User story mapping gives you a way of thinking about a product and its features — typically software — from the perspective of your customers or users. This is facilitated by defining things that the user can do (known as user stories) within the context of your core user journeys.

User story map example

You can think of a user story map as a more user-centric view of a typical product backlog

This enables you to prioritise features more effectively by granting you the ability to “slice” through your product and user journeys horizontally to create your upcoming releases. You can think of a user story map as a more user-centric view of a typical product backlog, which provides you with a birds-eye perspective of the product and a set of prioritised upcoming releases.

A brief history

In January 2005, an article titled "It's All In How You Slice It” was released in a magazine published by stickyminds.com. Authored by Jeff Patton, this article dug into an alternative approach to laying out features of software systems. Alongside some excellent advice on who needs to be involved in the sessions and how to write features from a user’s perspective, Patton crucially touches on the concept of “slicing” sets of features to become a release. This idea would go on to become a core value in the more refined technique that Patton coins “User Story Mapping”.

User Story Mapping book, authored by Jeff Patton

Patton went on to write an article on the topic, as well as a hugely popular book: User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product. His book has inspired thousands of teams around the world to add this innovative technique to their product development workflows.

It's also worth checking out Jeff Patton's excellent user story mapping quick reference infographic

Both post-its and digital tools are useful

Traditionally, user story mapping is done with post-it notes or flash cards. Many teams still prefer this approach due to the fact that it’s a physical activity, whereby your team is engaging their brains whilst moving around or standing up. There is also a creative yet tactile aspect to writing on a post-it with a Sharpie that many people love.

However, as more teams are choosing to work remotely, being able to manage a story map digitally is a compelling option. According to a 2019 study on remote work by Buffer₁, 91% of business owners now support remote work and 31% of businesses are fully remote.

91% of business owners now support remote work and 31% of businesses are fully remote

In addition to this, one frustration that we hear frequently is that a physical map is inflexible. Moving whole journeys or releases can involve shifting a lot of post-it notes with precision, which can get annoying.

Ultimately, we recommend using both tools. Physical maps, using post-its or otherwise are a perfect way to start the conversation and create an initial draft. But beyond the conception of the map, moving to a digital tool will help your team benefit from story mapping longer-term.

The anatomy of a user story map

It's important to understand what the different parts of a user story map are and what part they play in understanding the bigger picture.

Different types of cards on a user story map in Avion
The above is a snippet from a free infographic:
User Story Mapping — An Anatomy

The backbone represents your user journeys and narrative flow

The backbone refers to the top two rows of a user story map. Jeff Patton identifies these as user activities and steps, but we personally prefer the terms journeys and steps. There is also a hierarchy to these rows too; the journeys contain the steps. The most important thing to remember about the backbone is that the steps of your user journeys must flow from left to right. Try to imagine walking along the backbone of your story map. Each user journey contains a set of steps that you must complete to reach your end goal.

The best way to start your backbone is to try and think of some high-level journeys that a user will undertake when using your product or service.

Example backbone of a user story map
The above is a snippet from a free infographic:
User Story Mapping — An Anatomy
Example 1 – Airbnb Core User Journeys

Airbnb is a holiday letting site that allows people all over the world to rent out their homes for others to stay in. Here are some of their core user journeys.

  • Search and browse places to stay
  • Book a particular place to stay
  • Find information about a major city
  • Rent out a place to stay
  • Contact a host or guest during a stay
  • Make a complaint about a host
  • Get a job at Airbnb

Some people like to shorten these phrases on their story map, to keep things concise — whatever works for you and your team. Sometimes it makes sense to align these terms with your preferred business terminology or nomenclature.

  • Search and browse places to stay → Search & Browse
  • Book a particular place to stay → Book
  • etc…
Example 2 – YouTube Core User Journeys

YouTube doesn’t need much of an introduction really! The video platform we all know and love.

  • Search for videos
  • Upload videos
  • Advertise on YouTube
  • Report a video

Coming up with your core user journeys can be more difficult that you’d expect. It’s often tricky to differentiate between a user journey and a small feature. In fact, what can start as small features can become core user journeys within your product, depending on the customer success of them. To begin with, try to stick to the user journeys that are core part of your business, as you can always expand a feature into a user journey later.

Steps are stages that a user must negotiate to complete a journey

Once you have a set of core user journeys outlined along the top row of your story map, you need to populate your journeys with steps. This tells us how a user is going to get through the journey and is presented from left to right. Let’s pick a single journey from each of our previous two examples to illustrate this.

Example 3 – Airbnb User Journey Steps

We’re going to take our initial user journey of “Search and browse places to stay” and define this as “Discover”, since it fits our existing business terminology.

Discover

  • Search for a place to stay
  • Browse listings
  • View a listing
  • Reserve a place

At this point, the user would be handed off to the “Book a particular place to stay” journey.

Example 4 – YouTube User Journey Steps

We’re going to take our initial user journey of “Search and browse places to stay” and define this as “Discover”, since it fits our existing business terminology.

Search for videos

  • Enter a search query
  • View video results
  • Watch a video

Formulating user stories

Every feature idea should be added to the map

At this point, you should have a set of core user journeys that are fully populated with steps. Now we get to drill down into each step and start getting creative with the features that are going to make the step possible for the user. This is the perfect time to involve stakeholders — as presently — there is no prioritisation required.

Start brainstorming features under each step in a column. If you are doing this as a group, you can arrange similar ideas into one feature. Try to write these as succinct, but meaningful titles. You can elaborate or breakdown these into user stories later.

So, let’s take the first step of the first journey for each of our running examples.

Example 5 – Airbnb Step Features

We’re going to take our initial user journey of “Search and browse places to stay” and define this as “Discover”, since it fits our existing business terminology.

Discover → Search for a place to stay

  • Search by location
  • Search by number of guests
  • Autocomplete my location
  • Select dates with a calendar picker
  • Lasso an area on the map to search
  • “I’m feeling lucky” for holiday homes
  • Search by trending locations
  • View curated homes by city
  • View curated home by user rating / superhost
  • View recent searches
Example 6 – YouTube Step Features

We’re going to take our initial user journey of “Search and browse places to stay” and define this as “Discover”, since it fits our existing business terminology.

Search for videos → Enter a search query

  • Simple text search
  • Autocompleted list of search terms
  • View videos for search
  • Filter search by upload date and video length
  • Filter search results by video type or features
  • Sort videos by relevance, date, view count or rating
  • Search by trending
  • Search anonymously

Now is the time to allow crazy ideas — don’t discount anything. Include and encourage easter eggs, fun and futuristic ideas, but also ensure that your user can get through the step of the journey successfully.

“Focus on the breadth of the story before diving into the depth … Go a mile wide and an inch deep₂”

Jeff Patton

Some teams like to approach this activity without a particular journey or step in mind. So they might just generate lots of random ideas for features and then sort them into the relevant step afterwards, but we feel like this leaves you open to missing key features within your user journeys. Hence our recommendation of being methodical and generating features one step at a time.

Working with slices

According to a 2018 study by Pragmatic Marketing₃, 83% of product managers are maintaining roadmaps, 85% are writing product requirements and 72% are monitoring product milestones. So any techniques that can help product managers with these tasks is usually welcomed.

According to a 2018 study by Pragmatic Marketing₃, 83% of product managers are maintaining roadmaps

One of the most compelling reasons to use story mapping is to allow you the ability to slice releases horizontally through your product. This unique way of prioritising and visualising can really help teams to stay lean with their thinking whilst providing product managers a clean way to select and arrange upcoming work.

It’s important to first understand what the intended outcome for the user is. Use this, or a shortened version as the name of your release. It’s okay to break things up into “part one” and “part two” or “simple” and “enhanced”, but make sure that each release stands on its own as working software. Your users should be able to complete their user journey when you have delivered “part one” even if you never deliver “part two”.

Make sure that each release stands on its own as working software

User story map with prioritised releases
The above is a snippet from a free infographic:
User Story Mapping — An Anatomy

Once you have an outcome in mind, create a release by drawing a line across your map and moving a subset of related features or user stories under that line — this is your release. Notice how you can easily prioritise features that span across different user journeys. Use this ability to spot overlapping work and potential gaps. Try to keep releases as small as possible by constantly asking your team the question “is this the smallest amount of work to deliver the outcome?”

Finally, avoid thinking of a release as a sprint. Your releases should be independent of your sprints.

This is only the beginning

“Product managers are becoming educators and evangelizers of innovation and experimentation₄”

Mike Fishbein

Product management has moved on hugely in the last five years. Techniques such as user story mapping are helping us deal with balancing a whole host of responsibilities — not least — delivering great products for our users. Tools like Avion makes these techniques easier to implement in our organisations and businesses.

If you want to hear more about Avion and how we can help your organisation adopt user story mapping, please reach out!


References

  1. https://buffer.com/state-of-remote-work-2019
  2. User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product (p83)
  3. https://cdn.agilitycms.com/pragmatic-marketing-v2/PM_Survey2018.pdf
  4. https://blog.fullstory.com/3-insights-2019-product-management-insights-report

Online user story mapping workshop

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User story mapping workshop