19 October, 2023

User Story Mapping 101 – How to Create a User Story Map

In this video, I want to answer the question, ‘What is a User Story Map?” and show you how to create one.

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This is learning, so, sit back and enjoy

Purpose of a User Story Map

A User Story Map allows users, developers, and other stakeholders to visualize the whole product and its development process.

It breaks down the work required to develop a product into individual tasks called ‘user stories’. Or, put another way, it organizes those user stories into a model for the entire product or service in terms the features that users or customers need.

Definition of User Story Mapping

User story mapping is a visual method we use in Agile software development. It helps users and development teams define a product with the required functionality. It organizes User Stories, which are short descriptions of the specific functionality into a representation of the user journey through a product.

Each with each user story represents a capability, and the Story Map helps prioritize among them. A Story Map allows teams to describe all of a product’s capabilities, without losing sight of the big picture.

Description of a Typical User Story Map

User Story Maps are typically presented like this.

Sample User Story Map

At the top, the Themes, or User Activities, represent the highest level of things a user needs to be able to do.

Below that are the key steps in the process flow of the service or product along the horizontal axis. These are the major tasks users will need to perform, in the order they need to perform them. In the language of user stories, these BIG stories are called Epics. The sequence of Epics is sometimes called the ‘Walking Skeleton’. This is a summary-level representation of the product.

An epic is too large to be completed in a single iteration, sprint, or even release. So, we break them down into smaller User Stories, below the epic. These put the flesh onto the skeleton.

Down the vertical axis, we sequence user stories by priority to give the sequence in which we will develop them. This can represent how fundamental they are, how much value they will deliver, or how complex they will be to deliver, or how sophisticated the delivery process will need to be.

Why Do We Need User Story Maps?

A User Story Map helps the users and developers share an understanding of the whole user experience. Critically, it also delivers two essential things:

  1. A tool to help prioritize features and functionalities
  2. A way to avoid solely prioritizing the highest-value features to create an unusable product because they are dependent on lower-value features which were consequently deferred to future releases.

What are the Benefits of User Story Maps

Communication and alignment
Clear, unambiguous, and available to everyone – it creates a shared understanding at many levels of detail.

Status reporting
The ability to label, sticker, or over-write elements of the story Map allows us to use it to track and display the progress of the project.

Visual aid
Helps not just communication, but thinking, planning, prioritizing, and decision-making.

Product Backlog
The prioritization process supports the creation and grooming of your product backlog, along with helping determine the drawdown for each new iteration.

By representing the user stories as a flow of activities, the Story Map highlights dependencies and is therefore important for risk management

Where do User Story Maps Come from?

User story mapping was invented by Jeff Patton, who first described – but didn’t name it – in his 2005 article ‘It’s All in How You Slice it.

Patton continued developing the idea. In 2008 he described and illustrated the idea in detail in an article on his blog: The New User Story Backlog is a Map.

Finally, in 2014, he wrote the book User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product, along with Peter Economy.

How to Create a User Story Map

Gather a team of representatives from your users, developers, user experience and design experts, and anyone else with a strong interest in contributing to your product plan.

Then, follow a process based on these 7 steps:

1. Establish the Product

Start by establishing what the users need to do and why.  

2. Define Product Outline

Identify the key steps in the product or service you’re creating. This will form your Walking Skeleton of epics. Each will be a heading to the story map you’re creating. Arrange them horizontally across the top of the graph, and group them into top-level themes.

You can do this in-person, using sticky notes, or remotely, using collaboration tools. The whole team should work together on the map. You may assign a facilitator to ensure that no one dominates the discussion.

3. Develop the Capabilities under each Epic

Under each of the epic headings, place the user stories that make them up. These user stories don’t have to be fully developed or prioritized at this stage.

Frame them in terms of what the user is doing at that step: not how the product is performing. The user story format can help you:

  • As a [type of user],
  • I want to [action]
  • so that [benefit].

4. Prioritize User Stories

Grow your Story Map until you have enough detail to prioritize user stories and identify task dependencies.

Separate them, by priority, vertically, with the most important at the top.

Divide the vertical groupings into broad releases, with the first representing the MVP, or Minimum Viable Product.

5. Scrutinize Your Work

Now you have a good visualization of the whole product development process, look for dependencies, bottlenecks, overlaps, capability gaps, missing information, and alternative options

Finding these risks before you start any design or development work can minimize the waste of re-work and enhance the usability and quality of the final product.

6. Plan Releases and Sprints

Now turn your Story Map into a work plan. With user stories prioritized top-down, you can see the work that will deliver foundational and high-value capabilities. Group these stories into product releases and provisional iterations or sprints.

7. Publish Your Story Map

Finally, you are ready to share your story map with the full development team.

But, Story mapping, like all agile work, is an iterative process. Once you’ve created it, the team needs to maintain and refine their story map; adding to it, modifying it, and tracking progress, to reflect the actual state of the product, and using it to inform drawdowns from the backlog, to go into subsequent sprints.

Final Tips for Using User Story Maps

  • Clarity about the User or Customer
    You need to know who the customers or users are. And you need to involve them in your story-mapping process.
  • Level of Detail
    You need to balance the need for enough detail to fully understand the process, but not too much detail that the story is lost and stakeholders become confused.
  • The scale of Your Story Map
    If you try to map a massive product, getting the detail right can become impossible. So, break your story map into manageable chunks, rather than tackling an entire large-scale product in one story map.
  • Level of Formality and Technicality
    Keep the style simple and the language plain, so everyone can understand it easily. If you need to use jargon, make sure you explain what the terms or acronyms mean. So, you must also keep technical development details out of the User Stories.
  • Clarity about the Problem
    You also need to know what problem your product is solving for customers or users. Your Story Map must lead to the right customer goal. Otherwise, you will develop the wrong product – or at least one that is not optimal.
  • Efficiency of the Process
    Stories from a user story map typically need to be moved into your Product Backlog. So, you may feel like you are doing the same work twice. Consider using software that is designed to integrate Story Maps, Product Backlogs, and Sprint Backlogs.

Recommended Videos to Help with User Story Maps

Carefully curated video recommendations for you:

Recommended Articles to Help with User Story Maps

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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