User Story Mapping: how to use it to foster team and client alignment

It’s the start of a new project and you feel overwhelmed.

So much to do, that you can’t grasp the whole scope. Everything is important, and you can’t begin to set priorities. The client is waiting for answers but you are filled with questions.

Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be chaotic.

There are techniques available to help you organize project work. Today we will discuss one we particularly like and use here at Pixelmatters: User Story Mapping.

We’ll explain what a User Story Map is, list its benefits, provide details on how we use it, and share some tips.

What’s a User Story Map?

A User Story Map is a collaborative exercise popularized by Jeff Patton as a way to visualize the users’ experience with a product. It’s a way to break down what needs to be done, set priorities, and ensure alignment among all stakeholders.

It consists of 3 core components:

Let’s look at an example to make it clearer.

User Story Map template by Pixelmatters, soon available on Figma Community.

In the example above, the backbone represents activities such as authentication. Within each activity, there are smaller flows. For instance, under Authentication, we have Register, Login, and Forgot Password.

Under each, we list user stories that reflect a lower level of granularity. You can see that under “Register” we have several tasks: Register user with email + password, Register user with SSO, Add 2nd-factor authentication, and so on. These are the smallest units of work in a User Story Map.

Now, it’s time to distribute those user stories throughout the blocks of priorities, taking into consideration the input of the relevant stakeholders. This puts into evidence the release strategy mentioned earlier.

Depending on your project’s specifics, you can define different numbers of iterations or stages. These reflect different levels of priority. You can also think of them as Must Have, Should Have, and Nice to Have.

By the end of this exercise, you’ll have a complete picture of all the tasks to work on, and how they relate to each other’s priorities.

So, how does a User Story Map benefit the team and stakeholders?

Benefits of a User Story Map

As mentioned earlier, a User Story Map should be a collaborative exercise involving everyone, from the team to the client and other stakeholders. This approach brings several benefits:

Given these benefits, Pixelmatters uses this exercise whenever it makes sense. As we will see below, a User Story Map can be helpful in diverse occasions.

How and when Pixelmatters uses this technique

At Pixelmatters, User Story Mapping isn’t just a theoretical concept; it’s a practical tool we’ve successfully used with both leads and clients. This demonstrates the versatility of the technique and how useful it is at various stages of the development process.

When a lead approaches us, they usually have a list of requirements, either low or high-level. However, even if they have a clear project structure in mind, it’s crucial to ensure alignment among all stakeholders. A User Story Mapping exercise helps us achieve that. We have successfully made this exercise in collaboration with leads, with unquestionable benefits.

As we said, this is also a powerful technique we use with clients, usually to kick off the collaboration.

For example, we worked with a client who had a fixed scope but undefined priorities. The team at Pixelmatters, led by the Product Owner, examined the scope and categorized it into four levels of priority, based on what we believed was best for the product.

Next, we presented the exercise to the client and made adjustments based on their input, until reaching a consensus. We used this User Story Map throughout the project, until its completion, regularly taking it as a base on our weekly meetings to evaluate work progression and upcoming scope.

However, it’s important to note that a User Story Map doesn’t replace traditional project management tools like Jira or Linear. Rather, it complements them, facilitating day-to-day discussions.

Best practices to integrate a User Story Map into your projects

If you want to do a User Story Mapping exercise, keep in mind some best practices that will help you make the most of it:

Ready to try it yourself?

Now, doesn’t your project feel more organized?

You, your team, and the client are all aligned regarding the scope and its prioritization. You have a clear vision of the path in front of you and what needs to be done to achieve your goals.

Remember, a User Story Map is not set in stone. Requirements evolve and priorities change. After all, we work in Agile ways. That’s fine. Just make sure you update it accordingly, as it should reflect the state of the project at any given time.

Diana Bernardo
Product Owner