Story Mapping: Definition, Overview, Benefits, and How to Create a Story Map

"A user story is a promise for a conversation."

US-based computer scientist Alistair Cockburn, who is one of the innovators of today's agile software development, coined the above expression during his 1998 visit to Chrysler Corporation for the Chrysler Comprehensive Compensation System (Chrysler C3) project.

In 1999, American software engineer Kent Beck published a book called "Extreme Programming Explained" — in which he introduced the concept of XP (Extreme Programming) and the application of user stories to planning strategies.

One of the founders of XP (Extreme Programming), Ron Jeffries, in 2001 presented a formula for creating story maps known as the " Three Cs," which incorporated The Card (a physical, tangible token for holding ideas), The Conversation (verbal interaction between all stakeholders accompanied by documentation), and The Confirmation (enforcement of objectives from the conversation).

A few years later, in 2004, Mike Cohn, a key contributor to Scrum agile software development methodology, consolidated the principles of story mapping in his book — “User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development”. Cohn's story mapping principles are regarded as a standard reference for agile user stories to this day.

Following a 2005 article and a 2008 blog post, Jeff Patton, who helps organizations achieve market success with customer-centric products, published a comprehensive story mapping model in 2014 that aims to systematically structure better user stories for increased visibility.

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That, in short, is the history and evolution of story mapping, conceptualized and popularized by inventive geniuses such as Alistair Cockburn, Kent Beck, Ron Jeffries, Mike Cohn, and Jeff Patton. 

Now, let’s dive deeper into what is story mapping, story mapping definition, the benefits of story mapping, and techniques of creating stunning user stories. 

What Is Story Mapping?

Story mapping, also referred to as user story mapping, helps teams gain valuable insights into products and their features, usually software, from a customer's or end-user's point of view. The methodologies used in story mapping explicitly define user stories or the activities that end-users can perform in the context of their journeys. 

Simply put, user story mapping is a more customer-focused perspective of product backlogs. A powerful prioritization and planning technique, it enables stakeholders to efficiently prioritize product features through a bird's-eye view of user journeys and upcoming product releases.

Definition of Story Mapping

A facilitated and curated conversation, story mapping provides better visualization of the customer's journey with a product. It encapsulates all tasks that a user would normally complete from the beginning to the end of their journey.

User story mapping offers an excellent opportunity for product managers to graphically showcase their brainstorming sessions, which helps the delivery team to focus on incorporating product features that add maximum value to customers.

What Are the Benefits of Story Mapping?

The core benefit of story mapping is that it helps teams plan, prioritize, and group their tasks into iterations, which allows stakeholders to address the most critical tasks first. This ensures faster delivery, quicker feedback, and deeper insights into product features that serve customers best. Listed below are the key advantages of user story mapping.

  • Facilitates knowledge sharing between development and design teams
  • Creates superior visualization of user journeys
  • Provides a bird's-eye perspective of product features and releases
  • Encourages shorter and smaller release cycles
  • Inspires lean thinking 
  • Enables product discovery 
  • Supports development work prioritization 
  • Ensures more informed and productive interactions with stakeholders
  • Sharply focused on maximizing value for users
  • Allows for iterations
  • Promotes agile development
  • Empowers team members with a greater understanding of product features

How to Create a User Story Map?

Now that you know what is story mapping, and its benefits, let's take a closer look at the process of creating a user story map. To enable optimized story mapping, follow the steps below.

Story Mapping Starts With a Story: Key stakeholders and SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) need to craft stories about all the tasks and activities that users may end up performing from the start to the end. These customer actions are primarily the problems the team would want to resolve. While the relevant stakeholders and SMEs define the customer's journey, the development team has to document all the tasks on a digital or physical notepad, and post/place them on an IRL or virtual wall. Ideally, user activities should be organized from the left to the right, but not everything needs to be completely linear.

Collaborative Writing: This approach is particularly effective when multiple Subject Matter Experts are involved in a project. Each SME independently documents end-user activities and then combines the information to create a single user story map, removing duplicates, if any.

Grouping: As soon as the initial user story map comes into being, the stakeholders need to identify the activity patterns and define those as tasks that end-users can undertake. For instance, if a user is expected to perform action A, or B, or C, then those activities can be arranged in columns as a group of options. On the other hand, if a customer, for example, is to perform action X, then Y, and then Z as separate actions, then those activities can be organized horizontally.

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Gap Testing: Next, the team should look out for missing tasks in the story map. For this, a separate team can be selected to predict end-user activities from a fresh viewpoint, for instance, from the perspective of a different user persona. While the second team navigates through new scenarios, the first team needs to follow the story map to track tasks already covered in the story mapping. If it turns out that critical activities are missing, stakeholders should immediately incorporate those to create a flawless story map. 

Prioritization: Once the gap analysis is complete and all perspectives are integrated into the story map, the team needs to move the tasks and activities up and down the columns and rows, according to their importance, to make room for prioritization. The process of prioritizing can be simplified by assigning different priority levels to different tasks and activities, for example, the user "Could", the user "Should", or the user "Must".

Defining Iterations: One can view an iteration as a single cycle of software development. Iterations, in Agile development practices, involve repeating a process for generating improvised and optimized outcomes. The lessons from previous cycles are incorporated into subsequent cycles, until a totally functional product is ready for release. Now that there’s a watertight, prioritized story map, the team can zero in on iterations to refine the product release scope.

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Gain Expertise in Story Mapping to Further Your Career Prospects

The top priority of Agile projects is to satisfy end-users through continuous and early delivery of useful software. Story mapping, in accordance with Agile principles, is a powerful tool for ensuring the release of fully-operational products. If you wish to learn more about the critical aspects of user story maps, consider pursuing the Certified ScrumMaster® Training Course offered by the world’s #1 online bootcamp and certification course provider, Simplilearn. 

Simplilearn’s two-day Certified ScrumMaster® course covers story mapping in-depth while providing a comprehensive understanding of Scrum implementation and methodologies. It offers 16 SEUs, 20 PDUs, complimentary access to 15 courses, a 2-year membership in the Scrum Alliance, and free exam retake. Enroll today for the online virtual class.

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Simplilearn is one of the world’s leading providers of online training for Digital Marketing, Cloud Computing, Project Management, Data Science, IT, Software Development, and many other emerging technologies.

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