User story mapping: Practical templates and examples

Last updated: March 2024

User story mapping is a visual exercise that helps product managers and development teams define the work that will create the most delightful user experience. It is used to improve your understanding of your customers and to prioritize work. Software leader Jeff Patton is often credited with having developed and shared extensive knowledge around user story mapping.

In user story mapping, teams create a dynamic outline of a representative user’s interactions with the product, evaluate which steps have the most benefit for the user, and prioritize what should be built next. For agile organizations, it provides an alternative to building a flat list of backlog items or working from lengthy requirements documents.

User story mapping employs the concept of user stories — which communicate requirements from the perspective of user value — to validate and build shared understanding of the steps to create a product users love. Teams write user stories in a format that captures business value and can be completed within a development iteration (usually called a sprint).

The user story format — As a [type of user], I want to [action] so that [benefit]. — can be helpful in thinking about product interactions from a user’s perspective.

By visually mapping out these user stories, product teams tell the story of the customer journey and break it into parts. This helps you design and build functionality that is focused on desired customer outcomes, instead of solely on development output or feature specifications.

If you use Aha! software, you can create user story maps in a couple of ways. Dynamic user story mapping is built into the features section of Aha! Roadmaps. You can also get started quickly with this whiteboard template.

Get the whiteboard template — with a free trial.

User story map large

To access even more templates, visit this guide: User story templates + user story mapping templates.

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What are the benefits of user story mapping?

The following are some of the ways that story mapping helps you improve your processes for building products users will love.

  • Focuses on user value: When a product team builds a user story map, you are envisioning the product from a user’s perspective. The resulting story map helps you identify how users experience the product and what efforts will lead to the best outcomes. This forces an outside-in approach to product roadmap planning.

  • Prioritizes the right work: Building a holistic visualization of all the work necessary to deliver a Complete Product Experience (CPE) can help teams decide what is most important, organize work into releases (the delivery of a new customer experience), and de-prioritize work that has less user value.

  • Drives clear, well-sized requirements: Many teams struggle to write strong user stories and requirements. User story mapping can help by providing a visual representation of how large items of work break down into smaller ones, and by illustrating how work items fit together.

  • Delivers new value early and often: User story mapping helps you group your work into iterations and releases based on how valuable it will be to users. Working on the most important things first means teams can deliver the most customer value faster, get early feedback from customers, and learn quickly what product features will be most valuable.

  • Exposes risks and dependencies Creating a story map of how users interact with a product can give teams a global view of the product so you can visualize potential blocks, risks, and dependencies that must be mitigated in order to deliver the product successfully.

  • Builds team consensus: The process of conceiving and building a user story map gives teams a shared view of the customer experience and the work that is required to improve it. The exercise encourages conversations that lead to a shared understanding of what to build, when, and why.



Who should participate in user story mapping?

User story mapping is a collaborative exercise that helps align cross-functional teams around building a product that will be better tomorrow than it is today. For this reason, any team whose work will contribute to the successful delivery of customer value should be represented.

Since a user story map creates a holistic view of the product, it is helpful to include members of any teams responsible for architecting the complete product experience. These teams are often represented in a user story mapping exercise:

  • Engineering

  • UX / design

  • Product management

  • Sales

  • Marketing

  • Customer support

  • Ops / IT

  • Finance

  • Legal



How to create a user story map

User story mapping starts with a decision about what medium to use for building the story map. It can be done with simple physical resources — such as a wall or whiteboard and sticky notes — or with a whiteboard template or within the Features menu of Aha! Roadmaps. Regardless of the medium, teams will want to take the following steps:

1. Frame the problem

What is the problem your product solves for customers, or what job does it help them do? Taking a goal-first approach is critical in mapping the work that follows, and you need to ensure you are mapping the customer’s goal. This is true even if you are building enhancements to an existing product. The user story format (As a [type of user], I want to [action] so that [benefit].) can be helpful in thinking about product interactions from a user’s perspective.

2. Understand the product’s users

Who is the target audience for your product? There is likely more than one. Different audiences can have different goals and ways of interacting with your product. Starting this exercise with a set of user personas can ensure that teams share an understanding of the target audience and build stories from that point of view. It also eliminates wasted effort on edge cases that are not a fit with your target audience.

3. Map user activities

All users who interact with a product will likely do so through a series of common activities. These activities — also referred to as themes or functions — form the backbone of the user story map. For example, users of an ecommerce product may want to search items for sale, view items by category, put items into a shopping cart, and complete a purchase. These activities will comprise the stories across the top of the map, which the team will then break down into smaller user stories.

4. Map user stories under activities

With the backbone in place and major themes defined, the team can now build out the skeleton of the map by breaking down each activity or theme into smaller user stories. For example, under the shopping cart activity, there might be stories like, “As a shopper, I want to edit and delete items in my cart so I can change my mind before I purchase.”

5. Flow and prioritize

With the high-level themes and detailed user stories in place, the next step is to prioritize stories, ranking them vertically so that the most important ones are at the top. Then, teams map how users flow through the product — typically from left to right. If a product has multiple types of users, teams may want to map different scenarios for each. These actions help teams decide which stories are vital and which ones are less important to delivering a delightful product experience to the target audience(s).

6. Identify gaps, dependencies, technical requirements, and alternatives

The story map gives teams the ability to envision upfront the potential issues that may slow you down later, such as bottlenecks, dependencies, technical architecture, or missing information and capabilities. Identifying these risks before design or development work begins can help teams minimize and mitigate them, enhance usability, and come up with alternative solutions.

7. Plan sprints and releases

This is where teams turn a visual exercise into executable work. With stories prioritized from the top down, teams can see the work that will deliver the most value in the shortest time and group these stories into development sprints and product releases. Teams will create horizontal “slices” across the map, grouping stories by priority within each critical user activity. It is important to consider that this is not about identifying what is required for a minimum viable product; rather, it is critical for identifying the most important work to be completed to create a delightful customer experience.


What are some challenges of user story mapping?

User story mapping can be beneficial to teams that want to move fast and build products customers love, but it can also yield disappointing results if teams are not prepared. These are some challenges to watch out for:

  • No clear customer: If you do not know who the customer is, then it is impossible to work out how they experience the product. You must know for whom you are mapping stories.

  • No clear problem: If you do not know what problem your product is solving for customers, the entire exercise of user story mapping can backfire. Building out stories towards the wrong customer goal can result in a waste of time and resources — not just in the exercise itself, but also for the sprints and releases that are based on it.

  • Limited utility: Physical story maps made from sticky notes on a whiteboard are difficult to keep updated. The notes stop being sticky and fall off, whiteboards get cleaned and the work is lost, or iterations and releases get shipped without updates to the board. Additionally, story maps built in a single, physical location do not serve teams in other locations who cannot see them. This is why virtual whiteboarding is the choice for many teams.

  • Re-work and redundancy: Stories from a user story map typically need to be recreated in a flat backlog afterwards, such as a software engineering tool, in order for development teams to begin working on them. As a result, this exercise can make teams feel that they are doing the same work twice. However, if you use Aha! software, the user stories on your user story map are connected to the real work that they represent.



What happens after user story mapping is completed?

At the end of a user story mapping exercise, you will want to schedule your outline of prioritized stories into sprints and releases. You may want to share or review the user story map with teams that did not participate, including leadership, to ensure there is agreement on the product roadmap. Any teams contributing work to the upcoming sprint or release who were not represented in the mapping exercise will need to add their work in as well.

Then, transfer your user story mapping artifacts into a shared tool. Engineering teams may need to add technical specifications and acceptance criteria to ensure all the work delivers the user value identified in the story mapping exercise.

A user story map need not be static. You can update it with findings from research spikes, revised estimations, and user feedback from sprints and releases. The story map can also be used as a visual roadmap to communicate both the planned work and the work that remains.

Finally, teams doing user story mapping should take advantage of each exercise as an opportunity to get closer to customers and increase your levels of empathy for what the customer is trying to accomplish. Story mapping is a tool to help product builders create customer value with an incremental, iterative approach, with opportunities to learn and improve as you go.

FAQs about user story mapping

What is the difference between a feature and a user story?

Features are units of work — representing what you will build to deliver on your product vision and provide value to customers. In many cases, features are specific product characteristics or functionality. This might include new capabilities, enhancements, or design elements. A well-defined feature should describe how the functionality will work, how it supports your strategy, and the benefit to users.

User stories also describe product functionality. Whereas features include requirements, timing, and other details, user stories are captured in one or two sentences. User stories are also written in a first-person point of view (as the user) — summarizing the specific ways in which they will interact with your product and the tangible benefit they will receive.

In this way, a user story can be described as a feature written from the user's perspective.

What are some tips for writing good user stories?

Switch from your own perspective to the user's. Without a deep understanding of your personas, it will be difficult to craft stories that are relevant to them. What are their pain points? What do they expect to gain from using your product? What does a standout experience look like to each of them? Considering questions like these can help you get into the right mindset for writing user stories.

User stories should also be succinct. You might recall the simple formula for a user story: As a [type of user], I want to [action] so that [benefit]. Follow this pattern closely and resist the urge to expand on it. Your goal should be to quickly clarify why new functionality matters to customers — the details of what and how you are building will come later.

Finally, be mindful of the verbiage you use. You do not need to use technical language for user stories. Think about the way your users would describe what they are trying to do, then write user stories in their voice. This will help you get right to the heart of the user's need and keep moving quickly.

How do you prioritize user stories in agile development?

Once user stories are defined, most agile development teams add them to a sprint backlog. User stories are prioritized within the backlog and then pulled into upcoming sprints. Ideally, the team should only commit to as many user stories as it can finish per sprint.

Deciding which user stories to prioritize depends on a few factors, including how critical or urgent the new functionality is as well as how much effort it will take to complete. Product management can help the engineering team discern the first part (it will have already done some prioritization within the product backlog). But engineering is responsible for determining how many user stories can be worked on and when — based on team capacity and the velocity of prior sprints. Any user stories that cannot be completed in the current sprint will be pushed to the next one.

Ultimately, prioritizing user stories is about planning the most impactful work within the time that you have. This is why many agile teams build a user story map. It helps you visualize the sprint backlog in a more dynamic way — clarifying how users interact with the product and where you can deliver the most benefit.