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How User Story Mapping Helps You Create The Digital Product Users Need

How user story mapping helps you create the digital product users need

The age of the customer isn’t a ploy to get retail workers to smile more. It’s a new way of thinking that business leaders and digital product owners need to embrace.

This term, originally coined by Forrester, was a direct response to the shifts this firm saw in the market. It went on to say, “In this era, digitally-savvy customers would change the rules of business, creating extraordinary opportunity for companies that could adapt, and creating existential threat to those that could not.”

To produce an impactful customer experience, you need to start by understanding how the customer will interact with your product. One of the most effective ways to do this is user story mapping.

How it works: User story mapping

Digital product team collaborates in front of user story map

User story mapping is a visual exercise that helps product managers and their development teams define the work that will create the most delightful user experience. It is used to improve teams’ understanding of their customers and to prioritize work. – Aha!

User story mapping is best when done in collaboration. This means getting your core product team into the same room. This team might include designers, developers, product managers, data scientists, and other stakeholders. Once they’re assembled, you can start to work through the story map process.

Define core activities for your digital product

The goal of story mapping is to discover requirements from the user’s point of view by walking through user stories. The first element of a story map are the core activities for a product. These activities are table stakes, things that the product must be able to do to serve the user.

To identify these core activities, have a subject matter expert from your team start talking about the user. What problem are they trying to solve or need are they trying to fill? What activities will they need to perform to achieve that?

As they tell the story of the user, the rest of the team should be writing out activities and requirements on post-it notes and adding them to the board. For a retail website the core activities may include:

  • Navigate to the site
  • Search for item
  • View product detail
  • Add to cart
  • Checkout
  • Receipt
  • Receive product

Start adding in story and context

Next, define the possible features or tasks within each core activity. Start adding these to sticky notes and organize them under the corresponding core activity. For example, under the “search” activity you may put notes that say “search by genre,” “sort by popularity,” and “search by keyword.” This context will allow your team to understand the full scope of each core activity.


Next you need to define the features that will actually make it into the next release or product launch. This will help your sales, marketing, and executive teams to align their activities around the actual product.

Start by drawing a literal horizontal line drawn across your story map. Then, place the post-it notes that are likely to make it into your next release above the line. Post-its left below the line will be for later versions.

Again, it’s essential for everyone to be in one room, walking through this experience. Place the post-its one at a time, saying them out loud. It can’t be over stressed how important this is for shared understanding — make sure everyone is talking, hearing and thinking the same thing. Everyone must have the same vision for the product.

User story mapping for continuous improvements

Woman leads user story mapping session

The panoramic view

The user story map allows you to see the total end-user experience at a glance. You can prioritize the fidelity of the features that you want to add to that experience, across your releases.

The result is shipping better product faster without getting bogged down and losing the forest for the trees. For example, you could get lost in making the best catalog page with an amazing product image carousel, and gloss over key details of the checkout process only to find out the launch is delayed as the check out details were more important than the hot new image carousel.

User story maps keep the high-level customer goal in mind, so you don’t get lost in the nitty gritty of iterations.

Communal understanding

In a recent story mapping session with one of our clients we had multiple teams in the room. What emerged immediately after we started working through the story maps was that no two groups had the same understanding of the customer experience.

It was exciting to see how the teams used the story map to challenge each other on the clarity of their understanding of the solution and their own perceptions of the experience. Eventually what mattered most to everyone rose to the surface and it became  easier to agree on what our first release would be.

Prioritized backlogs

No matter how long your product has been around, it will have a backlog of things to add, update, or remove.

When you can see all of your user stories at a glance, you can see how one story interacts with the rest. This prevents you from adding duplicate tasks to your backlog, but more importantly it will help you prioritize updates based on the user’s core activities.

User story maps help you focus on value

No matter what kind of product you’re making, you need to stay focused on delivering value to users, it’s easy to get bogged down in the technical constraints or that one cherished design feature and lose control of your product roadmap.

A user story map gives you the birds-eye view of the product. By laying out all the core activities, stories, and sequences, you align your team with the customer. Plus, you eliminate any potential misunderstandings within your organization.

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