How story mapping is helping us humanise requirements

User stories spreadsheets are an important part of any project, but they make it difficult to keep your eye on the big picture. Here’s how we’re using story maps to improve the requirements process.

Defining requirements is a key part of user-centred design. At the end of a block of research we have a load of insight into user needs- top tasks, motivations, pain points, emotions and more. Turning this into a tangible list of things to prioritise (then actually do!) is vital.

What we used to do

Our old method will be familiar to anyone who’s ever worked on a website or software – user stories. First, we’d put every requirement in a spreadsheet, one per row. These might be user requirements, business requirements, or technical requirements. Then, we’d get the project team in a room and spend the next few hours prioritising them. The advantage of this approach was the detail. Every requirement- user, business and tech- was graded and ranked in relation to every other requirement. The disadvantage was that the process didn’t serve the needs of its users – the project team. Spending four hours in a hot meeting room updating a spreadsheet is boring. Really, really, boring. Once, somebody said they were going out to send an email and didn’t come back for two hours.

After significant time and effort doing research and sharing our findings this process set us up to ignore user needs, and instead focus on out-of-context details. We needed a new approach.

What we do now

So we decided to try story mapping, based on Jeff Patton’s book, User Story Mapping.

As Patton says, “Arranging user stories in the order you’ll build them doesn’t help me explain to others what the system does.” So not only is the process of user story prioritisation a hard slog, it guarantees the project team loses sight of what it is they’re actually making. “Building a user story map,” on the other hand, “helps us focus on the big picture – the product as a whole instead of getting myopically focused on an individual story.”

How does story mapping work?

A user story backlog gives granular detail, but it’s arranged by priority, not context. Different requirements can appear next to each other in the backlog solely because they’re of similar importance. A story map still contains all this detail, but the requirements are grouped by theme. Rather than a list, it’s a narrative.

How do you make a story map?

  • Start with an overarching vision
  • Break this vision down into a set of goals based on the research (for example top tasks)
  • Explain the activities required to reach each goal (again, based on research)
  • Break each activity down into the details required to complete it

Here’s an example:

  • The overall vision is: ‘A website which offers online training courses for large companies’
  • Within this, one goal might be: ‘Finding training courses for your team’
  • This goal could be achieved through various activities. For example: ‘Browsing all courses’, ‘Searching for a specific course’, ‘Being recommended courses based on your interests’ etc.
  • How a user would complete each activity can then be broken down into individual details. To browse all courses, for example, they might have to see a page listing for every course, filter it by date, filter it by intended audience, and so on. Add as many details as we need to fully explain how an activity will be completed.

What does story mapping look like?

Our story mapping workshops involve lots and lots of sticky notes. These workshops are a great way to get everyone from a project team involved. They’re also pretty much the opposite of staring at a user stories spreadsheet.

Every vision, goal, activity or detail gets its own sticky note. These are then grouped, expanded upon and shuffled around until the full story is told- how the details help users complete an activity, how activities fulfill a particular goal, and how these goals achieve the overall vision.

We also like to create an online backup, which won’t get left on a train and can be kept up-to-date as conversations continue the next day. So after a story mapping workshop we put everything into an online tool called StoriesOnBoard.

Why is story mapping better?

It’s important to point out is that this process doesn’t replace user stories. Tools like ‘StoriesOnBoard’ even let you export your entries into a spreadsheet or JIRA. But a user stories document is a big list of requirements. A story map is an explanation of what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, and how users will do it. It provides context and meaning, in a way that a spreadsheet simply can’t. Story maps stay ‘alive’ throughout a project and beyond, helping us visualise and understand user needs in a way that spreadsheets simply can’t.

This post originally appeared on the Edo blog.

Talking chat apps

Last week I did a short talk at our agency knowledge share about the new generation of chat apps. Here are some notes on what I talked about:

Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp

Here in the UK we’re pretty familiar with Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp. Many (maybe most?) people with a smartphone use some combination of these (plus iMessage if they have an Apple device) as an alternative to text messaging. To us, they’re a great way to send messages and share photos with family and friends. In Burundi, journalists are using WhatsApp to beat a news blackout by sharing information and hosting editorial meetings before posting to social media. In Kuwait, retailers post items for sale – including sheep – on Instagram, along with a WhatsApp number to contact if you’re interested in buying.

In both cases, no website is required. Everything – from meetings, to posting items for sale, to making a purchase – is done within mobile apps.

Screenshot of @Sheeps_Sell’s Instagram pageScreenshot of @Sheeps_Sell’s Instagram page (now closed, sadly), via


Snapchat gets a bad rap. If you’re older than, say, 19, Ben Rosen’s investigation into how to ‘Snapchat like the teens’ might feel like a glimpse inside a bizarre alien culture. But there’s much more to it than this. Make ‘friends’ with an online publisher and they’ll send you photos and videos that complement their website. For example The Verge recently sent a short video explaining how to tweak settings to improve your iPhone’s battery life following the latest iOS update). Going a step further, big publishers can now appear in the ‘Discover’ section. Here, you can watch news and sport highlights, comedy clips or music videos, even if you’re not Snapchat ‘friends’:

Snapchat discover apps sectionSnapchat has moved far beyond teenagers sending photos to their friends. And, again, this is all happening in an app. No website required.


Looking further afield, a chat app called WeChat is pretty much ubiquitous in China. At first glance it looks just like any other chat app. But it also has apps within the app. These are verified by WeChat, and to use them users just add them as friends like they would a person. Importantly, one of the apps is the ‘wallet’ – which lets you connect your bank account and pay for things within WeChat. Need to order a taxi? Use a WeChat app. Pay an electricity bill? Use a WeChat app. And it’s not just commerce – here’s the app for booking a doctor’s appointment:

How to book a doctor's appointment using We ChatImage via

And yet again, this can all happen within a single app. No website required. If you want to know more about WeChat, Connie Chan’s epic walkthrough is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a long time.

What does it mean?

Chat apps have definitely moved beyond being a simple replacement for text messaging. They’re mini ecosystems in themselves, full of videos, news, products for sale and useful apps. Soon they might contain bots. And, while they’re very much online, they don’t need websites. Websites aren’t going away any time soon, but the rise of chat apps presents an interesting challenge. If you’re creating something (perhaps an app or a bot) that lives in someone else’s app, you have far less control over things like visual design, layout, or technology. Where does that leave us? Well, some things won’t change – people will still value top quality content and being able to do what they want to do easily. Even more than before, user-centred design is key.

This post originally appeared on the Sift Digital blog.

Describing Personas

Describing Personas:

I urged people in a tweet to try rewriting their personas without reference to demographics. Demographics can cause assumptions, shortcuts in thinking, and subconscious stereotypes by team members.

What the tweet didn’t clarify was don’t throw out the persona itself — if it’s based on solid research. Keep the well-researched persona and replace those demographic descriptions with descriptions of the underlying reasoning.

The new Quartz app is not the future of news

The new Quartz app is not the future of news:

Making your news app mimic social media interactions is not, therefore, a visionary move but a sign of surrender: this is how our readers will consume their news, so we must respect that. If so, there is no reason for the Quartz app to exist as a standalone entity. Rather, making the app look and feel like a social media app suggests that we should just be using the real thing.

“The Internet of Things is the name given to the computerization of everything in our lives. Already…”

“The Internet of Things is the name given to the computerization of everything in our lives. Already you can buy Internet-enabled thermostats, light bulbs, refrigerators, and cars. Soon everything will be on the Internet: the things we own, the things we interact with in public, autonomous things that interact with each other.

These “things” will have two separate parts. One part will be sensors that collect data about us and our environment. Already our smartphones know our location and, with their onboard accelerometers, track our movements. Things like our thermostats and light bulbs will know who is in the room. Internet-enabled street and highway sensors will know how many people are out and about – and eventually who they are. Sensors will collect environmental data from all over the world.

The other part will be actuators. They’ll affect our environment. Our smart thermostats aren’t collecting information about ambient temperature and who’s in the room for nothing; they set the temperature accordingly. Phones already know our location, and send that information back to Google Maps and Waze to determine where traffic congestion is; when they’re linked to driverless cars, they’ll automatically route us around that congestion. Amazon already wants autonomous drones to deliver packages. The Internet of Things will increasingly perform actions for us and in our name.

Increasingly, human intervention will be unnecessary. The sensors will collect data. The system’s smarts will interpret the data and figure out what to do. And the actuators will do things in our world. You can think of the sensors as the eyes and ears of the Internet, the actuators as the hands and feet of the Internet, and the stuff in the middle as the brain. This makes the future clearer. The Internet now senses, thinks, and acts.

We’re building a world-sized robot, and we don’t even realize it.

I’ve started calling this robot the World-Sized Web.”

Crypto-Gram: February 15, 2016 – Schneier on Security (via stml)