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February 07, 2024

User story mapping step-by-step

Agile Roadmapping Project Management
Jerzy Żurawiecki Content Specialist @BigPicture

Your product development teams know your product inside and out. But to improve user experience, they need to walk in the customer’s shoes. User story mapping has helped teams provide value to users since 2005. In this article, we’ll show you how to do it step by step using an easy-to-follow example.

What is user story mapping?

User story mapping (a process created by Jeff Patton) visualizes a customer’s journey with your product. The idea is to think about the product from the user’s perspective.

The exercise helps teams identify and prioritize work that will provide the best value for users. It’s a collaborative effort created as an alternative to complex documentation.

A user story map has three levels: activities, steps, and details. The first two are displayed horizontally, while more information drops from each step.

  • Activities: the user’s goal. As the highest level of the bunch, it’s at the top of the map
  • Steps: specific actions a user wants to take to reach the goal
  • Details: a set of interactions required to complete a step

A common practice is to write down objectives through user stories so developers think about the action and benefit of each functionality. To write user stories, use the following format:

“As a [persona], I want to [action] so I can [benefit].”

In the early days of story mapping, teams would use a whiteboard or sticky notes to write down user stories. But now, with the popularity of remote work, teams use dedicated software to capture those stories so that the whole team can participate in the process wherever they’re based.

Benefits of user story mapping

Incorporating the process into your team will help you create more valuable features and give product development a better understanding of the customer. A deeper understanding of customer needs will enable them to consider improvements from the right perspective. And user story mapping offers a lot more than that.

  • Focus on user value: Understanding the user’s journey helps product teams understand users’ needs so they can deliver features accordingly.
  • Prioritizing work correctly: Contextualizing the user’s interaction with the product gives developers the opportunity to decide which functionalities are the most valuable and should be delivered first.
  • Helps uncover missing functionality: mapping the user’s journey step-by-step can help team members come up with new features.
  • Easier release planning: when stories are mapped and priorities are clear, you have a head start in planning so you can estimate user stories and deliver them.
  • Better team alignment: Because the entire team is involved in mapping, they gain a shared understanding of the customer and buy into the direction of upcoming work.
  • Eliminate miscommunication: Exchanging ideas and asking questions helps teams avoid communication issues.
  • Ensure that teams build the right features: the process focuses on users’ needs, so they build the features users need.

Create a user story map in 6 steps

Follow this blueprint to organize and map your customer journey. We’ll go through each step with an example.

1. Define the user’s activities

User story mapping starts by documenting the goal your user wants to achieve. This goal will guide the team and ensure the breakdown of stories stays on track. The goal can be related to the problem your product solves for the user.

Let’s use a banking app as an example. A user wants to send funds to someone who wired them $100 a week before. We’ll call it “Return wire transfer.”

2. Define a user persona

Describe a typical user with a specific problem. You can add as much detail as you like. Some companies create a fictitious person, giving them a name, a job title, etc. Creating personas makes your customer more “real” than a nameless, faceless user.

Depending on the product or use case, you might need to create multiple personas to distinguish between user types.

In our example, we can simply narrow down the customer base. We aren’t interested in corporate clients or business owners. We know that our user has a personal bank account. The problem isn’t limited to an age group or a job title. So, in this case, the personal account user will work fine.

3. Break down the steps

Now that “the what” and “the who” are clear, it’s time to move to the actual user activities. This is when the team outlines the actions a user needs to reach a desired goal.

For our banking app example, the user wants to do the following:

  • Log in
  • Find the sender’s account number
  • Create a new transaction
  • Transfer funds

An example of steps a user might want to take in a banking app.

These four steps will constitute the pillars of your map. Use them to tell the story of the user’s journey, motivation, and how they feel at each step. If you discuss the steps separately, you might miss something without realizing it. But when you examine steps in context, you can easily spot places where a user could get confused or need greater functionality.

4. Map the journey with all the details

This is the nitty-gritty of the story-mapping process. The developers list all user interactions with the product until a step is reached. Remember that the breakdown should be exhaustive. Include existing details as well as those you plan to introduce.

In our example, breaking down the action of logging into your banking app will include moves like entering a username and password and clicking buttons that move users through the login sequence. If the app has a two-factor authentication enabled, include that, too.

A list of interactions a user must complete to log into a banking app.

Repeat the process for the other steps. Place a user story with each detail under the corresponding step. Some steps will require more stories than others. Here’s a visualization of the steps and details of our “Return wire transfer” example.

An example of a user story map

 

Now that you see the whole journey, spotting areas to improve is easier. The user would benefit from a dedicated “Return funds” button in our example. It could open a new transfer with the recipient’s data already included in the transaction details.

An example of a user story map with improvement to the product.

5. Prioritize the work

Now, the team decides which stories are most important for the user. Once you reach a consensus, place the stories in the order you plan to work on them. Arranging user stories in that order will be helpful later.

A prioritized list of activities for a new feature.
Here’s what the order would look like in our example.

 

A user story of this feature could look like this:

“As a personal account mobile user, I want to have the option to create a new transaction with the recipient’s name, address, and account number taken from the transfer I received previously so I can send money to specific users faster at my convenience.”

You can group multiple stories in an epic if you work in Jira. In our example, we can call our epic a “Return Transaction” and attach the relevant user stories.

6. Consider potential problems

Any changes you make to your product can affect the existing elements. Discuss any potential problems to ensure issues are appropriately mitigated. Think about risks, bottlenecks, and dependencies.

Let’s go back to our example. Will adding this button cause any security risks? Or how will the system know which transaction to use as the data source? Is this feature’s delivery dependent on other features?

Make a list of potential problems and keep it handy. (An app like Confluence is an excellent place for that.) Make sure the entire team has access to it.

Where user story mapping ends, planning begins.

Congratulations, you’ve just completed a user story mapping exercise. You know the user’s journey and the features that could improve it. Plus, you’ve prioritized the stories. So now what?

You’ve written some user stories. You’ve created valuable product backlog items. And you have them listed in the order of priority. (I told you it would come in handy.) Now, just add the stories to your backlog.

If you decide that the new stories have priority over other backlog items during the backlog refinement session, you might have found yourself worthy candidates for the next sprint planning.

Of course, planning wouldn’t be complete without story point estimation and deciding who is accountable for each story. So make sure you keep that in mind.

Do the same with enough features: you will have the scope for your next release.

Better Agile work management? Use BigPicture

Need a more comprehensive view of all your Agile initiatives? Add BigPicture to your app stack. Our PPM app takes Agile management to new heights. The Board module visualizes multiple Sprints or Program Increments, giving you a complete overview of the work.

But it’s not just about seeing tasks. The module displays cross-iteration dependencies, making managing all the connections of user stories much easier.

On top of that, you can perform capacity planning and quickly compare the allocated story point value totals for each sprint or product increment. That gives you an insight into the team’s capability to deliver the iteration based on real-life data. And if the allocation exceeds your capacity planning, you’ll see a warning.

A screenshot of BigPicture's Board module.
Get a better view of all your iterations, capacity data, and dependencies in a single space with BigPicture.

 

But our app does more than just Agile work management. If you want to oversee projects, programs, and portfolios, BigPicture will help you do that with more clarity and visibility. The app is compatible with Classic, Agile, or Hybrid initiatives. That makes it a perfect fit for organizations at any stage of the Agile transformation.

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