User story mapping - What we love about it

At Crystalloids, we've been working with the Scrum methodology since our foundation in 2011. For us (and we think most software developers agree), it's the best way to deliver working software on time to our stakeholders.

Since 2011, our company has been growing a lot and we got more and bigger customers, with larger requests for software development. It was about a year ago that we noticed that sometimes our scrum team members lost the overview of the projects. Especially with the bigger projects, involving hundreds of user stories and taking place over a great period of time. That was de moment managing partner and product owner Richard Verhoeff decided to add a new element to the scrum process: the user story map. It turned out to be a great decision for everyone involved in software development; the developers, the scrum master, de product owner, and of course the stakeholder. 

What is a user story map?

The user story map gives insight in the journey that users (or customers) take when they make use of the end product, including the activities and tasks they undertake in this process. The creation of the map is the first step when starting a project, and it will guide an agile team in the creation of their product backlog. 

We think Gojko Adzic and David Evans give a great definition in their book Fifty Quick Ideas to Improve Your User Stories:

'User story maps connect software deliverables to customer journeys and business workflows, showing how individual stories contribute to the bigger picture and providing a great visual representation of release plans.'

The idea of user story mapping was introduced by Jeff Patton, who felt that arranging user stories in the order of building them, like you do with product backlogs, doesn't help you explain to others what the whole system does. According to Jeff, a backlog is "context-free mulch" and "you need context in order to really tell a story about a system".

The idea behind the story map is that you create it as a team, so not just the product owner is in charge. As a result  the whole team will be on the same page from the beginning of development until the ongoing delivery of new releases. 

User story mapping

How is a user story map structured?

The map arranges user activities along the horizontal axis in the right sequence in time. Down the vertical axis, it represents the order of value of the stories.

At the top of the map you find the backbone of the user story map; the activities a user will accomplish while using the product. The different user activities are the epics of the map. For example, if you want to build a system where people can buy products, a backbone can exist of the following components:User story mapping

Backlog vs Story Map

In stead of a vertical ordered backlog, the user story map looks more like, well ofcourse, a map, that also has a horizontal axis, which displays the course of time. A user story map gives the entire context of a system in view, which can be a tremendous help for prioritization. 

Prior to learning about agile User Story Maps, we'd simply add stories to the existing backlog ordered by customer value. As you can imagine, the backlog grew quickly and didn’t have much structure aside from the linear order of the issues. And with only the top 50 or so items ordered, the rest was a real mess.

The “flat” product backlog does not explain the customer’s journey or what they were trying to achieve. It is just feature after feature. 

User story mapping
Traditional flat agile backlog vs agile user story map

It's a way of ordering your user stories, just like in a backlog. But now you can also see how the user stories contribute to the bigger picture, the epics, or the backbone of a development process. 

In reality, most scrummers use the story map and the backlog together. The user map in the office on a big wall to keep the overview, the backlog in the online project management tool like Jira to manage your task.


We can imagine you thinking; is it really the job of a whole scrum team to keep an eye on the business processes as well? Doesn't it just add another element to the whole scrum process that takes more time? Well, yes. But we think the advantages overrule the disadvantages.

A user story map is a collaborative practice that guides an agile team in the creation of their product backlog. The story map captures the journey a customer takes with the product including activities and tasks they undertake. Creating the story map as a team ensures team members are on the same page from the start of development through to ongoing delivery of new releases. 

Want to read more about scrum? In this blog we give five tips to create the best user stories.

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