What is a story map, and why do you need one?

When you are working on a new product ahead of its release, or trying to incorporate new features and ideas into an existing one, having a complete view of the possibilities in hand can be very productive. The story map is a great strategy for achieving this, and considering potential user interactions as a pivotal factor for assessing pros and cons, and doing a better job. But what is a story map, exactly?


What is a story map?

The concept behind the story map comes from product thinking, and in particular from the mind of Jeff Patton, who had used the idea for some time before coining the term in 2008, in a blog article describing how to make one and incorporate the technique to enhance development.

Creating a story map involves arranging all the possible paths of action which someone could take within a product, such as a piece of software or app, starting with the “big picture” actions, which many call the “Epics” (Patton himself doesn’t like the term, but it’s the one that’s stuck).


What are the Epics?

The Epics are placed on the horizontal axis at the top of the story map, and trace a path from the beginning of the user experience to the end. For example, in an online store, the epics could include logging in, choosing a product, and paying. Start by placing them in order – using either post-its on a board or on the floor or – if you prefer a more modern approach – a flow chart maker, which is perfect for organizing your story map.


Decision process

Once you have positioned your Epics, the goal is to consider all the possible sets of decisions and actions someone could use to go from one to the other, and place them on the vertical axis. Going back to the online store example, the “logging in” stage could include filling out the registration form manually, or linking with an already existing account on a social media platform, before setting preferences and so on.

The goal is to identify the order of actions and tell the story of the myriad user experiences, all of which are represented as potential paths from one map point to the next.

Patton refers to the main path as the “backbone” – a summary of the user’s complete experience. The “walking skeleton” is the order in which users move from one activity to the next, from the beginning to the end of the backbone.

The walking skeleton progresses horizontally below the backbone, which is made up of the Epics. New walking structures can be subdivided, one below the other. The higher up the map order, the more pivotal the walking structure is to the user’s experience. In our online shop example, only a handful of people will need to set their preference for the website’s color scheme, if that’s an option – so this is less relevant than deciding what to buy.

Understanding the order of actions helps to create your story – all the possible scenarios in which a user may interact with the product, from first contact to the conclusion of their goal, which marks the end of the experience. But why is this process important, and how can it help you?


It helps you stay focused on the big picture

When working on the development of user experience stages, a common pitfall is to get distracted by every little issue,  and lose sight of the overall objective. By representing each action as a category that interacts with others, which take place immediately before and after it, story mapping helps developers to make sense of the project as a whole.


It leaves room for improvement

A story map is infinite, and the number of layers is restricted only by your own creativity. Hence, this technique provides a canvas that will always inspire you to do better, and consider new possibilities to be explored.


It helps to see what works

The backbone of your story map will always lead to an outcome, which is the goal of the user experience. In the case of a new product, mapping the many possible stories will help to determine whether the development makes sense and is feasible.


It is engaging and collaborative

Many different people work on the same story map. It is an inclusive tool that allows employees from all areas to express their point of view, and better understand other areas of the development process.


It helps you sell your idea

As the name suggests, a story map acts as a storytelling device for your product, and a great way to show others what you have to offer, and what it’s like to use it. Story maps let others engage with your product, making it easier to accept and understand.



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