students sitting around a table talking

Case study: student journey mapping

October 1, 2019

This case study reviews the use of journey mapping for improving retention rates at a US university. As the work was completed by students graduating into the healthcare field, it also showed how service design methods can help people working in healthcare to apply creative problem solving and a more user-centric approach in their daily work.

Connecting to healthcare

Patient journey mapping can help fulfill healthcare’s increased focus on delivering patient-centered care.

Healthcare is sometimes a little behind the times and not known for being a very innovative industry. The industry is starting to adopt a patient-centric view when creating services and thus journey mapping can help students and providers to adopt this method and tools in their future daily work within the healthcare system.
Frank Rowe

These students will receive their graduate degrees and start their first full-time jobs in the healthcare industry. They have learned that journey mapping is a powerful way to improve other people’s experiences, and they can apply this to their future patients, healthcare providers, and the broader healthcare community. By putting themselves in the shoes of others, they will be able to better understand patient fears and expectations, and thus insert empathy into an otherwise processual structure.

Students in their feedback appreciated the professors insight in the field, the practical application of the course and the ability to learn critical thinking.

Problem statement and goal

Frank Roewe is an adjunct professor in a graduate program at a US university, where he teaches a graduate-level course on strategic planning, organizational effectiveness and leadership in healthcare. He’s also the founder of Cecond Opinion, a management consulting and executive coaching firm based in suburban Philadelphia.

University student retention is an issue among US universities. College administrators aim at keeping graduation rates high to decrease the loss in tuition revenue from students. This can be done by minimizing dropout rates and transfer rates to other institutions. Frank’s university faces similar problems. Given the scope and size of this challenge, their strategic plan focuses on keeping student dropouts and transfers low (Herzlinger, R., Ramaswamy, V.K., & Schulman, K.A. (2014). Bridging Health Care’s Innovation-Education Gap. Harvard Business Review).

Project setup

Frank’s course included 13 graduate students studying Public Health. Most of them were master-level students, and one was a doctoral student. They were all close to graduation and his course was a compulsory capstone course. Together with the University’s strategic planning department, Frank focused on three specific areas related to student drop-outs during the strategic planning and journey mapping exercise: Curriculum, Financial, and Social.

A main challenge surfaced in this session is that courses are relatively short at 10 weeks per term, whereas most US universities operate on 16-week terms. As a result, courses move quickly and some students have difficulty keeping up with the workload. In addition to Curriculum and Financial challenges, some at-risk students struggle with Social and adjustment problems, like having difficulties with roommates or feeling homesick.

Visualization of the project sequence: Theoretical introduction, research, strategic planning, ideation, action plan and KPIs, presentation and implementation

After an introduction to strategic planning and journey mapping, Frank divided his students into 3 teams of 3 to 4 students each. Each team focused on a specific part of the strategic problem: Curriculum, Financial, or Social.

First, each team of students researched various elements of their specific strategic problem area. They interviewed both current students and former students who had dropped out, for their insights into drop-out risks. They also reviewed University statistics, data and reports provided by the strategic planning office, and applied strategic planning tools to this information, completing a SWOT analysis, an action plan, and the “Keep, Stop, Start” framework. Finally, they created a dashboard with KPIs for measuring improvements.

Applying the “Keep, Stop, Start” framework allowed the students to assess what was working or not working with the existing strategic plan.

Keep a comprehensive college-wide orientation, because data proved that this program had enhanced student’s preparation for beginning the quarter based curriculum. They advised to transfer this program to all other colleges within the university and to start discussions regarding their own college policy to enhance their student’s preparedness.

Stop mandating midterm exams to be held during week 5, as it was unfeasible to mandate a standard midterm for each course. As each professor has a unique course calendar it would be difficult to obtain compliance. Furthermore requiring all midterms at week 5 would place
a much larger burden on students and would not solve the issue of reducing stress or improving academic success.

Start a mandatory meeting with an advisor when a student fails midterm exams. This could increase the students feeling of preparedness and help maintain a strong relationship, while at the same time aiding the student in recuperating their grades.

Strategic planning & journey mapping

Students were then introduced to various methods and tools to create strategic plans and customer journey maps. They learned that there is not one way to create a strategic plan or a journey map; many models and methodologies work, but the key is to use the approach that will ensure the greatest likelihood of success.

What matters is the thinking and assumptions that go into the students’ strategic plans and journey maps. Their logic and assumptions must be sound, I reminded them of this point frequently. But in addition, they also needed to ‘avoid rabbit holes’ by fixing problems that had little positive impact on the strategic problem they’re addressing (declining graduation rates). Thirdly, we talked a lot about the value of keeping it simple, clear, and easy for others to understand. The first challenge for the students was that they will never have all the necessary information to understand the current situation, so they will need to work with a certain degree – as high as 40% or more – of uncertainty. The second challenge was to make sure that they remained focused on the aspect of their strategic problem in a way that they would have the biggest outcome. And the third challenge was to focus on successfully implementing the strategic plan. We know from practise that this is one main problem with strategic plans. They get developed, but rarely implemented in a way that generates the desired outcomes.
Frank Roewe

For the journey mapping exercise, the teams created individual personas of at-risk students. The personas included both demographic and psychographic details. The three personas correlated to the three reasons students are at higher risk of dropping out: Curriculum, Financial, and Social. Each journey map was developed based on 6 to 8 student touchpoints and included a timeline with various steps that a persona might follow. In addition, each journey map had a seminal or “make or break” touchpoint, which were moments that matter most in the student journey and where a decision to drop out was likely made.

Students then created their journey map, focusing on the biggest challenges within the framework of the three key areas. They worked offline in small teams using colored sticky notes, which allowed them to think through various steps, put them on the wall, cluster them and find similarities and sequences. As students themselves, course participants could build on their own experiences and those of their colleagues and friends.

In week 9, students presented their strategic plans. In week 10 – the final week of class – they provided an update of their strategic plan’s progress, and presented their personas and journey maps. They tied action plans to their journey maps, which included touchpoints based on their research.

The student journey map made the strategic plan come alive. Walking in the shoes of the personas is a great way to ensure the strategic plan is deployed with focus and energy.
Frank Rowe

Students digitized their journey maps with Smaply, providing them with a professional resource to share with their classmates and professor. Students could also reference their Smaply journey maps during job interviews to demonstrate their familiarity with the creative process of customer journey mapping and Smaply.

18 avatars of people representing students of the university

Jim is a freshman with poor time management and organizational skills. He’s smart but has difficulty communicating regularly with professors and turning in assignments on time. He has never been a strong student, perhaps because he prioritizes social life over schoolwork. Jim was happy to be accepted at the university, but once he started the program, he had difficulty keeping up with the rapid pace. The term started quickly, and he has to work hard to attend all classes, do his homework, and enjoy his social life. Even though he attended a new student orientation meeting, he did not find it useful and has become frustrated. Jim feels lost and does not know how to manage his workload, especially after failing his first midterm exam. This was the seminal touchpoint for Jim, and at this precise point in time Jim is at greatest risk of dropping out of school.

Findings & implementation for student team focused on curriculum

In their ideation sessions, students became aware of different problems in the student experience related to the 10-week term as a contributing factor to drop out rates. As a result of their findings, they recommended:

1. Transition to the quarter system from high school

The university follows an atypical academic year. While most US schools are semester based, this school organizes its academic year in 4 quarters (fall, winter, spring, summer), at 10 weeks each. Many students coming from high school and other colleges are not used to this.

The team realized that the quarter system is a key challenge because students did not realize how quickly 10 weeks pass compared to their high school terms, which operate on 16-week semesters. They found that the university did not offer sufficient assistance with transition to the quarter schedule. They also found that once at-risk students slip behind, it’s much harder for them to keep up with the workload. Recovering from poor mid-term grades in a 10-week term is difficult.

One suggestion for improvement proposed by the project team was to better prepare students for what is in front of them. The current orientation provides minimal information regarding curriculum structure and time management, but students need to understand that university is different from high school, and quarters are different from semesters. The university needs to develop a more comprehensive student orientation session to better prepare students for success in a quarter based school. This would help increase student’s awareness for the transition into the quarter system.

A screenshot of a journey map created in Smaply. It shows the experience of Jim.

2. Introduce fixed consultation and increase the number of available advisors

Students did not have enough time to communicate with professors, and there was no established time to meet advisors prior to classes. There was also an insufficient number of student advisors. For example, the team learned that in one college at the university, there were only 2 student advisors for over 1,000 undergraduate students. The team suggested that professors should establish office hours so that students could easily schedule a conversation if they need to. In addition, they recommended that colleges investigate a more favourable student-to-advisor ratio to ensure students have the peer support they need to succeed.

KPI preparation

Students developed several KPIs to align to their strategic priorities and to track progress within their journey maps. For instance, students introduced a pre- and post-change survey for measuring the number of students who felt prepared for the quarter system. While the pre-survey takes place immediately following the orientation itself, the post-survey is held at week 10 of the first quarter. Students also measured the percentage of professors that hold midterms during the quarter’s midpoint (week 5) in order to understand variability before attempting to standardize the exam schedules throughout the school.


One of the biggest challenges within strategic planning is the actual implementation of the plan. There are various reasons organizations do not succeed in putting the plan into action. This can include poor communication and dissemination of the plan to all levels of the organization, inadequate support from leadership, and insufficient resources. A key objective of the course was to show how journey mapping and strategic planning work together to help organizations be more successful. By having a one-page journey map, the main focus areas of the strategic plan can easily be communicated to employees at all levels of the organization. A journey map helps employees understand why their activities and goals matter, and how their actions positively impact the organization’s strategic priorities. Students learned that by combining a journey map with their strategic plan they could increase the impact of their strategic plan.


By working on reducing drop-out rates, students learned how to address a real-world problem with tools that can be transferred to other challenges in other sectors, such as in the healthcare sector, where they will be working during their careers. They were also introduced to journey mapping, where they could see how Service Design tools can help clarify alignment and reinforce organizational focus to effectively address strategic priorities.

Creating a journey map allowed students to understand the different interactions that students have over time, through various channels, and with all their emotional ups and downs. Journey mapping helped students to understand the underlying causes of the problem related to Curriculum, how their “student customers” feel about it, and select the best actions for addressing this strategic problem.


Goal of the project: Increasing retention rates at a US university

Project duration: Fall 2019

Number of workshop participants: 13

Number of journey maps created: 4

Number of personas created: 4

And now, what's next?

This project team has been using Smaply to understand and manage student experience, using student journey maps and personas.

Smaply is available for free – go ahead and create your own CX insights hub!

Create your own journey maps with Smaply