Zooming out of User Journeys: Timelining in Design Research

During a recent team ‘Inspiration Session’ I trawled the backlogs of our team ‘SlackTack’ channel, where we share all things inspiring, thought provoking and (somewhat) relevant to our Design Research practice. I stumbled upon a link I shared at the beginning of Lockdown 1 to a platform called https://histography.io/

The platform brings together so much of what I love: timelines, history and interactive websites. It’s essentially an interactive timeline that spans across 14 billion years of history, from the Big Bang to 2015. Pulling historical events from Wikipedia, the timeline self-updates daily with new recorded events. It was a huge source of inspiration in terms of using timelines in Design Research and made me reflect on how and why we have used timelining across various projects at STBY. 

Maps of Time in Design Research

As I argue in our book Explorers: Thoughts on Mapping in Design Research, timelines can be conceptualised as a sort of map: a map of time. They can take all sorts of shapes and sizes, and timelines have been historically used across disciplines. One of my favourite books, Cartographies of Time, details the fascinating history of the timeline and is worth purchasing if you are interested.

Typical timelines used in Design Research and service design include what we call “User” or “Customer” journeys. These tend to map very specific, granular behavioural data of a user or customer interacting with a service, system, product or any combination thereof across a specific period of time (typically hours or days). While prevalent and powerful, these types of timelines aren’t the only ones available to Design Researchers. 

An example of a user journey detailing the onboarding experience of an employee at Vodafone Ziggo. These typically spanned a few months and detailed key events, highs and lows. 

Design research methods are able to capture and visualise all sorts of historical data that might be relevant to the design of systems, services and products. At STBY we create many different maps of time beyond journey maps, for various purposes. Here are some examples: 

Personal timelines help people explain the evolution of their music taste

In this project looking into the language and mental models of music taste, we used timelines to help people plot the evolution of their music taste over time, from their teens to today. We also asked them to map key events, trends and people that influenced their personal music taste. 

An interactive timeline of Cultural Policy in the State of Jalisco creates a shared sense of where we’ve been and where we could go

For a participatory policy making process in Jalisco, Mexico, we used a policy timeline to get an understanding of the history of cultural policy in Jalisco from the early 1900’s. We plotted this historical data on an interactive timeline to make sure it was as accessible and engaging to the community as possible. By understanding historical policies, we could better make sense of the political climate today, and help to imagine possible futures ahead. 

Immersing a design team in the history of their product

For a team that designs contemporary digital playlist covers, we created a timeline of how album cover artwork has evolved over time, the main elements that  have changed, and the socio, cultural and technical trends that influenced these dynamics. It situated their work in a border context and provided plenty of inspiration for their own future designs. 

Timelines provide a broader perspective 

User journeys are great and we use them a lot and lovingly. But sometimes it is worth zooming out a bit more in time to contextualise the thing you are designing from a broader perspective. Why have things been designed the way they have thus far? Which trends have influenced this? Which people or events have influenced this? Responses to these questions through timelining creates more sensitive and informed designers, and in turn, more considerate and impactful designs. 

Megan Anderson