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I’ve previously written about a technique called ‘Impact Mapping’ – a useful decision making tool which can work particularly well when trying to figure out what to do next. But it can be a difficult technique to use when starting with a completely blank canvas such as at the beginning of a new project where there’s no existing digital product to use as a frame of reference. In fact, the impact mapping book only covers examples where a product already exists and the technique is used to determine what to do next to have the greatest impact on achieving a given goal. The classic example being ‘how might we get more people to sign up to our service?’.

To get to a point where impact mapping can be used effectively, we need to be able to get inside our customers’ heads to describe a brand new product or service through their eyes.

Story mapping

For those of you with children of school age, you may be familiar with the term ‘story map’ which is a technique to help with their creative writing. It’s a way to visually describe a story through a set of linked events, helping children to focus on the narrative without getting bogged down with the detail. Once a story map has been created, the child can get down to the business of writing the detail within the framework they’ve created.

User story mapping is a similar technique that can help us to document software and create a cohesive story without having to focus on detail too early. Or rather, help us tell a story through the eyes of our customers. And the resultant document – the user story map – helps create a shared understanding of the software, whether you’re the client, a designer, developer or customer. It achieves all of this by allowing us to create these stories from an end users’ point of view. Here’s a small exert from Jeff’s book about how he frames the discussion:

“OK, let’s imagine the future. Let’s assume for a minute this product is live and let’s talk about a day in the life of someone who uses it and start telling the story. First they would do this, and then this, and so on and so on”

Jeff Patton

There are a number of other benefits from using the user story mapping technique and it fits especially well if you’re using Agile or Lean methods to deliver your software. A user story map can be used to:

  • Represent your backlog in a non-flat way
  • Prioritise outcomes over features
  • Recognise gaps in your software narrative
  • Plan a release roadmap
  • Identify a minimum viable product
  • (dare I say it) help estimate


User story mapping is a really valuable tool for software development; a way to create a cohesive, shared understanding of a product through the eyes of your end users. I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the most powerful tools in our toolkit and I’d highly recommend it to anyone involved in creating software (of any kind).

If this has piqued your interest then I’d recommend getting the book User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product by Jeff Patton and then trying it out the next time you start the process of defining a product.