Agile PM Toolbox: User Story Mapping – You already know how

14 April 2015
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Reading time: 7 minutes

The secret is out! Jeff Patton has finally written his book about User Story Mapping. We finally get inside the head of the man who coined the phrase ‘Story Mapping’. I was introduced to Story Mapping at Zuhlke Ltd in the UK and have used it at the start of several projects to find out how the intended users will use the system and for everyone on the project to have a shared understanding of what the system needs to do, in order for it to have a successful outcome. It’s another pattern that project managers, coaches and user experience experts have been using for a very long time.

One of the nifty things in Jeff’s book that I especially liked was how he engaged the reader into playing the “getting out of bed and out the door” (aka Story Mapping Now) game. You are taken through the journey of writing down on post-it notes what you did from the moment you woke up until the time you walk out the door. That’s how you find out what a ‘task’ is, not to be confused with a programmer’s task. Most tasks start with a verb and if you are paying attention, you will notice your user’s tell you how they want to use a system in the very same way. If you play the game long enough you discover that you already knew how to do story mapping.

It so happened that just after reading the chapter on mapping your morning, I had a story mapping prep session with one of our clients. So I decided to do the Story Mapping Now game as a warm up exercise. It was a huge success and everyone understood the fundamentals before we dove into their product story map. They understood that when you place your stickies from left-to-right then read each sticky with ‘. . . and then I . . .’ in between it tells a user journey. Some people are more detailed than others and they learned how they could place the main activities at the top that tells the main journey of getting out of the door in the morning and to place the more detailed tasks of how you do the activities below them.

The team learned there’s a natural human way of organising tasks. There are bigger, summary tasks that are the activities of getting out of the door in the morning. The activities have tasks that need to be done in order for it to be completed. They also learned that tasks can also have subtasks. They have just learned the fundamentals of Alistair Cockburn’s goal level concept and altitude metaphor for writing use cases. Of course we’re not writing use cases, but it is a pattern that works with story mapping too. The activities are sea level, tasks to complete activities are below sea level and the goal of getting out the door is above sea level.

As we didn’t have much time, I stopped our warm-up exercise at activities and tasks. If you take the game even further however, you can learn much more. For example, what if your alarm doesn’t go off?! Yah, I can relate to that! Nightmare right?! Have a look at the map. What are the tasks that you can leave out? This is when you get the masking tape out, draw a line with the tape across the map and move all of the tasks that you can realistically/feasibly leave out because the alarm didn’t go off, below the line. See, you already know how to split your map into your first release or first sprint.

Take the game even further and have a look at the activities of the map again. What if I’m a mother or dad with young kids, you’ll have an activity ‘get the kids dressed’. My son is all grown up and living in LA so I don’t have to consider that activity. However, I do have a cat that needs taking care of in the morning. What about those people with dogs? Teenagers will use this map, but the goal is to get out the door and go to school and their first activity will be ‘ignored mom when she yelled at me to get up”. This is how the game shows how to identify personas.

Using personas allows you to walk the map in different ways. Our map now has several personas, dad, mom, kid, teenager and cat owner. Some of these personas may depend on each other. Dad can’t take the kids to school until mom gets them dressed and fed. Ok, bit of a stereotype but you get the drift. Some tasks depend on others being completed first, furthermore even whole activities can be dependent on one another. Personas help you understand the different ways in which your product will be used.

The team I played the game with started working on their product story map. We had already created personas and talked about them. So armed with what they had learned in the game and their personas, they were able to prepare the story map with activities for the different personas. They were able to move tasks and subtasks up and down the map to identify stuff that needed to be done before other stuff. The team were also able to slice the map and identify the stuff they might be able to do for the next release.


It was magic! Even though it wasn’t easy to begin with I have never seen a team ‘get it’ so fast.  Story mapping on a real product is hard. Once they got going they were really able to work the map. Persona Olivia needed to complete “this” before persona Clive could get on with doing “that”. They started adding system personas because if the system wasn’t in the map then other stuff couldn’t get done. I noticed that instead of talking through the map as developers they started to relate to the map as personas. The team were collectively sharing knowledge about the personas and how they would interact with the product.

Our client’s product was already in development before they came to us for help. They already had a huge backlog of stuff to do. When organising and prioritising a product backlog it is difficult to see the big picture. I find it a good idea to keep looking at the map, keep it up on the wall for everyone to see – it’s an information radiator. The stuff near the top is in the next few releases and the stuff at the bottom we’re going to do much later so we don’t need to break them down right now. Sometimes all you really need is to keep the next couple of releases up on the wall.

User Story Mapping has always been in my Agile PM Toolbox in one shape or another. Thanks to Jeff I now have this new game to help teams realise that they already know how to do Story Mapping. It is an essential item in my Agile PM toolbox to help make sure that the teams I work with are building the right thing.

PS. Join me for my workshop Story Mapping for Fun and Profit at Agile Manchester 7th, 8th  May 2015 and Agile on the Beach 3rd, 4th September 2015!

Comments (4)


Steve Holyer

15 April 2015 at 12:45

It’s great to see another technique (that we “already know”) described so clearly. I like the way you bring in the tools that project managers and UX designers already know to the Agile Build Team. (In case they forgot about them.) Looking forward to your next post!

    Lynne Johnson

    Lynne Johnson

    18 April 2015 at 17:52

    Hello Steve

    So glad you liked the post. I am having such fun spreading the word of Story Mapping. Just today at lunch I was explaining to one of my friends the difference between a map in the world now and one in the world later. She was so inspired by it and thought she could use it to map what she is going to do next in her life and the things she needs to do to get there.

    Cheers, Lynne



15 April 2015 at 17:28

So happy you wrote this. It makes my day – particularly:
“It was magic! Even though it wasn’t easy to begin with I have never seen a team ‘get it’ so fast.”

The hurdle for me working with teams is to get them out of the business “negotiating” delivery dates of features with development, and into everyone looking through the users eyes and together making the tradeoffs to make things best for them. It makes me happy to see the conversation change!



    Lynne Johnson

    Lynne Johnson

    18 April 2015 at 17:45


    I am delighted that you liked my post. I am even more delighted that you finally wrote your book. Your book is such a hot topic lately. So now, as well as Agile Manchester, I will be running a Story Mapping Now workshop at Agile on the Beach. I can’t wait to spread the word.

    My boss, although also delighted that your book was published, sighed and said “Now everyone will know about our secret weapon.”

    The conversation is indeed changing. I now find getting some people to listen is the tricky bit. I learned something in an open space workshop to ‘hold the space’ as a facilitator. Without saying much and getting the right questions to be asked, it’s like conducting the conversation. Immensely enjoyable.

    Cheers, Lynne


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