User story mapping – plot your path to a successful product

By Nick Butler


A woman holds up a globe. User story mapping guides you to your destination - building your product.

If your Agile Project Kick-off is a journey, User Story Mapping is your guide as you move from visualising to building your product. And the sooner you start building, the sooner you can get your product in front of customers for feedback.

Get the Agile Project Kick-off Kit as a handy 39-page PDF. Based on this blog post series, it’s been revised and expanded, giving you the tools you need to get your project off to a successful start.

Buy the Kit

User Story Mapping gives you two types of map. Firstly, the exercise itself gives you a pathway to the point that you can start writing user stories (a user story is a short description of something your customer will do when using your product). Secondly, the end result is a visual chart showing the structure of your stories. These stories and this structure will guide your development work.

What follows is the approach we use for discovery workshops. There are plenty of others, and Jeff Patton has literally written the book on the subject: User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product.

The process we follow at Boost has evolved over time. It works for us because it’s a relatively quick, lightweight way of getting to the point we can launch into the development work.

We start by brainstorming every task that users will want to complete using the product. Then we organise these tasks into the order they’ll complete them in, and group them into wider goals which we then break down into pieces of work we can start developing. We can then move into the Prioritisation exercise, further developing the user story map.

An outline on a whiteboard of the structure you use when doing a user story mapping exercise.
An outline of the structure of a user story map

Running the User Story Mapping

If you’re running the User Story Mapping as part of a Project Kick-off you’ll already have the right people in the room: the Product Owner, stakeholders who understand the customers (and ideally some actual customers), the team who’ll build the product, and the facilitator.

Because User Story Mapping is quite complex, and a new experience for most people, the facilitation is important.

Describe the purpose of User Story Mapping, and outline the process. Because it’s complex, people might not fully grasp what’s involved initially. Don’t worry if that’s the case. It will become clearer as you get into the exercise.

Get people thinking about the product. They should already have a good picture of it in their heads from working on the earlier activities like the Vision, Press Release, Elevator Pitch and the Personas.

Brainstorm all the user tasks

This works best as a silent brainstorm. Working alone, each participant writes down on a post-it note every step the user will take through the product, from their first touch to the point they leave. You need to stick to one step per post-it. Encourage the team to think of these as actions not features. Writing them so they start with a verb is a good technique.

It can help to do this with your top personas in mind, because you should have a good idea of what they want from your product.

Encourage people to be creative and try to cover everything imaginable. You don’t want to go into too much detail about individual steps though. This part of User Story Mapping is about breadth not depth.

You’ll end up with lots of post-its. We’ve had them run full circle around the room. That’s fine, you can’t have too much information at this stage.

Stick each post-it up on the wall in the order the users will do the tasks. This gives your story map a chronological structure.

Make sure the post-its are in a straight horizontal line. You’ll have duplicates, and these should sit beside each other on the line (not above or below). This leaves more space for the next steps, making these steps easier and the resulting story map clearer.

This first line are the user tasks and they form the spine of your story map.

Group the user tasks

As a team, look for logical groupings within your line of user tasks, collecting together all the tasks that contribute to the user achieving a wider goal.

We call these groups “epics” (since they’re big user stories). Jeff Patton calls them “activities”.

As facilitator you can walk along the line of tasks and ask where the team think the splits are between each group of tasks, and what each group should be called.

Write these epic labels on wider post-its and place them above the user tasks that the epic covers.

Make sure the labels you give the epics will be meaningful later. Keep them brief (3-5 words should do). Again, it helps if you start with a verb.

For example, if you were building a website for a movie theatre you might group user tasks into epics like this:

  • Browse movies – epic
    • See a list of all movies – user task
    • See only movies that are playing now – user task
    • Select a movie to view more details – user task
    • etc
  • Select a seat – epic
    • See all available seats – user task
    • Select seats – user task
    • Change your seat selection – user task
    • etc

Break down the epics

This is another silent brainstorm session.

Ask the team to think about everything that needs to be in place in your product to let the user achieve the goal of the epic.

Thinking of the cinema example, you might break down the Select a seat epic above like this:

  • Select a seat – epic
    • See all available seats – user story
    • Choose seats – user story
    • Unselect your current seats to choose new seats – user story
    • Choose new seats – user story
    • etc

Each of these smaller units becomes the name or “stub” of a user story. Again, it’s important these are written meaningfully. We had one User Story Mapping where someone just wrote ‘Reports’. Everyone knew what it meant at the time but later all we could remember was that it was important—we had no idea what kind of reports were needed.

Place user story stubs under each epic

As a team, post them up under the user tasks, and the wider epic, that they apply to.

If there are duplicates, choose the best and stick that up.

You should have a comprehensive map by this stage. To make sure you do, get people to walk down the line to see if there are any gaps. The beauty of User Story Mapping is it becomes easier to see if there are gaps because you’re looking not just at a list of tasks but at a visual chart that breaks down a process by time and size.

Next steps

Now you’re ready to start prioritising the user stories on your map. Once you’ve completed the Prioritisation exercise you can start writing user stories for the high priority tasks that go together to create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

While complex, User Story Mapping is a key part of the Project Kick-off because it crystallises the work for the development team, getting you closer to putting your product in front of the customers.

The Kick-off Kit

This post is part of a series covering the tools and templates you can use for a Project Kick-off.

  1. Introduction to the Agile Project Kick-off
  2. Project kick-off agenda: Running the workshop
  3. Product Vision presentations that inspire
  4. Press Release template and tips
  5. Elevator Pitch template and tips
  6. Pragmatic personas template and tips
  7. User Story Mapping
  8. Prioritise user stories and produce more value sooner
  9. Success Sliders
  10. User stories: a beginner’s guide
  11. The Team Charter: Build a better team together
  12. Kick-off kit in brief: The discovery workshop made simple

Get the Agile Project Kick-off Kit as a handy 39-page PDF. Based on this blog post series, it’s been revised and expanded, giving you the tools you need to get your project off to a successful start.

Buy the Kit

Further reading

The book: User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product by Jeff Patton and Peter Economy

Jeff Patton’s blog post on User Story Mapping: The New User Story Backlog is a Map

Read about our experiments creating user stories with story mapping and ‘buy a feature’ prioritisation

Agile training

In New Zealand and keen to train with the team who put together the Kick-off kit? Learn more about our Agile training:

Agile Professional Foundation certification, Wellington, NZ – two-day ICAgile course

Introduction to Agile methodology, Wellington, NZ – free two-hour workshop

Agile Accelerator team assessment – Agile review and action plan

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