How to Get Started with User Story Mapping

Agile does a great job of breaking big projects down into bite-sized sprints, and it’s hugely popular because of it. By focusing on a few weeks at a time, you boost quality and efficiency and turn out deliverables faster and more often. 

But, when you’re always focusing on one slice of the pie, it’s extremely easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Too often, teams end up working on small pieces of the puzzle without considering how it’s all going to fit together. 

This might work when you’ve got a lot of small, discrete deliverables. But, what about when it’s one major deliverable? How do you maintain sight of the overall project without giving up the flexibility and adaptability of Agile? 

The solution is user story mapping. 

Read on for a free template and top tips to get user story mapping right from day one.

What is User Story Mapping?

User story mapping is a way to frame projects, and problems, in a way that focuses on the end-user. 

In the past, you’d take a project, break it down into goals and needs, turn those into features and functionality, and boil it down to a bunch of user stories. 

But, when you’re managing, prioritizing, and working on all these separate user stories, it’s too easy to lose the overall picture the user or customer originally had. You lose the important context around why these features are important and what goals and needs they fulfill. 

Plus, when you’re dealing with seemingly discrete user stories, it becomes challenging to prioritize them and to ensure nothing is overlooked. Try doing a 1,000 piece puzzle with a piece missing — You usually don’t realize it’s gone until close to the end. 

That’s the problem when you’re working with a product backlog of individual user stories. 

User story mapping strings the stories together. It helps you pinpoint which puzzle pieces should go first — the corners and edges, the easy to spot features, the shapes that stand out. 

You start with the big activities that need to be done — overarching activities that are too big to be stories or even epics. These tend to be the essential capabilities that your product or system must have. 

Build your map the way you’d build or describe your system. Start at the beginning and work in order to the end. 

Then break down these requirements until you get to the more manageable user stories. Place them higher or lower on the map underneath the critical capabilities based on their necessity. 

So the first row under your essential capabilities should be the bare bones of the minimalist system you could build to still meet requirements. The lowest row should be all your ‘nice-to haves’ and everything else falls somewhere in the middle. 

The top row should never change — it’s your minimum requirements, so they must be included. 

But the others may be shuffled around as you prioritize your backlog and figure out where things can fit. 

When the user story map is done, publish it somewhere everyone can see it. No one should ever lose sight of this map as it shows you the overarching goals and required outcomes of your project. 

Why Is User Story Mapping Necessary?

User story maps give you the big picture in an easy to understand, quick to digest, visible form. You can print them out and stick them on a wall, or make them a screensaver  — giving everyone a continual reminder of what you’re working towards and why. 

A solid user story map helps ensure everyone is on the same page, and teams stay aligned. It’s a means for communicating overarching requirements and important customer needs. It can also be a solid starting point for creating your project plan. 

But, even the process of creating the story map comes with multiple benefits:

  • The mapping process will highlight dependencies across features.
  • Determining which row each user story will fit into will help the prioritization process.
  • Creating the map with your team will help pinpoint missing pieces, pain points, conflicts, and opportunities.
  • Going through the mapping process with your client ensures you’ve truly gotten what they’re asking for, and you haven’t missed an essential need. 

user story map- template

How to Start User Story Mapping

If you’d never created a user story map before, follow these six steps to get started:

Step 1: Create the frame 

The first step is to build the map frame that you will populate with your product requirements and user stories. You can do this on an oversized piece of paper (such as Bristol Board) or using computer software. 

While this step does involve physically creating the frame (drafting the rows and columns on your map), it’s also when you need to define the frame or concept of your project. 

With your customer and key stakeholders, create a statement of what the end product is supposed to do. What problems is it going to solve, or what needs will it meet? What benefits will your client and any other end-users achieve from the finished product? 

Once you’ve defined your vision in one or two sentences, record it at the top of your story map, so you never lose sight of it. 

Step 2: Craft the backbone

As we mentioned above, when creating your user story map, you must start by identifying the big activities that need to be accomplished. These are the overarching tasks that must be completed to satisfy the vision you just defined. 

Your product backbone is the top-most row on your user story map. It tends to be made up of the end product’s essential capabilities. Build your map the way you’d describe your system. Start with the initial capabilities or functions (i.e., setting up a user account) on the left and work moving to the right. 

If you’re not sure how to create your backbone, here are a few suggestions:

  • Have one of your experts describe to you how they envision the system or end-product working. 
  • Have the client walk you through what the end-user’s customer journey should be. 
  • Bring the team together to brainstorm the backbone. 

Once you have all the major capabilities covered, adjust, remove, or combine them as needed to create a streamlined backbone that represents the major pieces of the puzzle. Remember, the goal here is to cover the end-to-end requirements at the highest level — don’t get dragged down into the details.  

Step 3: Compile your stories

Now that you have the overarching requirements, it’s time to break it down into your user stories. 

Each activity in the backbone should break down into multiple user stories. Write them on cards and place them under the activities they relate to. Remember that the top-most row should be the highest priority stories — the features your product won’t function without. 

Brainstorm with your team to identify essential tasks, functions, and requirements that will make up your stories. Consider potential problems, navigational issues and workarounds, and ‘nice-to-haves’. 

Don’t forget to consider both UX and UI elements, as well as other functional requirements. Even left-field ideas should be recorded, as you can always cull them from the map later. 

Step 4: Complete the blanks

Now’s the time to shop around your stories — have the client and other end-users review the cards to see if anything is missing. 

Consider bringing in fresh eyes from another team to see if they can identify any gaps in your board. Try imagining different users in different scenarios to see if there’s stories you’ve overlooked. 

You’ll also need your developers to have another look to ensure all the cards are actionable stories. If they’re too large, you’ll need to break them down further. 

Step 5: Categorize your cards 

At this point, all your user stories should be on the map, each represented by a separate card (or sticky note). Now you next to make sure they’re all in the right spot. 

First, make sure every story is underneath the activity in the backbone it relates to. Next, move the cards up and down that column based on what you are hoping to release. 

The closest stories to the top are the ones you are planning to complete in the first release. The middle ones are stories you expect to complete in the next release. Finally, the ones at the bottom are ones you could complete in your future releases, depending on time, budget, risk, etc. 

Step 6: Compose your iterations

Once you’ve prioritized your cards, your map is done. Congratulations!

Now it’s time to use it. 

The vertical columns in your map should each represent a key functionality or capability. The horizontal rows should each illustrate a potential product release (with the top-most row of stories being the initial one.)

With these easy-to-see sections, you can efficiently break your map down into product iterations and start designing your sprints. 

💡 Top Tips on User Story Mapping

Here are our top four tips for getting user story mapping right from day one:

  • Collaborate: User story mapping should be done collaboratively so that everyone has a shared understanding of what the journey is, what goes into each iteration, and why. Collaboration also ensures no key stories or missed or problems are overlooked. A story map is not something you can do well in isolation. 
  • Define goals and metrics: Each iteration needs to have its own goals and metrics, and these should tie directly back to your user story map. Focus on the main vision at the top of your map and make sure each sprint and product iteration has quantifiable metrics that will help ensure your team is moving toward that overall goal. 
  • Collect feedback: Agile is all about evolving as you learn, and story mapping is no different. Your map is not a set-in-stone document that you create, frame, and blindly stick to. Review your map after each iteration, at a minimum. Did any new problems or user needs emerge? Do any user stories need to be added, changed, or removed? Did some stories change priority levels based on work completed and customer feedback? Modify your map as needed throughout the project as changes occur.
  • Connect with Tara: Our software allows you to capture each iteration in a Tara requirement to help with sprint planning. As you create and categorize cards in your map, you can track and prioritize them within With our software, composing your iterations and planning your sprints becomes a snap. 

User story task cards inside Tara

Final Words

User story mapping takes a two-dimensional product backlog and turns it into something more. It ensures you always keep your customer’s needs top of mind — you never lose sight of the forest by focusing too much on the trees. 

Keep in mind: nothing ever goes perfectly the first time. It may take a few iterations of your map before you get an end product your whole team is happy with.

Follow the six steps outlined above and incorporate our four tips on user story mapping, and your team will discover a revolutionary way to plan your product iterations and projects.