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What is User Story Mapping?

During a product’s journey from idea to completion, the product owner oversees and uses various tools and processes to ensure the product’s optimal development. Our topic for today is one of these processes that is instrumental in effective project execution. The process is user story mapping.

Before we explore story mapping, we need to look at backlogs.

Backlogs are simple tools to understand, they are simply a collection of tasks that need doing. The problems only arise when it comes to the doing part. For example:

  1. How do you know where to start?
  2. What dependencies are needed for a task? 
  3. In what order should you tackle your backlog tasks?
  4. The overall context of the tasks broken down for the sprint? 

All these questions are not easy to answer using only a backlog that’s why you need another tool to help you organize, align, and prioritize your backlog execution.  This is where user story mapping comes in?

User Story Mapping Explained.

So what is user story mapping?

It is a collaborative exercise whereby a product owner and other members of an organization sit down to arrange and organize their product’s user stories. 

Instead of the traditional backlog’s user story vertical arrangement, user story mapping arranges your project’s user stories into vertical (columns) and horizontal (rows) slices. A group of user stories arranged in this way is called a user story map.

NB: User Stories are also called Tasks

A story map, also called a user story map, helps team members to visually understand the project’s execution, status, issues, dependencies, etc. In essence, user story mapping is a tool designed to improve a project’s planning and execution. 

A story map does four main things:

  1. It organizes user stories into a more readable format.
  2. It prioritizes user stories by their importance to customers and dependencies.
  3. It aligns each user story to the company’s overall product vision and customer needs.
  4. It communicates the past, current state, and future of a project.

When performing user story mapping, you arrange the project’s user stories or tasks from your user’s perspective. In other words, a story map is a chart or tool that groups and prioritizes user stories based on your customer’s needs and goals.

The main goal of story mapping is to help the development team to prioritize, plan, work, and identify problems and blind spots. It serves to make sense or create a sequential order from the sometimes confusing collection of user stories in the backlog.

A user story map must define your project from the high-level steps down to the tiniest of details. This helps organizations transition effectively from general discussions to effective and specific planning and execution. 

This technique is designed to help teams move from the general to the specific and avoid vague statements as they work towards deadlines. It also helps team members see where they need to add more detail and what’s missing from their thinking.

User story mapping offers many advantages to any project’s planning and execution and therefore it can be used in many different areas. Usually, story mapping is done in software development. It can be done whenever you need to make sense of your project user stories or user story. 

Other advantages to using a user story map are

  • Organizations can avoid vague project definitions consequently improving their project’s planning.
  • Identify detail lacking tasks and fill in more information.
  • Identify areas that might have been skipped during the initial planning.
  • Demonstrate to non-technical people your product’s overall goals, tasks, status, etc.

In short, user story mapping is a way of instilling order on your project. It brings together agile software development methods with user-centric execution. It creates an accurate product map by identifying the scope of work and helping visualize the product as it’s being built.

Jeff Patton is widely recognized as the father of user story mapping.

Who Participates in the user story mapping?

Collaboration between different departments and experts is necessary to successfully plan, build, and launch a product.  It is very difficult to plan, manage, build, and market a product without a diverse range of expertise.

A user story map gives a well-rounded picture of your whole product. That’s why it’s necessary to have a diverse group of participants from different departments and expertise providing their input. By doing so, you’ll ensure that your resulting story map is all-inclusive and accurately represents the different aspects of your product.

Ideally, any department whose work within your organization contributes to the overall success of your product should be represented at the user story mapping. 

You will usually find representatives of the following departments or expertise at the story mapping:

  • Management
  • Developers 
  • UX designers
  • Legal
  • Customer Support & Relations
  • Sales & Marketing
  • And other stakeholders with an interest in how the product will bring profit to the organization

You might also invite an experienced target user(s) your product aims to participate in the exercise as a consultant. By doing so, you will more efficiently identify the key deliverables your users need and how to deliver them.  

7 Steps to Create a User Story Map.

1. Outline the Problem: Before you begin mapping, you need to set a common objective/problem that needs to be achieved/addressed. This will serve as your vision and guiding post in all the activities that follow later. Your main focus in this step is to answer the question, “What does my product do?”

2. Learn About Your User: Before you can plan your project from the users’ perspective, you need to know and understand them. Identify the different types of users and their goals for using your product. Create a set of characters that represent your target users and manage your stories from their viewpoints. You can also invite a consultant for their input. Doing so helps you streamline your efforts into what matters instead of wasting your resources on outliers.

3. Identify Common User Activities: As you build your stories according to the previous characters, you’ll begin to notice common goals called activities, themes, or functions. These activities are what make up the backbone of your user story map. For example, the activity “Create Account” might include subtasks like “click create account”, “enter sign up details”, “receive and confirm verification email”, and “edit profile”. 

4. Break Down Activities Into Smaller Tasks: As you can see from above, activity on the backbone can be broken down further into smaller tasks or user stories. This step is mainly about adding all the smaller steps necessary to complete the much larger activity in the backbone. Each set of subtasks or user stories is arranged vertically beneath its respective activity.

5. Identify Blind spots, Dependencies, etc.: Now that you have a rough story map, it’s time to check if any essential user stories are missing from your map. You can do so by having individuals walk through the map as different characters. You can also invite different departments to check for any missing steps or underlying problems.

6. Prioritize Smaller User Stories: In this step, you organize user stories below each activity by their importance. More important user stories will rank higher and closer to the backbone activity. To identify which stories are more important, you might test out different scenarios to pick out the essential ones.

7. Slice Your Story Map: Now that your user stories are vertically prioritized, you can begin slicing horizontally a sequence or group of user stories that are sprintable and deliverable. If properly prioritized, each horizontal slice represents a release that adds value for your customers. 

Why User Story Mapping Is Important? 

User story mapping is important because it provides a detailed outline for the development of a software product. This helps you to better understand your users’ needs and in turn, makes it easier to prioritize, manage, and execute your product’s user stories. 

It also lets you know if the product you are building will be usable to your users or not.

When it comes to project execution, user story mapping is one of the best strategies to employ in doing so. Not only does it help organizations plot a complete roadmap that outlines the way forward, but it also helps them to understand which deliverables they need to work on and how long they will take.

Above all, one of the most important roles of a user story map is that it organizes and prioritizes product development from the perspective of your target customer’s needs and experience when they choose your product. By doing so, you ensure that the product you are building is actually what customers want/need and consequently ensure that customers will like your product.

Drawing up a story map displays user stories in a much clearer and easier to understand manner. The mapped-out tasks/user stories help organizations to easily track their progress and avoid skipping or forgetting any tasks during their execution process.

Traditionally, after you finish identifying your project’s user stories, you would arrange them in your backlog. However, using a backlog to manage your user stories is not efficient and it sometimes becomes very complex to achieve. Hence, the introduction of a user story map that has better task management capabilities than a plain backlog.

To better understand what is user story mapping and why it’s important, here are some other benefits that user story maps offer.

User Story Mapping Benefits 

  • It is easier to track progress while developing the product.
  • It helps in understanding what the user needs better.
  • Helps in generating better ideas for a product.
  • Allows you to determine whether the product you are building will be usable by your users or not.
  • Allows ideating around one theme.
  • It avoids confusion and misunderstandings by giving everyone a common understanding of the project.
  • It minimizes the risk and cost of change by giving users, developers, and project managers a shared understanding of what they are building.
  • It brings transparency to the project and therefore everyone knows how their work contributes to the overall success of the project.
  • It exposes and identifies risks, roadblocks, dependencies, and opportunities early. As a result, you can prepare countermeasures well ahead of time.
  • It sustains momentum by establishing a clear goal for each day.
  • It’s easier to prioritize and manage tasks with a story map.
  • Improves communication around a project within an organization.
  • A great way to educate stakeholders and other non-technical personnel about the product.
  • Breaks down and groups user stories into manageable slices ready for sprints or releases.
  • Helps to streamline and prioritize user stories that deliver exactly what the customer needs.
  • Avoid failed increments due to sprint dependencies on user stories not yet done.

User Story Mapping Drawbacks and Problems

User story mapping can be used to astonishing results. However, it can also result in disappointment if not used correctly. Here are some common problems, mistakes, and downsides associated with story maps:

Physical Limitations

Physical story maps are hard to maintain, manage, and share. For example:

  • A physical story map in one place can’t be shared with team members in other places  
  • Sticky notes might fall off or get removed accidentally
  • Whiteboard might be cleaned 

Hence, physical story maps might not be ideal for everyone.

Not Identifying Your Customer

Creating a user story map without first identifying your customer is a recipe for disaster. If you don’t know who your target customer is, how can you create a correct story map that arranges your project from that customer’s perspective? 

Therefore, before you even begin story mapping identify your customer, and create your story map from their angle.

Poorly Defined Goals & Problems 

Knowing the goals you are trying to achieve and the user problems your product aims to solve means you have a general idea of your product roadmap and destination. Whatever user story map you construct without knowledge of these two things, will likely be wrong.

Lacking a Consultant Customer

To build a product that actually adds value to your customers, you need to collaborate with an experienced customer or someone similar. Having the input of such a person during product development can be the difference between your efforts being a wasted effort or an amazing success.

On the other hand, without a consultant customer, your success will depend on trial and error; which is inefficient.

Not Keeping the Story Map Front & Centre

A story map is a guidepost and reminder of what you are trying to achieve. If your story map is not located in a very visible location, your team members might forget the vision and as a result, stray from the destined path. To avoid this, place your story map in an extremely visible location.

If you work with remote teams, ensure that each remote location or base has a dedicated, huge screen that displays the story map.

Conclusion

Now that you have looked at:

  • What is user story mapping
  • Why it’s important
  • How it’s done
  • And its pros and cons

It is time we touched on some things you need to take note of.

Firstly, a common misconception about story maps is that they are static and cannot be changed. The reality could not be more different. Even though a story map is a visual roadmap, it still is a dynamic tool that can be readjusted to suit new developments as you conduct more research, review initial estimations, and receive user feedback after each sprint.

Secondly, your story mapping participants should share and explain the story map to other teams that were absent during story mapping. Also, teams/departments involved in the next sprint or release but lacked representation during the mapping exercise can add in their inputs to the story map. This is done to ensure that the whole organization shares a common understanding of the project. It also helps to clear any confusion or misunderstandings.

Lastly, you should think of story mapping as an exercise to better understand what your customer needs. It is a continuous process that involves constant research and analysis. Take each story mapping as an opportunity to synchronize and build empathy with your customers so that you can effectively build products that address their pain points as they evolve.

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