey is what actually happens on the “Pay” screen and at every other touchpoint. And what if a user takes a different route to send a friend money? Perhaps they search for that friend by phone number or email, for example. 

Again, user journeys just aren’t built to capture that much detail. They don’t typically consider edge cases, exceptions, alternate user paths, or potential errors. They’re persona-driven and zero in on how the product or, more specifically, the interaction at hand addresses the users’ overarching needs — but not how a user gets there. 

As you can imagine, user journeys alone leave developers and designers guessing in far too many ways. They may not have enough information to create the right solution for users’ needs. This can lead to your team-building things that get close, yet aren't exactly what the user wants. And we all know missing the mark — even by a hair — costs a lot of time and money.

Understanding User Task Outlines and Their Untapped Power 

Go back to middle school algebra for a minute and picture a classic coordinate grid. Now, think of a user journey as points along the horizontal X-axis proceeding in time. Remember, user journeys are chronological.

User Journey-2

A user task outline drops down to the vertical Y-axis at a specific point in time and explains — in granular detail — what happened or what needs to happen for the timeline (that X-axis) to continue progressing. 

Both the X and Y axes are crucial, of course. But you need that Y-axis — the user task outline — to understand the intersection between what the user is doing and what the digital app or product must do to respond accordingly. 

User task outlines are action-driven instead of persona-driven like user journeys. They manage to give extra detail on a task (the action part) to answer technical developer and designer questions while remaining focused on the users’ goals and desired business outcomes. 

What kinds of technical questions does a user task outline answer for your developers and designers? Think back to our Venmo user journey example. A user task outline would also tell your team what happens if Zack takes a different path to pay Kristen. It considers alternate scenarios. As a result, your developers know they’ll need to account for the multiple ways a user might accomplish the same task. 

User task outlines also include specifics about the elements users interact with on a page instead of simply stating a user is on that page. You could see why a designer would find it useful to know where a button needs to sit, for instance. 

Despite the fact that user task outlines are more robust and technical than user journeys, they’re still easy to understand. Business people will also find value in them. Really, it’s helpful to add another dimension of detail that everyone can use as it fits their jobs and responsibilities. 

You Need User Journeys, User Task Outlines, and More for a Successful Project 

Let’s zoom out to the 30,000-foot view of your dev project. You… 

  1. Come up with an idea for an application
  2. Create user journeys for your app idea 
  3. Build features that make those user journeys possible
  4. Write user task outlines that describe the features 
  5. Make a UX flow to tie it all together 

As you can see, you need many documents to support a build. User task outlines are just one important source of truth that give you a more complete and accurate view of what needs to be built. 

The good news? Your teams are probably already taking notes that can be used for draft user task outlines. The user task outlines give those notes a consistent structure (again, that single source of truth) your entire team can use. Not to mention your team members will no longer inadvertently duplicate efforts. 

Even more good news? We can help. We’ve created thousands of user task outlines (as well as user journeys and UX flows, for that matter) for our clients. We can create yours, or train your team to do it themselves. We’re here if you need us