Story mapping is a simple holistic approach to using stories in agile development without losing sight of the big picture. Story mapping was first introduced by Jeff Patton in 2005 and is based on the concept of user stories, or stories that communicate product requirements from the perspective of user value.
Understanding story mapping
Story mapping is an engaging and collaborative activity where everyone works toward building a product backlog on a wall.
This maintains a focus on users and what they are doing with a product, helping teams avoid becoming distracted by pointless feature arguments. Instead, stories are written that capture both user and business value.
By visually mapping out these user stories, teams are also able to:
- Create an outline of product-user interactions.
- Determine which steps will deliver the most benefit to the user, and
- Prioritize what should be built next.
Building a story map
Story mapping is a top-down approach that breaks the product vision into actionable steps that can be prioritized.
To better understand this concept, think of the basic structure of a story map as being similar to a tree.
The production vision is represented by the trunk, while the large branches are goals. Smaller branches denote activities and leaves denote user stories.
Then, follow these steps.
Step 1 – Frame the journey
Before mapping can commence, the exercise must be framed around a common goal.
In other words, what does the product do? What problem is it trying to solve? Is there a specific user or target audience? What benefits will they (or the business) receive as a result of the product being built?
Step 2 – Build the story backbone
This describes the entire user story from start to finish. For someone booking a vacation rental, the first task may be signing up for account with the stay company.
At the end of their user story, they may write a review for the homeowner or hotel.
To help define the story backbone, relevant experts should be asked to walk through the story step-by-step.
Each member of the team should also contribute to encourage conversation around the sequence and flow of each step.
Step 3 – Identify and group activities
Activities are defined as common themes that group steps in a user story.
For the individual booking a vacation, signing up for an account may involve entering personal information and opening the confirmation email.
Step 4 – Break large tasks into subtasks
It’s important to understand that most steps are probably too big to be completed in one sprint.
Therefore, they should be broken down into smaller tasks and user stories.
Cards denoting steps in the user story should be split, rewritten, and reorganised so that subtasks do not get confused or muddled.
Step 5 – Fill in the blanks
Here, the project team must test for any missing tasks by having a different user persona walk through the entire user story.
Teams must be observant, noting where user behaviour flow differs from what is displayed on the story map.
In filling in the blanks, teams should gather as broad a range of perspectives as possible.
A UX designer will be able to offer different insights compared to a developer, for example.
Step 6 – Prioritize tasks and subtasks
This very important step involves the prioritization of tasks by moving them up or down the backbone. High-priority tasks should be kept at the top of the backbone.
Prioritization will depend on the team and their particular product. However, many businesses choose to split the map into vertical sections entitled “could”, “should”, and “must”.
Step 7 – Slice groups of tasks into iterations
By this point, the team should have a backbone up top with a full suite of user stories grouped by activity and prioritized tasks underneath.
Iterations, or a full “slice” of what a product could do, can be seen by moving through the map from left to right.
Each slice then represents a minimum viable product (MVP) that progressively adds value as development progresses.
For each slice, the team must conclude by determining what they hope to accomplish.
That is, does the release contribute to broader company goals? To answer these questions, success metrics should be defined to quantify successful user behaviour.
Story mapping examples
Imagine an event business that wants to build a website where visitors can look for fun or interesting events to attend with others.
The site will also have a members area where hosts can list and promote their events and a team of moderators will ensure events adhere to rules and regulations.
The user activities with many different steps in this example include:
- Host, and
Now it is time to break down each user activity into smaller stories, otherwise known as user tasks.
The team places the user tasks under the correct activity and in an order that makes sense to the user.
- Participate – choose event → read event details → sign-up for event.
- Host – list a new event → promote event → organize event participants.
- Moderate – review events for compliance.
With the backbone of the story map defined, subtasks are identified and placed in vertical columns under each user task. In other words:
- Choose event – browse event listing page → search events by location → search events by activity type → search events by date.
- Read event details – view general event overview → view detailed participant information.
- Sign up for event – join participants → select and pay for membership → withdraw from event.
- List a new event – enter details of event → receive approval from company → receive rejection from company.
- Promote event – share on Facebook → share on Instagram.
- Organize event participants – send update → confirm time, date and location.
- Review events for compliance – peruse new listings → approve new event → reject new event.
Fill in the blanks
At this point, it is important to walk the map from beginning to end with various user personas to identify any missing subtasks.
As we noted earlier, teams must be on the lookout for instances where the user story differs from user behavior.
In this case, it turns out that the different personas identified quite a few subtasks that were missed by the team.
A few examples include:
- Choose event – browse events by those added since last user visit.
- Sign up for event – join event wait list.
- Promote event – invite other members.
- Organize event participants – mark each participant as paid.
- Review event for compliance – make alterations to event for compliance.
- List a new event – receive event improvement suggestions.
Prioritizing tasks and subtasks
Once diverse user personas have been consulted, it’s time to prioritize tasks and subtasks within each activity.
There’s no use prioritizing the activities themselves since each likely contributes to the operation of the event website.
Say for instance that under the “List a new event activity”, it was determined that the “recent event improvement suggestions” subtask should be given priority over the “rejection from company” subtask.
This, the team agreed, would give event hosts the chance to improve their listing before it was denied outright.
The team should then conclude the progress by selecting tasks from each activity that collectively form an MVP.
- Story mapping is a holistic agile methodology where user stories are considered with respect to how they contribute to the overall user experience.
- Story mapping provides a graphical representation of product-user interactions. This helps project teams prioritize iterations according to the value they provide to the user and business.
- Story mapping is a seven step, top-down approach which uses the analogy of a tree to break the vision of a product in smaller, actionable steps.
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