8 Agile story mapping mistakes & how to avoid them

User story mapping is extremely powerful. 

When done well, It helps teams understand user needs, prioritize the right ideas, and collaborate more effectively. But newcomers to agile frameworks often run into a number of pitfalls that can undermine the process and deliver sub-par results.

In this post, we run through the most common stumbling blocks when writing user story maps. Plus we’ll share tips and tricks to help you avoid them too. By the end, you’ll be equipped with the wisdom you need to fool-proof your next agile story map and deliver the awesome results you and your team are looking for.

Sounds good? Let’s jump in.

1. Not having an accurate picture of the end-user

Few things will wreak havoc on your agile story maps like not knowing who you’re creating them for. After all, how can you expect to solve a user’s problems if you don’t understand how they think, feel, and act?

So, before you begin, create a persona for each user you’ll be using. This is especially important if your product will have multiple types of user – such as customer and admin. 

create user personas
Easily create personas with StoriesOnBoard

Because creating and visualizing solid personas gives your team a better idea about the motivations, needs, and wants of the end-users. And that translates into more meaningful user stories.

2. Having unclear acceptance criteria

While you don’t want to eradicate your team’s creative liberty, it’s important to have a clear idea about what the end product needs to have implemented.

Without acceptance criteria, you run the risk of being unable to determine when the project is over or even if it’s what the client is looking for. This can lead to unnecessary delays and extra work.

unclear acceptance

So, before you get started, draw on your user stories to develop a final set of criteria that your team is happy with. 

Don’t be afraid to get your customer’s input too to be certain your chosen criteria contain the things that users are going to need from the product. 

Doing this establishes a clear goal (criteria) to shoot for and a roadmap (user stories) to get there.

3. Getting swept away with the details

Once you start putting your story map together it’s easy to let your brain go wild – scenarios appear out of the blue, stories start to wind around each other, sub-plots emerge and potential complications rear their heads.

getting swept away with the details

Sure, it’s a creative and collaborative experience. But it can also be a one-way ticket to mind-melt city. Because as more and more stories bubble up from the depths of your consciousness, it’s worryingly easy to lose sight of your original product vision.

So, begin the big picture and work your way down to a level of granularity without losing sight of your linear story. It’s a fine art to stay creative without letting your imagination get the better of you. But with time and experience, you’ll learn to catch yourself before you disappear down the rabbit hole.

4. Creating story maps on your own

When you build a story map on your own, your ideas can quickly go rogue and take you to a place far away from where you intended to go.

creating story maps on your own

That’s why story mapping in pairs (or groups) is a much more productive endeavor. Not only will your fellow story mapper keep you focused on the big picture, but telling a story out loud makes it easier to prove it’s viability. 

Another set of ears makes it much simpler to decide if a story is rational, valid, and integral to the product roadmap.

5. Focusing on product features instead of the user’s needs

Folks new to writing story maps often fall into the trap of describing features they want, as opposed to satisfying a user’s needs. This creates a user story that reads like a grocery list.

Focusing on product features instead of the user’s needs

So, avoid getting bogged down with overly technical aspects by double-checking that the benefit for your end-user is actually a real benefit – as opposed to a technical feature you want the development team to deliver.

6. Writing a user story that’s too broad

Another common error is to create user stories that are too vague. This is a problem because you need your story map to operate at a level of detail that allows your development team to estimate the work involved in building functionality to support the story.

Instead, think of your big ideas like rocks. Then imagine story mapping is a hammer. Stick your ideas into a cloth sack and use your hammer to smash those broad ideas into smaller pieces.

But don’t throw away the rocks and scrap your big idea. Instead, consider breaking it down into multiple stories that’ll allow each aspect to be more clearly understood. 

As a rough guide, a story is the right size when it fulfills a user’s needs, while at the same time it will only take a few days to build and test.

7. Limiting yourself to physical story maps

Many great products were built using post-it notes and a sharpie pen. But physical story maps also come with a couple of headaches – sticky notes fall off the wall, cleaners unknowingly obliterate whiteboard ideas and releases get shipped before the latest update has been posted.

Plus, in the current climate, story maps built in a fixed physical location are less than ideal because they can’t be shared and used remotely. 

Using a digital story mapping tool like StoriesOnBoard allows you to build story maps that can be shared and updated no matter where you are in the world. And the best part? It seamlessly integrates with your current collaboration stack to make sure you never miss a beat.

  1. Forgetting That Your Story Map is A Means To An End

As Jeff Patton explains in his awesome book ‘User Story Mapping’:

“The goal of using stories isn’t to write better stories. The goal of product development isn’t to make better products…the real goal is to change the world”.

In other words, story maps don’t directly improve the lives of your users. But what they can do is shift your team from a mindset of ‘shared requirements’ to a one of ‘shared understanding’.

So, instead of losing the forest for the trees and getting bogged down by the process of creating a story map, remember your story maps initial purpose: 

To help you and your team have better conversations, more clearly understand your users, and ultimately stand a greater chance of building products that change the world.

In summary

If you’re new to creating user story maps, making mistakes is part of the learning curve. 

As anyone who’s ever created a great story map knows, it takes time, effort, and persistence to become skilled in the art of story mapping.

But by knowing what to look for, and what to do when you get stuck, you’ll find yourself in a much better position to create effective user story maps in no time.

Oh, and if the fear of messing things up is keeping you from starting, just call to mind the words of the great Salvador Dali:

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it anyway

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