Everything You Need to Know About User Story Maps

Ruth Hadari
Ruth Hadari
Agile Advocate, Engineering Ops Expert
Posted on
Dec 5, 2022
Updated on
Dec 5, 2022
Table of Content

User story maps are a simple way to visualize your user stories. They are a powerful tool to help you gain a better understanding of the big picture and identify dependencies between stories. But how do they actually work? You’ll learn everything you need to know about constructing a user story map in this guide.

Backlogs can be overwhelming: it has been estimated that lost productivity costs US businesses up to $550 billion annually. User story maps help you prioritize what needs to be accomplished while staying focused on the overall goal of the product. 

Essentially, the user story mapping process shows how actual workflows are carried out within the context of strategic business goals. Understanding user stories mapping assists Scrum teams in tracking their progress and ensures that they are delivering the most significant features first.

Let's take a closer look at the user story mapping process and a user story mapping template that will make it easier to implement your own. Read on below!

What Is a User Story Map?

A user story map is a visualization tool used to help developers and stakeholders understand the functionality of a system from the end user’s perspective. It typically consists of a diagram with boxes representing user stories and arrows connecting them to show how they are related.

The user story mapping process was introduced by Jeff Patton as an alternative to Waterfall's lengthy, fragmented requirements-gathering process. Agile team members use story maps to spark collaboration and discussion, as well as to gain an understanding of how the digital product flows and fits together.

Agile teams often face the problem of losing sight of the product as a whole when working from a backlog of discrete user stories. This is why user story maps have become essential.

In a nutshell, user stories are a type of Agile software development documentation. They are short, simple descriptions of a feature or requirement in terms of who the user is, what they want to do, and why.

User stories are often written on index cards or sticky notes and kept on a "story wall" as part of the team's product backlog. The Jira user story mapping tool is just one example of how popular software programs enable this process.

The following template can help: "As _____, I want _____ so that _____."

For example, "As a customer, I want the ability to check out with a credit card so that I can make a purchase." With this template, you can identify the type of user, the feature you wish to include, and the benefits of including the feature.

With numerous user stories in place, Sprint planning, prioritizing features, and organizing them can be time-consuming. User story maps come in handy here. Visualizing your user stories makes it easier to segment the customer journey. This ensures that no detail is overlooked.

Want to understand what a user story map is? Here are the key elements to know:

The Backbone

The backbone of a user story map is the sequence of cards that represent the user's journey from beginning to end. This sequence should be linear, with no branching or loops.

User story maps provide a foundation for ensuring that the product's or system's features are aligned with the user's journey. Moreover, they ensure that the product is usable and meets the needs of the customers.

User Stories

User stories are a way to capture the requirements of a system from the perspective of the people who will be using it. They are brief, easy-to-understand descriptions of what a user wants or needs from a system.

A good user story should be specific enough that it can be turned into a measurable requirement. User stories are a key part of the Agile development process and are often used by teams to create "epics" that can be broken down into smaller tasks.

Epics

Epics are large, overarching stories that can be divided into smaller stories. Essentially, this is a large user story that must be broken down into many smaller stories and tasks to become more manageable.

Generally speaking, epics aren't small enough to be work items or development tasks, but the stories they contain may be.

Activities, Steps, and Details 

Activities, steps, and details are the three types of actions depicted in a user story map, representing user actions through brief phrases that summarize them. Essentially, these are descriptions of what the user wants or needs and how to achieve it.

An activity is an action or event that a user can perform in your app. The activity represents the high-level tasks that users want to accomplish. Depending on the user type, these can be displayed sequentially or simultaneously. 

Each step in the process represents a specific subtask that the user will have to complete in order to complete the activity.

Lastly, the details describe the most detailed user interactions the team plans to implement to complete the activity.

Why Do Teams Create a User Story Map?

Writing user stories and placing them on your map go hand in hand. The goal of implementing a user story map is to help make sure that all the necessary steps for completing a task are included in the development process.

The concept of user story mapping is a collaborative exercise that helps teams align to deliver better products. That is why it is essential to include any team that could contribute to delivering successful results. This can include product management, sales, marketing, user experience, customer support, and many other teams working together for a common goal.

User story maps are useful for the following reasons:

Visualize the flow of a user story from start to finish

User story maps are a way for teams to visualize the flow of a user story throughout its development. By using them, teams can better understand and manage the overall flow of work, identify potential bottlenecks, and make necessary adjustments.

Help identify dependencies between user stories

The goal of creating a user story map is to help identify the dependencies between user stories. An item that depends on another item's execution or completion is referred to as a dependency. By understanding the dependencies, teams can better plan their work and ensure that they deliver an integrated product.

Prioritize user stories

By creating a user story map, the team can see which stories are most critical to implement first. The map also helps the team understand how the stories fit together. This makes it easier to plan and track the progress of the project.

Estimate the effort required to complete a user story

Teams can get a better idea of how much work is actually involved in completing the user story and can then more accurately estimate the amount of time that will be required.

Track the progress of a user story

With a user story map, you can visually track and update your work progress, ensuring that everyone is aware of the current status and the next steps to follow. This approach can be helpful in a number of ways. The visual representation of the progress of a user story helps to manage expectations.

Communicate with stakeholders

User story maps are a helpful way for teams to communicate with stakeholders. They allow everyone to see the big picture of what the team is working on, and they can help clarify dependencies and priorities. Visuals make explaining more straightforward as well.

Now that we’ve gone through the benefits of a user story map, let's now discuss how to create one.

How to Create a User Story Map

In today's world of fast-paced, constantly evolving technology, it can be difficult to keep track of all the changes. One way to combat this is by using user story maps. The process of creating one can be time-consuming, but it is crucial to the success of your feature release.

In essence, a user story map illustrates each stage of a project and how it relates to other stages. Lines connect the boxes or circles that represent tasks or stages of development to show how they are related. Any project, no matter how big or small, can benefit from them. They can be as simple or complex as you need them to be.

Here are the steps to the user story mapping process:

1. Identify your project goals

When creating a user story map, it is important to keep in mind the journey that the user takes when using your product or service. This includes thinking about what tasks the user needs to complete in order to achieve their goal. By understanding the user's journey, you can help ensure that your product or service is meeting their needs and providing a great user experience.

2. Get to know your customers

Create a user journey based on the goals you've identified. This means understanding your users’ backgrounds, motivations, and goals. By doing this, you can create user stories that are more relevant to them and that will help you design a product they will actually want to use.

Additionally, getting to know your customers can help you identify any potential challenges they may experience and find ways to address them.

3. Map user activities

Observing the steps your user takes, you will begin to recognize some patterns, and many of these steps are likely contributing to a common goal called an activity.

In order to create your backbone, your activities are listed above the user steps. As the backbone of user story mapping, mapping the user's activities and their stories will take the majority of your time.

4. Map user stories

Once you have established the backbone of your product, its customers, and journey, it is time to begin breaking down each activity into smaller stories. In this step, you will add cards, split them, rewrite them, and reorganize them.

Although the process can take a while, you are well on your way to creating a solid workflow.

5. Prioritize your stories

When creating a user story map, it is essential to organize the stories according to flow and urgency. This ensures that the most important stories are given priority and that they flow in a logical order.

One way to prioritize user stories is by using the "MoSCoW" prioritization method. This stands for "Must, Should, Could, Won't." The "Must" stories are the most important, and should be given priority over the "Should" stories. On the other hand, the "Could" stories can be completed if time permits, while the "Won't" stories can be skipped.

Another way to prioritize stories is by using the "Cone of Uncertainty." This involves categorizing stories according to their degree of uncertainty (high to low).

6. Analyze issues and propose solutions

In a user story map, you can identify issues by looking at the current process and pinpointing any areas that need improvement. Once the issues have been identified, you can start proposing and evaluating potential solutions.

As part of your plan, you may also include improvements that can be made to the product. The process will allow you to identify solutions for that product as well as save you time in future research.

7. Slice your task groups

Your teams will prioritize tasks based on the highest value and shortest completion time. In order to simplify things, they will be organized into horizontal slices on the map.

Start by completing at least one user journey. By drawing horizontal lines between cards, the backlog can be organized into tangible items.

If your team has been working according to the plan and you have followed every step, then your product should proceed smoothly. When the release date approaches, your product should be ready to meet your customers' needs.

To gain a better understanding of the process of creating a user story map, we recommend getting this handy book: User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product. Author Jeff Patton, a Certified Scrum Trainer and winner of the Agile Alliance's Gordon Pask Award for Contributions to Agile Development provides an expert analysis of the process of user story mapping. 

User Story Mapping Examples

By creating a user story map, you can ensure that your product is meeting the needs of your users. The creation of a user story map can take many forms, but here are a few examples to give you some ideas.

Source: nngroup.com

Sample User Story for Software Development

With the help of this user story mapping example, you can visualize the comprehensive breakdown of achieving a goal. In this case, the goal is to develop a solution for allowing customers to deposit checks via a mobile banking application.

Based on the goal, high-level user stories known as epics are broken down into more detailed user stories just prior to the start of development. To accomplish the objective—"Check the account balance," in this example—a set of steps and details are provided to facilitate the process.

The steps section provides you with information concerning the main action to be taken in order to accomplish the activity. With this as the basis, the steps to "Deposit a check" can be broken down into "Enter mobile deposit details," "Sign check," "Photograph check," "Submit deposit," and "Confirm deposit."

Details, on the other hand, are provided to illustrate how the steps can be achieved. As you can see in the sample, achieving the step to "Log in" will require the user to "Press login button," "Enter username or email" and "Enter Password."

By following the same steps as you did when you checked your account balance, you will be able to proceed with the goal of your primary activity to "Deposit a check."

For this example, you will have to "Enter mobile deposit details" after you "Access Accounts" as placed under steps. For you to make this possible, you will have to "Choose your account" and "Enter deposit account," among other details that complete the process.

The red portion represents the slice, with the upper portion representing the first release of the user story map, which will be included in a prototype to determine whether users understand the process and are able to deposit a check successfully. 

Source: miro.com

Sample User Story for Hardware Development

Hardware development in user story mapping refers to the design of devices that will be manufactured, excluding details of the manufacturing process itself. As you can see from the example provided, hardware designs are limited by the need to incorporate standard parts.

As opposed to software, hardware must be designed to operate under a wide range of environmental conditions and over a long period. It usually takes one to two weeks to complete each user story.

In this example, the goal is to "Set rocket engine requirements," with the steps to accomplish provided. The MVP for hardware development tests the viability and feasibility of an idea before committing significant resources to production.

In this case, each detail provides instructions to achieve each step. These details, such as deciding on the type of fuel, calculating the specific impulse performance, and coolant method, provide developers with the ability to quickly assess feedback and make improvements to the design.

The MVP approach is a way to reduce risk, save time and money, and maximize service quality. Essentially, this lists actions users should take to reach the end goal. 

Final Thoughts

A user story map is a great way to visualize and organize the various tasks that need to be completed in order to realize a certain goal or complete a project. By creating a user story map, you can ensure that no task is overlooked, and that everyone involved in the project has a clear understanding of what needs to be done.

User story mapping is fundamentally a lean method of user experience mapping, often practiced by Agile teams in order to achieve clarity and efficiency in the process of achieving a goal.

Get your Agile retrospectives under control with GoRetro, the ultimate software for managing Scrum meetings. Also, be sure to check out our blog for more information on optimizing your team's performance.

About the author

Ruth Hadari
Agile Advocate, Engineering Ops Expert

Highly experienced in leading multi-organizational teams, groups, in-shore as well as off-shore. The go-to person who is able to simplify the complex. An agile advocate, experienced in all common methodologies. Responsible for the entire software development lifecycle process from development, QA, DevOps, Automation to delivery including overall planning, direction, coordination, execution, implementation, control and completion. Drives execution, and communicates on status, risks, metrics, risk-mitigation and processes across R&D.

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