What Is User Story Mapping? How Is Story Map Software Used?

User story mapping tools won’t replace Jira or Trello. But their big-picture view can help teams prioritize better.
Jeff Link
May 5, 2020
Updated: July 11, 2021
Jeff Link
May 5, 2020
Updated: July 11, 2021

A user story map looks a bit like the digital analog of the crime board on The Wire. Except in place of, say, photos of drug dealers, their whereabouts and syndicate connections, you have a flow chart of user actions and their relationship to various responsibility holders and scheduled releases.

It’s a little like a kanban board, but its orientation flows from top to bottom, as well as left to right, to signal both task prioritization and product development progress. The top line, in author and product consultant Jeff Patton’s parlance, is known as the backbone. It is the holy grail, as it were, of the user journey — what everything else is building toward.

“We weren’t really happy with the tooling that was out there.”

It’s also the big-picture vision that, for a long time, Avion co-founder James Sear said was desperately lacking in the work he was doing early in his career as a software engineer. He’d spend the day slogging through a backlog of user stories, requirements and feature releases, without a clear sense of priority or high-level purpose.

He and Tim Ramage co-founded Avion, a digital user story mapping company, to fill this gap.

“We were doing a lot of remote work, working with global enterprise companies like Vodafone Group,” Sear said. “We weren’t really happy with the tooling that was out there and it got to the point where we did the typical software developer thing and said, ‘Let’s just build it ourselves and see what happens.’”

During times of rapid market transformation, like, say, right now, Sear believes user story mapping can help teams pivot quickly without losing sight of their core visions. While the Avion platform is used by several large companies like Mercedes Benz, The Chappelle Group and Transport Canada, most of the company’s clients are small startups trying to stay fleet-footed as they adjust to a new normal. 

To illustrate why a digital user story map can be useful, particularly for product managers and UX directors overseeing distributed teams or workers temporarily waylaid at home, Sear walked us through an imagined version of Airbnb’s user journey on Avion’s platform.

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A large canvas describes the user journey in a three-tiered visual hierarchy. Image: Avion
A large canvas describes the user journey in a three-tiered visual hierarchy. | Image: Avion

A user story map reveals the big picture

One of the most important things a user story map can do, according to Sear, is help product teams visualize a release from the user’s perspective. “It forces every feature idea to be contextualized ... where is this going to sit in the user’s journey, how valuable is it to a user and how are we going to deliver it?” he said.

“For Airbnb guests looking for a place to stay, user steps might include ‘Search for a place to stay,’ ‘Browse listings’ or ‘View a listing.’”

At the top of Avion’s Airbnb user story map is a horizontal spine of “user journeys” prioritized from left to right and assigned to two main personas: guests and hosts. User journeys, if the term sounds somewhat fanciful, are the main things users can do on a site: in this case, “Find a place to stay,” “Book a place to stay,” “List my own accommodation” and “Learn about Airbnb.”

Beneath the user stories are “user steps.” For Airbnb guests looking for a place to stay, these might include “Search for a place to stay,” “Browse listings” or “View a listing.” They are more granular in detail than user journeys, but still largely organizational and strategic, rather than action items. Further down are the user stories: specific product features that can be assigned to design, engineering and development teams and be tracked for progress and completion.

In other words: This three-tiered vertical organization flows from big ideas to the nitty gritty.

How to Slice a User Story Map

“The name of the game really is try and get as little in [the slice] as you possibly can to deliver this particular thing — the most bare bones MVP for allowing someone to actually rent a place to stay.”

 

A view of a hypothetical Airbnb slice defining the minimum viable product.
A view of a hypothetical Airbnb slice defining the minimum viable product. | Image: Avion

Slices define the minimum viable product

Where this gets interesting, Sear said, is when you draw a horizontal band across the map — what he refers to as “slicing.” This allows a product manager or owner to define the most basic package of user stories needed to be designed, coded and shipped for a release: the minimum viable product (MVP). As market demands or team priorities shift, cards further down the map, in the unplanned section, can be pulled into the “slice” as deliverables, while other planned stories can be bumped or discarded.

Sharing his screen on a Zoom call, he showed me Airbnb’s hypothetical “Rental MVP”: a to-do list of user stories needed to launch the platform. Stories for guest personas, such as “Add message for host,” “Pricing breakdown” and “Search by number of guests,” appeared in the slice alongside stories for host personas, like “Define my property type and subtype” and “Declare my amenities.”

The reliance of these stories on one another, and the sequence in which they’re developed and released, is key. A would-be guest, for instance, can’t search for a place to stay until it’s been listed.

“The name of the game really is try and get as little in [the slice] as you possibly can to deliver this particular thing — the most bare bones MVP for allowing someone to actually rent a place to stay,” Sear said.

Defining the MVP also allows for troubleshooting by helping “identify any gaps or places where developers start to look at this, and go: ‘Ah, hold on a sec. That’s not going to be possible. You know, we can’t add a message for a host because we haven’t got anything in the system to allow the user to input a message.’ So then you start to come up with these conversations and tackle these things as opposed to getting halfway through a sprint and realizing you haven’t covered it.”

And when market forecasts or customer needs change, slicing, or more accurately re-slicing, allows product managers to shift the minimum viable product on the fly. “Lets just say you defined the MVP and were planning a sprint and then something crops up — like the coronavirus,” Sear said. “In a drag-and-drop environment, stories can be easily moved around without compromising an entire release.”

 

The evolution of user story mapping 

The idea of user story mapping is not new. It owes its credit to Patton, a lean product evangelist who coined the term in his book User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product. At first it was largely an in-house exercise. “When Jeff came up with this idea, it was very much — do it on a wall with Post-Its. It could be almost anything: a scribbled piece of paper or full-on documentation about a persona,” Sear said.

That scenario has evolved considerably over the last several years. Avion’s platform, along with those of competitors like CardBoard and Miro, have taken mapping to the digital realm. An open-source version recently surfaced on GitHub, and in the last several months, Twitter has been abuzz with templates, explainers, workshops and on the topic.

“With more people working remotely as part of distributed teams, digital user story maps are becoming increasingly relevant.”

With more people working remotely as part of distributed teams — a 2019 report by Buffer found 91 percent of business owners support remote work and 31 percent of businesses were fully remote even before the coronavirus outbreak — digital user story maps are becoming increasingly relevant.

“You need a digital way of doing it, in short,” Sear said. “Really, you want to be able to do both. You want to have a session in person where everyone’s kind of feeding off each other and they’re all standing up and the blood is flowing and they can kind of communicate things, as they’d want to, in person. But ultimately, you want the snapshot of that day in a digital tool that you can actually iterate on and move on from there.”

 

User story cards can be linked to define dependencies between them.
User story cards can be linked to define dependencies. | Image: Avion

A digital user story map is not a whiteboard, nor a product roadmap

While a user story map is similar to a whiteboarding tool, its operations are hierarchical and intelligently linked, differentiating it, Sear said, from more free-form canvasses like Figma. Custom links between cards can be created to define dependencies across multiple stories and releases. “If you try and move something, for example, everything moves with it,” he said.

It is also different from a product roadmap, typically displayed as a Gantt chart of colored bars depicting tasks scheduled over time. Sear describes Avion’s tool as roadmapping at the next level down. “It’s not thinking about huge initiatives at the business level, which, I think, is what people think when you say roadmap,” Sear said. “Story mapping forces you into thinking more about prioritization.”

 

User story cards can be linked to personas and marked for status completion.
User story cards can be linked to personas and marked for status completion. | Image: Avion

It’s mostly about communication

The best user story maps, according to Sear, allow for two-way sync with other workflow platforms, such as Jira, Trello and Azure DevOps. After integration, you can coordinate the release schedule and shipping status across platforms. “Because what we generally recommend,” he explained, is to “use a user story mapping tool as part of your workflow, not to replace anything in your workflow.”

In Avion, a user story card can be pushed to Jira to produce a separate ticket, essentially creating a copy of the information stored in the card. Stats and metadata migrate as well. “We’re not saying, you should give up Jira and you should use story mapping,” Sear said. “Instead, we’re saying you should use story mapping to drive your backlog in Jira because you’ll make better decisions.”

“Use a user story mapping tool as part of your workflow, not to replace anything in your workflow.”

What’s the upshot of all this? While a user story map is unlikely to help product managers think more creatively or give engineers tools to solve hairy coding hang ups, it could help collaborating teams organize their releases more strategically. A presentation tool with sharable links could be useful in convincing business leaders of the value of new releases, and its flexibility could lead to faster project turnaround.

Most of all, for the growing number of product managers overseeing distributed teams, the map’s large-canvas visual display could help keep teams aware of their end goals and plugged in to the same priorities.

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