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June 10, 2022

Story Mapping

See both, detailed user stories and the bigger picture, in a user centered way.

This article provides you with a first overview of the technique.

You will learn how to…

  • use a User (Customer) Journey Map as backbone for all stories on the horizontal axis;
  • map User Stories to the User Journey on the vertical axis to make priorities and releases visible
7 min read (1640 words)

user storymapping

Story mapping is fostering communication

Story Mapping, first conceptualized by Jeff Patton in 2007, is not an isolated task but rather team work. It fosters communication, helps to create a common understanding across team members and can be a powerful tool in stakeholder alignments. When people talk about concepts, they might use the same words but have totally different images in mind.

With Story Mapping the User Journey is made transparent and therefore, abstract ideas become tangible. In a nutshell the whole process is targeted to first understand why someone needs to do something and what milestones are needed to achieve the overall objective. Not only does this process help to understand a whole flow but also makes potential gaps visible.

Having the process mapped out, it is easy to zoom in and out whenever needed. It also creates an overview of the must-haves, nice-to-haves and should-haves.

“Story mapping keeps us focused on users and their experience, and the result is a better conversation, and ultimately a better product.”– Patton 2014:XXI

What is User Journey Mapping?

A User or Customer Journey Map shows the activities needed to achieve a certain goal or to get her job done in a horizontal flow. Each activity is a goal or milestone in itself. You can think of a User Journey Map also as string of smaller goals or milestones that can be achieved in the quest to reach an overarching objective.

User Journey Mapping is often one of the first activities to build products or services in a customer centered way and serves as foundation together with other techniques such as Service Blueprints, Jobs-to-be-Done (Jim Kalbach), Personas and can easily be extended with past and future states.

“(…) businesses exist to create value — value as perceived by customers in satisfying needs (innovation) and value for the company by staying profitable (go-to-market).”– Kalbach 2020:XVII

How to create a User Journey Map?

Sometimes it feels hard to break an activity down into distinct user goals (milestones) and it usually takes a few revisions until a coherent journey is created. Luckily this process can be simplified by thinking about the shifting mental modes and separate goals needed to achieve the overarching target. I will use the following simplified example to illustrate the process:

“I want to book an accommodation for my relaxing vacation.”

  • When I want to book my accommodation,
  • then I need to find a hotel,
  • and I have to choose one hotel based on their offers, location, etc.
  • and finally I make a room reservation.
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Backbone: there are many separate user goals (milestones) towards the final target.

Each goal requires a different mindset: when I am looking for hotels, I am in a different thinking mode than when I am comparing and choosing a hotel or when I am making a reservation. Creating a User Journey Map based on mindset shifts makes it easier to create empathy for the user and to split a journey into separate goals.

The overall thought process of doing something is also referred to as Backbone or Narrative Flow. In other words, the Backbone is a set of user goals that form a complete storyline together. Another way is to imagine an end-to-end process and to discover and map each single step that is a milestone in itself for the user.

Where does a User Journey Map start and end?

When you map your users journey don't limit yourself to the solution you offer. On the contrary, think about the whole end-to-end flow from the user perspective.

The goal of our users is to get their job (or task) done. Interacting with your company is usually not the primary target of your customers. Instead, the customer wants to achieve an overarching goal and your product or service is just a means to an end.

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How does your service fit in the real job the user wants to achieve?

“The aim of the job performer is not to interact with your company but to get something done. Your service is a means to an end, and you must first understand that end.”– Kalbach 2020:21

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Do you even target the right business opportunity?

1. From User Goals to User Steps

User goals (aka milestones or activities) reflect the different mental modes of the user.

User steps, events or tasks are synonymously used to reflect the various thoughts of the user within a given user goal. The idea is to group all user steps which lead to a common goal. In the beginning of the process, you will mix user steps and user goals as you have to find out what belongs together. You are not doing anything wrong — it is part of the process to make the overall narrative flow visible and this requires some iterations.

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Mental modes and thoughts.

2. Discovering gaps

Be aware that different users might have different stories. Therefore, it is good practise to re-evaluate the User Journey Map with the perspective from different primary target groups.

Another way to re-evaluate the map is to enrich it with additional details such as user pains, user gains, habits, open questions, etc. You can also start exploring alternative story lines in order to spot gaps in the overall narrative and to provide you with additional perspectives to re-check your assumptions. It is important to see what are the repeating patterns when you change the context.

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Critical path discovery

In project management the critical path is defined as the shortest time possible to fully complete a project. We can project this definition onto our User Journey: what are the critical user steps that must be delivered that we generate the expected minimum value for the user. While the happy path/flow is usually the scenario where all potential errors are excluded, the critical path is the flow where all critical steps are met. You can also think about the minimum that is needed to deliver a certain user goal or to satisfy the relevant user needs associated with a user goal.

3. User Stories: adding details

The User Journey Map is the head that presents the narrative flow of user goals and steps the user needs to conduct to achieve those goals. Now it is time to add the next layer – the body.

Therefore, a story map consists of two parts:

  1. Head: understand and map the User Journeywho? / why?
  2. Body: define the specific stories along this journey — what?

At this stage you ask questions like

  • What are the specific tasks the user needs to do here?
  • What are alternative tasks the user might do?
  • What if things go wrong?

We are shifting our focus from Why is it needed? towards shaping the solution assumption by asking How will it be done? and What are the concrete tasks?

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The user stories are the body of the story map.

4. Prioritization

Now it is time to prioritize the user stories based on outcomes. Be aware that you don't confuse outcomes with features. Usually, a feature is a self-contained solution you offer. Thinking in features leads teams to focus on their product instead of real user needs. To keep us connected to the users we ask how our stories will help our users to achieve their goals — how the user stories contribute to the outcome we want to achieve for the user. The critical path provides you with an understanding of the essential user steps that must be fulfilled. Now you ask what detailed tasks are necessary to meet these steps.

There are many ways how to cluster prioritization. One approach is to differentiate between must-haves, should-haves and nice-to-haves. You get more granularity when you use the MoSCoW method and you need to find a clustering system that is easily understandable in your team.

Ideally the first cluster corresponds with the minimum viable product (MVP). This is the smallest product we can build in order to test if our solution assumptions will create the desired outcome for our users (Cf. Eric Ries: Build-Measure-Learn-Loop). Mapping the stories in this way will also give you a first idea how to test each user step. All you need to do is to look at the stories in the MVP cluster and define the KPI that will give you an insight how this step contributes to the overall User Journey.

“There's always more to build than you have people, time, or money for. Always.”– Patton 2014:21

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Prioritize for delivering value for users instead of building features

5. Make the release structure visible in the story map

As a last step you can use the story map to show the release structure:

  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
  • Public Beta
  • Release V1
  • (…)
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Release structure

Summary

  • In essence a User Story is a story. It is a tool to foster communication and to create a shared understanding. Of course, User Stories also contain requirements and acceptance criteria but the essential part is the outcome they create for the user. Hence, it is better to measure outcome (value) over output (velocity).
  • With Story Mapping all stories are shown in their interrelation. Stories are grouped based on the value they create. A bunch of user stories compose together User Goals or milestones for the user on their way to get their job done (or to satisfy the user's need).
  • The process of creating this map is where Story Mapping shines: it is a collaboration technique to build up a common understanding of a whole product across all roles at an early stage.
  • Understanding the flow of the user requires to step into the shoes of the user. Following Desing Thinking principles the process starts with understanding the users, meaning talking and learning from users what they actually need to do and to start building a User Journey from there.

References:

  • Kalbach, Jim (2020): The Jobs-to-be-Done Playbook. Align your markets, organizations, and strategy around customer needs. New York: Two Waves Books
  • Patton, Jeff (2014): User Story Mapping. Discover the whole story, build the right product. Sebastopol: O'Reilly Media