Planning a big project? Story mapping provides the blueprint for success

Big projects can be daunting. You need to start somewhere, and you need a plan, but it’s surprising how many projects launch with people just starting to work without developing a clear view of the end product.

It can be useful to think of it like building a house.  Would you launch the effort by just starting to lay bricks? Story maps used for product development are a simple and powerful approach for creating your blueprint and starting your project, not dissimilar to the process of drawing up plans for a new home.

Story mapping is a widely used agile technique that emerged from software development, but is now becoming widespread across teams and organisations of all kinds as it fosters collaboration and adaptability. Story mapping involves visualising an entire product, service, idea or business problem as a series of smaller, more manageable tasks.

Once the vision is set, story mapping establishes a shared understanding between (usually cross-functional) teams of what needs to be built. It helps us see the big picture and the highest value activities.

Questions that often arise in story mapping are: Once you have the vision, how do you translate it into a prioritised set of tasks? And how do you ensure you haven’t left out an important piece? Let’s explore story mapping and the best way to approach it.

Describe the dream home

State the vision and set prioritised goals.  If we think of story mapping in the context of building a house, first we would get all the right people on board who need to understand our vision, such as the architect, builder, interior decorator etc.  Similarly, before starting to build a user story map we need to work with stakeholders to discuss the strategic vision for the project. A great way to do this is to bring all the key groups into one room so they can understand each other’s perspective and requirements from the outset.

When building a user story map, we need to start with the vision and how the project will add value to the customer. This is much like discussing the desired function of each room in the house and how to create a harmonious flow for everyone living there – it helps keep the entire team focused on achieving a common approach, look and feel for the house.

The team works together to develop a prioritised list of goals that, when complete, will achieve that vision. And, when developing these goals, it is important to ask:

  • What problems are we trying to solve?
  • Where are we now and where do we want to be?
  • What must we do to get there?

Who lives in the dream home and how do they interact with their surroundings?

Be clear on the activities that will achieve the goals.  In story mapping, the next layer of mapped activities establishes how the customer will use the product to achieve their goals. This is like thinking beyond the overall structure of the house and considering who will be living in the house — what activities will they undertake in the house and how will they interact with their surroundings — to ensure each room meets its goals.

Developing “personas” is a popular technique that can help bring to life this exercise. Personas are fictional characters created (based on user research) to represent typical user types for the technology or service. They generally represent groups that exhibit similar behavioral patterns, attitudes and motivations. Creating personas helps us to understand and focus on our customer’s needs, experiences, behaviours and goals.

What are the features required in each room of the dream home?

Know what is needed to complete tasks.  Details are important. To achieve the end goal we need to know the permanent fixtures required in each room to facilitate the various activities and interactions. For example, when brushing your teeth, you need a wash basin, bathroom counter, fixed mirror, running water, etc.

With product, services and experiences we need to understand how the customer will interact with the product to complete an activity. These tasks are called user stories and are often expressed in a simple sentence, structured as follows:

“As a [persona], I [want to], [so that].”

For example: As an online shopper, I want to have all my online shopping sites in one location so that I can browse them all at the same time.

User stories help product developers understand how a product should facilitate the end user.

What is the floor plan, how does the home connect to the outside and who undertakes quality control?

Establish a stable foundation.  With the blueprint almost complete, the architect will be able to see how the new home will connect with the rest of the world and we can start to identify any weaknesses in the foundation or potential risks in the plan. The team is now equipped with the information and knowledge to put measures in place to rectify these areas.

As an extra step during the creation of our user story map, it is helpful to display the proposed architecture/design so the system architect can recognise potential disconnects between what the customer needs and how the architecture has been designed.

The team can respond by adding tasks to reduce waste, smooth out data flow and tackle necessary integration tasks. This is an important step in product development.  Without a solid foundation you could be building a house of cards that could collapse at any time.

In summary, story mapping – like drawing up plans for that dream home – is a process with a number of steps. When complete, the entire team can understand the “big picture” and see a prioritised list of tasks that need to be completed to achieve the overall vision.

Remember the following steps the next time you do a story map:

  • State the vision and set prioritised goals
  • Be clear on the activities needed to achieve these goals
  • Know the tasks to complete each activity
  • Ensure the foundations are stable

Story maps are flexible and can be used to visualise any kind of plan, they can be created collaboratively or by one person.  They can be created in the office or at home and they can be fun.

Now that you are in the know … dive in and get mapping!


Simone Hambrook

Simone Hambrook, Senior Consultant, DXC Consulting ANZ – has over eighteen years’ experience in performing and leading a variety of IT assignments within Australia and overseas. Experience includes iteration management, Agile practitioner, project delivery, coaching, business analysis, operations and project management.


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