Story Maps are More Than “To Do” Lists – Exploring the Map Metaphor

Dion Stewart Coaching, News

I’ve worked with many teams over the past few years helping them improve their product delivery. One of the tools I’ve helped teams learn to use is story mapping.

When teams are first learning story mapping, it’s not unusual for them to start straying away from the basic visual layout in their early mapping efforts. Teams I’ve worked with have dropped personas and activities/goals from their maps, moved away from visually laying out stories to using only text in outline format, and switched to visual layout formats closer to flow charts than the format of story maps.

All of these teams are losing out on the most significant opportunity story mapping offers – that is, the opportunity to create a shared mental model of the product they hope to create.

I believe teams stray away from the basic story map format because they think of story maps as a tool for creating a list of stories, their “to do” list for their product. This is a very limited view of story mapping.

Exploring the “Map” Metaphor

In his book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte calls Charles Joseph Minard’s map of Napoleon’s 1812 march on Russia one of the “best statistical drawings every created”. A characteristic of the map that makes it so powerful is that it tells a dramatic story through the concise display of multiple facets of information.

This map shows:

  • geography – including specific geographical features like rivers
  • the path the army took both marching on Russia and retreating back to France, including major battles along the way
  • direction of movement
  • the size of the army (width of the lines)
  • time and temperature (on the retreat back to France)

After making a small investment of time to understand how the data is displayed, the story of what happened on the march becomes clear and emotionally impactful. Viewers are able to quickly create a mental model of the march in a way that would not be possible if the same data were displayed in simple tables or graphs. It is the actual interplay of the information that communicates the story so well.

In a similar way, story maps contain multiple dimensions of information.

Story maps, like the map above created in CardBoard, show:

  • flow between stories over time (time is flowing left to right)
  • personas for each story
  • alternative ways of completing the same story
  • journeys (paths) through the map, that can be used as the basis for planning the delivery order of stories
  • priority of stories (lower priority stories can be placed lower on the map or shown with a different color)
  • the planned delivery release or increment of the product for each story
  • type of story (user story vs. system story)

As with the Napoleon’s March map, story maps are powerful because they tell the story of your product through the concise display of multiple facets of information. Story mapping is a tool that allows you to focus on different aspects of your product as needed. Initially, the mapping might be mostly about identifying the stories. As time goes on, the conversation might shift to focus on priority, what stories will be delivered in each release, and what journeys (sets of stories) might be delivered first. All of these product aspects are interrelated. Being able to reason about them and collaboratively discuss them using a single, shared visualization is one of the most powerful product planning tools I’ve ever used.