Updated: Aug 21, 2020
Golden paths represent the path customers want to take through your experience. Here's how to craft it.
The golden path is the happy path through your experience for your customers. It is also the path they are most likely to pay money for because they see value every step of the way. Crafting this path is the process of starting with the bookends of your experience -- the customer's intent and outcome and then crafting beat-by-beat, the question and response cycles between the customer and the experience. A beat is one question-response cycle between the customer and the experience.
For example, whenever you start your interaction on Amazon, your first beat involves finding what you're looking for. Your question might be "Do you have x?". A response is seeing options for the thing you are looking for. Notice that I don't mention how it looks, just the function the experience returns. There might be several ways of "seeing options" and that can come later. Functions first, form later. Like in feature-film scripts, a broken experience resolves to broken beats, so craft beats with care and you can use it later as a diagnostic tool too. Let's go over this with an example
Crafting Intent: The Want
We engage because we want (or need ) something
First, state your customer's intent. Intent is a want or need. We are intentional beings and bring this to bear on any experience. We engage because we want (or need) something. Finding out what it is we want is the first step. Wants create movement. If the want is strong, your customer will move quickly through the experience towards the object of their desire. If the want is weak, you can generate some movement artificially, for example with discounts (because we all want to save money) but it is not self-sustaining. You want to understand your customer's unmanipulated want or need.
Here's what intent looks like:
It's pretty straight-forward : we want specific things ( even an experience or an emotion is a thing ) and the verb tell us what the intensity of the want is. The context of your experience determines what the verb is. If its a platform is designed for purchase, buy is a likely verb. If it is designed for auction, buy and sell are likely verbs.
List additional verbs that might be connected to this first verb, for example, research, window-shop or plan. Each of these are smaller paths that you design once your golden path is crafted. You can also work in parallel to design these paths. The insight is to always design the verbs first ( for more on this see David P. Reed's chapter in Viewpoints - a tribute to Alan Kay )
Crafting Outcome: The Desire
Outcomes point to our desires
Knowing the outcome is equally important. Human energy is precious and we understand this intuitively. We want our time to be valued and want something in return for the time we've spent on the experience. Often this is points to an emotion we want to feel and suggests to the underlying reason we are engaging in the experience. This is the outcome and here's what it looks like :
Outcomes are not outputs. They express desire - the underlying emotional reason we engaged in the first place. I want it to fit well and look good ( i.e. make me feel good ), not receive a package.
Crafting The Path: Beat by Beat
The golden path is a series of questions and answers
With the intent and outcome as bookends, we can now craft the path the customer wants to follow. The golden path is a series of questions and answers. The customer asks a question and receives an answer from the machine. If the answer is a good one, she move on to the next question. If it's not, she gets derailed by the answer and stops right there. This process continues, moment by moment until she achieves her outcome.
As an example, what questions do you ask of your social media application? Here are mine :
Arguably social media application does not support any part of my intent. Instead, it supports a much lighter form of relating: updates. How would you feel if every time you spoke to a close friend or family, all you got were updates? Now you know why social media feels so dissatisfying, if you're looking for any meaningful form of interaction - it ignores your intent and your desires.
If it did not, it would respond to each moment in a different manner. You would be able to skim and find out how all your close friends were doing or feeling quickly and then decide whom to engage with. You would choose the best mode, given her current state and need for interaction and pause when both of you felt it was a good enough interaction. You would schedule the next catch-up right there and the machine would make sure it was blocked on your calendar's. The machine would also help you cycle through your friends and family and make sure you maintain your level of connectedness.
Did this little sketch feel visual? Were you imagining the interactions in your head? If you did it is because you were thinking in functions. Thinking in functions is the necessary first step before moving to decide form. It's important to do this before, so you do not get trapped in a form, something that happens very often; once you see a card layout, you cannot imagine a different way you could've seen it. You craft functions by asking - "What would a satisfying response from the machine be for this moment?"
Craft functions by asking what would a satisfying response from the machine be for this moment?
Here's an example for shopping online from Zara. My questions, moment by moment are :
Notice some key moments like purchase have several questions. Committing to a purchase is a big moment and naturally, I have multiple questions fueled by multiple emotions. A good experience will offer an answer for each question, removing any friction to purchase, rather than force the customer down a path the seller wants. If you abuse your power to shape the customer's choices, by eliminating useful responses, you are indulging in a dark pattern. Customer's can feel it - you know when you've been sold the size of kitchen towels larger than you need. You will get my money, but lose my trust.
If you abuse your power to shape the customer's choices you are indulging in a dark pattern
Here are the functions I would like to see for this experience:
The red functions are missing on the site. How odd that a fashion site ignores skin color and does not help identify color palettes that work best with certain skin colors. Everyone wants to look good and this is an obvious way to do that. I also cannot filter by price. My inference here is the look is what matters. Not exactly helpful in the purchase process.
And finally, Zara has a key moment they could use to generate loyalty that's just missed out - the final moment. Simply instructing the delivery person to offer to take her photo, with her phone and hand it back increases the chances of happiness. All the person needs to do is remind the customer to post it to Zara's Instagram channel. You'd see better pictures and more customer affection.
Crafting Form: Giving shape to functions
Crafting form is a series of mini-brainstorms
The final step is to give shape to form for each function or cluster of functions, beat by beat. A function includes triggers for brainstorming: Fit-checker, Mark for Sale, Filter by Price are all brainstorming seed. Call together a few team-mates or sit down with a cup of coffee and brainstorm function by function to this headline: List three ways that this function might take form. Do this on a shared google/excel sheet with everyone going at once.
For instance, a Fit-checker might take the form of a pop-up survey on the item, a fit-predictor based on size selection when browsing or a suggested fit based on a one-time fashion profile. All three are options depending on how early you are in the design process. If its a running platform, you might choose the least interruptive way: a pop-up on the item even though it adds friction to the experience in the long term. If you are heading into a re-design you might choose a one-time fashion profile for the continuous benefit it offers your customers seeing only styles and fit they care about.
Crafting Questions: Stand in your customer's shoes or get your customer
Asking authentic questions, in the voice of the customer is the key to a good golden path. Replacing this with questions you think the customer does not work. It sounds like you put the question in your customer's mouth. It also feels to people reading like something the customer would not ask but you would. You have to know your customer needs well enough to put this down, which means you have to have spoken to enough of them, which is the whole point of this exercise. In about five conversations you should know enough to put this down.
You can also schedule interviews with your customers specifically to do this exercise. Put together a canvas on Mural or any other virtual brainstorming tool. At the beginning of the meeting, explain the path you want them to explore and have examples of intent and outcomes and let them post the first question for the first beat. As they do, you post the first response. Make sure this feels like a satisfying response to the customer. Then move to the next beat. This is co-creation and need-finding all rolled into one. Compare a few of these maps to see what kind of questions come up consistently, beat by beat. Prioritize those for your golden path.
A final example: I was helping a sports-based startup through their current website in a co-creation session. This took about 45 min and we got to some interesting functions. For example, seeing the Deal is a key moment in this experience and how the deal appeared mattered. Wouldn't it be cool, we thought, if the deal emerged from an envelope like in the real world ? This is key moment in the experience and the form respects that through the metaphor and animaiton. Get to these moments in your golden path. These are the moments that differentiate your experience.
All the best.