Having a great concept isn’t enough in product management. To create something that delights your customers, you need to understand precisely how they’ll use it.

That’s where agile story mapping comes in. Incorporating this technique when implementing agile helps project teams develop a firmer grasp of product development’s “who,” “what,” and “why” to ensure each iteration’s deliverables are customer-focused and value-driven.

What’s user story mapping?

Story mapping is a visualization technique cross-functional teams use in the discovery phase of product or feature development. It’s an agile practice that helps the group better understand how a target customer will use a deliverable.

Story maps typically describe the customer journey with the product, charting all the tasks completed in pursuit of a specific outcome or goal. The story map breaks each task into individual stories and assigns them to an epic. The product owner and scrum master then prioritize items for release based on which delivers the most customer value.

Popularized by Jeff Patton in his 2012 book, “User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product,” this process helps teams comply with two core agile principles:

  1. Adapt plans based on changes in customer or marketplace needs.
  2. Focus on continuously delivering value to the customer.

Why use story mapping?

Once your team is through the discovery phase of product development and you’ve established task priority for the initial build, the leftover stories enter into the product backlog. Without defining the importance or priority of those remaining items, it’s easy for higher caliber items to fly under the radar, potentially resulting in lower-value work being prioritized by mistake.

A story map helps avoid that outcome by arranging stories into a visual layout based on the prioritization of customer needs, helping to better define the product roadmap.

Other story mapping benefits include:

  • Better development understanding: Story mapping covers the entire product development plan, so every team member thoroughly understands the deliverable and its functions.
  • More team alignment: This process helps teams visualize the big picture and keep it in plain sight during sprint planning so everyone’s on target to meet goals and objectives.
  • A clearer project scope: Because teams can prioritize stories from different features within the context of the entire product, user story maps define the scope of the minimum viable product (MVP) or the next release to maximize value.
  • Quicker risk identification: Walking the story map makes it easier to spot gaps and dependencies in product development that impact usability.

Why is it called user story mapping?

When you make a story map, you build a narrative from the customer journey perspective around the product’s features, user interface (UI) components, and tasks. This process guides team conversation around how the item can solve a user problem or achieve a goal.

Typically, the story takes the form of:

“As a [user type], I want to [action] so that [benefit].”

The user type is the persona, the action is how the customer interacts with the product, and the benefit is the outcome.

In software development for product management, a user story may look like this:

“As a product manager, I want to check tasks as I complete them so that I always know where I am in the development roadmap.”

The team fleshes out the user story using verb phrases to drive discussion around product features and acceptance criteria. These items become stories that product owners add to the project backlog and map for prioritization.

Key elements of a user story map

Most user story maps contain the following three elements.

1. User story

The user story outlines the steps and outcome of a user’s interaction with the product and how it will deliver value to the customer.

2. Epics

Epics incorporate multiple stories from a customer journey. If the user is registering with a website, the sign-up epic would contain user stories for:

  • Reading the privacy policy before they sign up
  • Learning about registration features and benefits so they understand what they’re signing up for
  • Simplifying the login process to allow the customer to use their Facebook user ID
  • Allowing the customer to control access using their email address to sign up
  • Requesting registration assistance from a chatbot by clicking a “Contact Us” button

From these stories, the project team may decide that the next epic will be “Profile setup and customization.”

3. Backbone

The final component is the top two rows of your user story map, called the backbone. This section chronologically charts the user’s interactions with the product from beginning to end as high-level activities. You’ll break these activities into epics or stories, giving the team the “why” behind the customer journey and removing any ambiguity around the triggers that launch an action and what comes next.

How to create a user story map in 6 steps

User story mapping generally occurs at the beginning of product development and will evolve as your team defines the customer’s journey. You can also use journey mapping whenever the group requires:

  • Clarity surrounding product improvements
  • Assistance in creating a prioritized backlog
  • Direction regarding branching out into new product functionality

Journey mapping is a group activity, so gather the client and development team members for the exercise. It also works best when you create a visual that everyone can reference. A whiteboard or sticky notes on a wall are some of the best story mapping tools because all participants can easily see the layout.

1. Begin with the big picture

Consider the product from the customer’s point of view and document the broad activities it will support. Record these on sticky notes or digitally and place them at the top of the map in order of user priority.

Activity 1 Activity 2 Activity 3

2. Segment activities

Break each activity into the steps the user will take to complete it and prioritize each item in order of importance to the customer. Continue breaking tasks into discrete interactions and sub-tasks until you chart every aspect of the customer journey.

The top-level items become epics, and when combined with the activities, the top two horizontal rows form your story map’s backbone. The sub-tasks beneath each epic become stories.

Activity 1 Activity 2 Activity 3
Epic 1 Epic 2 Epic 3 Epic 4 Epic 5 Epic 6 Epic 7 Epic 8
Story 1 Story 1 Story 1 Story 1 Story 1 Story 1 Story 1 Story 1
Story 2 Story 2 Story 2 Story 2 Story 2 Story 2 Story 2
Story 3 Story 3 Story 3 Story 3 Story 3 Story 3
Story 4 Story 4 Story 4
Story 5

3. Identify gaps

Walk the customer journey with internal stakeholders and clients to ensure you haven’t missed any interactions.

4. Prioritize tasks

Create a prioritized list of epics and stories by placing them in order of importance to the customer. According to agile principles, the list will likely change from one iteration to the next based on customer feedback.

Activity 1 Activity 2 Activity 3
Epic 1 Epic 2 Epic 4 Epic 3 Epic 5 Epic 8 Epic 7 Epic 6
Story 3 Story 2 Story 4 Story 1 Story 2 Story 1 Story 1 Story 1
Story 2 Story 1 Story 2 Story 2 Story 1 Story 3 Story 2
Story 1 Story 3 Story 3 Story 3 Story 4 Story 3
Story 4 Story 5 Story 2
Story 1

5. Define the MVP

Choose which stories will create the MVP for your first release.

Activity 1 Activity 2 Activity 3
Epic 1 Epic 2 Epic 4 Epic 3 Epic 5 Epic 8 Epic 7 Epic 6
Story 3 Story 2 Story 4 Story 1 Story 2 Story 1 Story 1 Story 1
Story 2 Story 1 Story 2 Story 2 Story 1 Story 3 Story 2
Story 1 Story 3 Story 3 Story 3 Story 4 Story 3
Story 4 Story 5 Story 2
Story 1

6. Plan subsequent releases

Once you’ve settled on which stories will constitute your first product release, re-prioritize those remaining in the backlog. During your next sprint planning session, select tasks based on those that will generate an updated version with the most value.

User story mapping best practices

Make sure you get the most out of your story-mapping exercises by incorporating the following best practices:

  • Involve key stakeholders: Include a diverse set of stakeholders from your agile organizational structure, like clients, upper management, and team members. Including everyone’s input makes brainstorming epics and stories, prioritizing tasks, and securing buy-in easier.
  • Include relevant data: Lead with hard data to provide context for the user stories and ensure the personas include goals, objectives, motives, and needs. The more precise your customer understanding, the more accurately your user stories will reflect reality.
  • Direct the conversation: Use a facilitator to guide the discussion. Sometimes, a product manager from another team is the best choice to remain objective and keep everyone on track.
  • Limit technology: Agile story mapping is a hands-on exercise, so limit distractions by asking participants to leave their laptops and cell phones at their desks so they can be fully present.

Agile project management made easier with Roadmunk

Whether you’re adept at PI planning or story mapping in Jira for the first time, Roadmunk by Tempo streamlines all your agile project management needs. This platform creates audience-ready roadmaps and user story maps that help teams identify priorities, analyze goals, and pinpoint dependencies.

Add Timesheets to track team performance, Structure for portfolio management, and Custom Charts for cloud-based performance visualization, and you have a robust suite of tools to take a product from the design desk to store shelves.