Backlogs are so full of potential, right? Ideas and possibilities for your product to become bigger and better than ever before.
But when you’ve got more than a few items on your list, backlogs are also overwhelming.
Without some kind of clear structure or prioritization, your team won’t know what to work on first.
They might work on whatever they feel like, whatever’s easiest, or most interesting, or not do anything at all.
You need a way to figure out what you should work on first. Not only that, but you need to make sure that what you’re doing delivers value to customers, makes sense for each release, fits into the bigger picture of your organization’s goals.
That’s where user story mapping comes in.
What is user story mapping?
User story mapping is a useful way to organize and prioritize your user stories so that you can schedule your work and design your releases.
It helps you visualize the customer’s journey through your product from start to finish, including all the tasks they’d normally complete along the way.
What’s a user story mapping session?
User story mapping is usually done in sessions over 1-2 days where you bring key people together in the same room.
During these sessions, your product manager (and sometimes other stakeholders) shares their customer insights with the team, who also share their ideas for the product.
Together, you brainstorm user stories, unpack the steps in your customer journey, list out any current issues, and put these onto a user story map. Your user story mapping session gets everyone on the same page about what needs to happen.
What’s a user story map?
A user story map is the artefact or visual board you produce as a result of a user story mapping session.
Your teams will refer to this map throughout each sprint to make sure they’re on schedule, coordinate dependencies, and keep sight of the big picture.
What’s a user story?
In order to understand what a user story map is, it’s important to take a step back and define one of the key components: the user story.
A user story is a goal or outcome that the user or customer wants to achieve. Usually, you’ll write user stories like this:
“As a [persona type], I want to [action] so that [benefit].”
A user story should be the smallest unit of work that can deliver value back to the customer.
You might also consider a user story to be a task that’s written from the user or customer’s perspective. User stories are usually added to your backlog, and from there, you can arrange and prioritize them, and plot them on a user story map so that they’re scheduled to a release or sprint.
Read more about user stories in our blog: How to write good user stories in agile software development.
What does a user story map look like?
User story mapping is traditionally done on a physical story mapping board:
But increasingly, companies are doing their story mapping digitally. If you use Easy Agile User Story Maps, yours might like more like this:
Whether you do your user story mapping physically or digitally, you’ll see both approaches have a few things in common:
- A backbone (the row along the top of the sticky notes), often consisting of epics
- Cards or sticky notes with user stories under each item in the backbone
- These stories are sequenced vertically from most important (to the customer) at the top, to least important at the bottom
- Horizontal cut lines or swimlanes define where your releases or sprints start and stop
(Psst: read more in our blog, Anatomy of an agile user story map.)
What’s involved in a user story mapping session?
A user story mapping session involves discussing and planning all the parts that make up your story map:
- Your team will get together and decide on the backbone - the big steps that make up your user journey.
- Next they’ll brainstorm user stories - all the little steps that make up the user journey and any issues (bugs or ideas) and add them to the backlog.
- They’ll organize these stories under the backbone item they’re associated with.
- Next they’ll discuss and estimate the work involved in each user story, assigning story points.
- After that, your team can add cut lines to mark out what they’ll deliver and when - either by sprint or release. At this point, you might shuffle some stories around if it makes sense for the user to get them in the same release.
- If everyone’s happy with the plan, the story map is done (for now) and it’s time for your team to start the first sprint.
That seems like an awful lot of effort. So, what’s the point?
What’s the point of user story mapping?
User story mapping benefits both your customers and your team.
Customers get more value delivered, sooner
helps you understand what your customers want. Because the focus is on the customer journey and what tasks they’d need to complete in order to use your product, it helps you prioritize work that’ll help fill in the gaps for customers and deliver value to them.
Teams prioritize and collaborate better
A three-dimensional view helps with prioritization because your team can see what user stories should be grouped within a release to deliver a new experience for users. For example, adding the ability to customize your profile isn’t all that meaningful unless you have a community aspect where users can view other profiles and/or interact with one another. User story mapping helps you fit all the pieces together - and make sure you can realistically deliver them within the sprint or release.
Plus, you can more effectively plan your work and collaborate as a team with your user story map. That’s because you can see the big picture and full customer journey before you start the work.
For more insights, check out our blog on why user story mapping.
What’s the alternative to user story mapping?
If you haven’t done user story mapping until now, you’ve likely been using another method to understand customer requirements and plan/prioritise your work.
The most common approach is known as the “flat backlog”. Essentially, this is a task list that’s ordered from highest to lowest priority, and might be broken up by cut lines for sprints or version releases. The flat backlog is simple (it’s basically a to-do list) but if you have a complex product, lots of teams working on it, dependencies, and a massive, ever-changing backlog… you’re going to need something more robust so that you don’t lose sight of your goals, customer-focus, and priorities.
Speaking of alternatives, check out this little story from one of our customers…
What user story mapping can do for teams
"Our teams were looking for an alternative view to the standard Jira backlog/board view, which doesn't lend itself to organizing and grooming massive backlogs with lots of epics.
The Easy Agile User Story Maps app allows our teams to better organize their work. The user interface is logical, and product owners (who are usually non-technical folk) like the layout of cards in columns under their respective epics.
This vertical view seems to foster better communication doing planning meetings and does a great job of providing a visualization of what comes next."
- Christopher Heritage, The Atlassian Team @NextEra Energy
So, as you can see from this example, a lot of teams start with flat backlogs or board views, but find that they outgrow this as their backlog gets bigger.
How user story mapping can upgrade your flat backlog
What makes user story mapping different from the flat backlog is that it has a whole other element. It’s not flat, but more three-dimensional.
You’ve got the list of activities/tasks, but they’re first sorted by how they impact the customer journey. Only then are they prioritized and broken up by when they’re being released.
User story mapping is a little more complex to set up than the flat backlog, but it makes the work more meaningful, customer-focused, and impactful. With a user story map, you can see the big picture and collaborate on it.
We talk more about this in our blog, The difference between a flat product backlog and a user story map.
Try user story mapping inside Jira
Want to know the best way to understand what user story mapping is?
You can’t learn how to ride a bike by reading about it. And you can’t *really* learn what user story mapping is without doing it and experiencing the benefits firsthand.
So, give it a try!
If your team uses Jira for project management and workflows, you can get an add-on that helps you turn that flat backlog into a three dimensional user story map.
Easy Agile User Story Maps for Jira creates the X-axis so you can add your customer journey backbone and organize your stories to fit into this journey. That way, your team gets the big-picture view of what they’re working on, and they can prioritize tasks to deliver maximum value to your customers, sooner.
Best of all, you can do all your user story mapping inside of Jira so that it’s digital, collaborative, and constantly available to your team - even if they’re working remote/distributed. And since it fits in with your existing backlog, you can hit the ground running with pre-filled user stories. In other words, you can expect to save a whole bunch of time.
Hopefully, you’ll find it just as useful as our customers…
We’ve found that Easy Agile User Story Maps brings the team together in one room. As a result, we find ourselves mapping more as a group, which creates a common understanding. Since using the add-on, we’ve been able to speed up planning and more efficiently conduct large story mapping exercises.
- Mike Doolittle, Product Director @Priceline
Since using Easy Agile User Story Maps, we’ve improved our communication and team alignment, which has helped give us faster results.
- Casey Flynn, Distribution Forecast Analyst @adidas
Easy Agile User Story Maps has helped us visualize our workload and goals, as well as speed up our meetings. We love the simplicity!
- Rafal Zydek, Atlassian Jira and Confluence Expert Administrator @ING Tech Poland
With Easy Agile User Story Maps, we find it much easier to use and navigate Jira. Our favorite features include the ability to drag and drop stories across the Epics, being able to view the work using FixVersion and Sprint Swim Lanes, and Excel export. We’ve been using Story Maps functionality for quite sometime now and I recommend it to other project teams, as well.
- Sathish K Mohanraj, Lean-Agile Coach @Equifax
Learn more about user story mapping
Want to learn more about user story mapping? Check out our User story mapping ultimate guide - it has everything (and we mean everything) you could possibly want to know.
We’re always happy to answer your questions. Just send us a tweet @EasyAgile or contact us if you’re not sure about what user story mapping is, how to do it, or how it could help your team.