User Story Mapping: The Key To Building Better Products
Traditional agile product development is deeply flawed.
Teams spend a lot of time sifting through business requirement documents and design specs to bring a product or feature idea to life.
However, these documents don’t bring them any closer to the actual goal—making the user experience better. People who read these documents come away with different interpretations of what end-users want.
Even though user stories have helped product teams mitigate some of these issues, this process of building in chunks makes it easy to lose sight of the big picture.
Product teams end up with a jumbled product that isn’t really helpful to users because they paid more attention to the sum of the parts than the whole.
Instead of distributed documents that lead to an incoherent user experience, agile teams can use user story mapping—a visual exercise that helps them collaborate effectively to deliver products that users love.
What Is User Story Mapping?
User story mapping is a UX mapping method that product managers (PMs) and development teams use in product discovery either to create a new product or to add features to an existing product.
Popularized by Jeff Patton, user story mapping involves using sticky notes or sketches to outline all the interactions a user will have in order to complete a certain task or achieve a goal.
“Story mapping keeps us focused on users and their experience, and the result is a better conversation, and ultimately a better product.”
- Jeff Patton, User Story Mapping
Building a story map is simple. PMs and dev teams collaborate with designers to tell the story of a product and write each step a user takes in that story on a sticky note (physical or virtual) in a left-to-right flow. Then they fill in the details and place them vertically under each step. The result is a grid-like structure that tells a story.
These user stories are written in a format that makes it easy to align with the business impact and can be completed in a sprint.
A user story like “As a [type of user], I want to [perform this action] so that I can [accomplish this goal]” is helpful for product teams to think about design and development from a user’s perspective.
The Benefits of User Story Mapping in Product Development
User story mapping helps product teams put users first. By understanding what users actually need, they can plan and prioritize critical tasks. This model ensures faster deployment and feedback and deeper user insights that can improve the product.
- Improves cross-collaboration and alignment
With story maps, there’s no confusion about what features must be built and why. Everyone is on the same page, making cross-team collaboration far more seamless. Plus, there’s no need to create or read a lengthy technical document.
- Offers a better alternative to a flat backlog
A flat backlog—essentially a huge to-do list—makes it impossible to discover what interaction a user will have with the product. Plus, it’s difficult for PMs to know for sure that they’ve identified the right user stories. Since story mapping is a visual method, teams can better focus on desired outcomes alongside the tasks they need to complete.
- Helps teams build better MVPs
Story mapping helps teams identify what their MVP (minimum viable product) should include. Teams can draw lines directly on the story map to move the details included in each release and prioritize features for the next sprint.
- Identifies and prevents risky assumptions
When trying to map out user stories, some risky assumptions may make their way onto the board. These items are typically not backed by data, may not be feasible, or could derail the project’s budget. Story maps help teams see where those risks exist and swap them out for low-risk ideas that are equally valuable to users.
The Anatomy of a User Story Map
A story map typically contains four main elements—the backbone, order, user stories, and sequence—but it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.
Some companies call large user stories Epics and small user stories Tasks. Some story maps also contain Notes that include more details about the user persona, market research, or competitor analysis.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll stick to the four main elements that make up a story map.
When you take a step back from your story map, you’ll notice some of the stories seem to flow together—for instance, all the things a user has to do before getting to work or all the steps they have to take to make breakfast. These clusters of similar stories can be grouped into high-level activities.
“Activities organize a bunch of tasks done by similar people at similar times in order to reach a particular goal.”
- Jeff Patton, User Story Mapping
High-level tasks and activities form the backbone of the story map, which provides structure and shows you the big picture.
If we take the example of shopping on Amazon, we may end up with the following activities:
- Find products
- Read reviews
- Purchase products
- Use products
- Contact seller or support
- Leave reviews
When you read the story map, it tells you about all the users and what they do or would like to do with a product. This left-to-right order is the narrative flow.
Although user actions aren’t always linear, it helps to put user stories in an order that improves the shared understanding.
For instance, a shopper might contact a seller or support on Amazon for more information before they even buy the product. However, the linear flow helps teams prioritize and build better features so shoppers can first find the products they need.
User stories are placed underneath each activity or task. For instance, below the “find products” activity, you may have stories for:
- Image search
- Text search
- Filter by delivery date
- Filter by color
- Filter by brand
User stories are ordered by value to the user. The value can be quantified by user research, usage analytics, or other metrics that make sense.
Once the backbone and stories are in place, the team gets together to identify which features will be released in the MVP and further releases.
The story map can be split horizontally, or lines can be drawn on it to indicate what ships now vs. later.
Examples of User Story Mapping in Action
If you don’t already use story mapping for product design and development, these real-world examples can help you think about different ways you can use them and the benefits you might realize.
Lyft Increased Business Velocity by 20% With User Story Mapping
Lyft has dozens of teams working on each customer journey. These teams are responsible for multiple customers. The challenge for Lyft was to find a way to keep everyone focused on the same goals while handling different touchpoints across locations.
That’s when Lyft turned to digital story maps to align priorities for teams across the company. Since the rollout, Lyft has seen a 20% increase in all its velocity metrics—internally with developer metrics and externally with call volumes and support tickets.
TIM Solutions Improved Transparency Among Teams With Story Mapping
TIM Solutions GmbH, a developer and supplier of custom business process management systems, has five PMs and five development teams—all of which must collaborate on major revisions and releases. While this worked out for them in the early days, business growth led to them discovering a major flaw.
PMs could manage their own product backlog but had lost sight of the overall picture. The same was true for business stakeholders—they could only see the current sprint scope and not what lay ahead. The flat backlog posed another problem. It was a laundry list of features they had to roll out, but the context was missing.
With user story mapping, communication across teams improved, and stakeholders were able to manage the entire product instead of just one project. The story map also helped them prioritize the right user stories and make strategic design and product decisions.
SolutionStream Saves Weeks on Discovery With User Stories
SolutionStream, a full-service software development agency, provides end-to-end solutions to its clients who need a team to improve existing apps or build business platforms from scratch.
With an increasing number of projects to handle, the company realized it only had a shallow understanding of the projects, and the time it took to dive deep into all of them resulted in huge overhead.
SolutionStream changed its discovery phase to collaborate with clients on their vision and use a story map to gather all the requirements. This process saves weeks that would’ve otherwise been spent on discovery. Also, its customers now have a visual layout to ensure their goals will be realized, and they can request changes to features during the planning phase.
User Story Mapping Is the Bridge Between Design and Development
Agile development is not useful when it comes to designing products. It is a way of thinking about product development in a design-friendly way, but it can’t help you create a well-loved product on its own.
Design is about finding out the user’s truth and sharing that narrative, while development looks to break up those complex narratives into tiny chunks and implement them. It’s easy to lose sight of who you’re building for and whether the outcomes of this development process are aligned with the overall business goals.
Story mapping is the bridge between the worlds of design and development. It integrates the principles of design into development to create a valuable product that offers a cohesive experience to users.
With a platform like UserVoice, you can find out how customers feel about a feature, prioritize those ideas, and measure the impact of rolling out those features.
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