OKRs and User Story Mapping

Posted on April 24, 2023.

When a team is trying to put a user-first perspective on their work and understand an entire user journey they’ll often turn to a user story map. This tool, invented originally by Jeff Patton, facilitates a cross-functional conversation that allows a team to walk through an entire user experience from beginning to end. Once that has been mapped, the team then works through an exercise of “good, better, best” to determine various ways and levels of effort they could use to enable the desired user task. Finally the team works together to “slice” releases from the map that provide some level of customer value and reduce both upfront investment as well as time to market. Over the last 15 years or so, it’s proven to be an essential tool for product managers, and more importantly, product teams. 

Jeff Patton and I are teaching a 2-hour live webinar on this topic on December 5, 2023 at 12pm EDT. Details here.

Example of user story map. Image from http://winnipegagilist.blogspot.com/2012/03/how-to-create-user-story-map.html

How can user story mapping help with OKRs?

If you’re working on identifying your objectives and key results as a team and are struggling a bit, consider user story mapping as a way to unblock your progress. Every post-it note in a user story map should be a “short action phrase.” For example, it could be something like, “sign into my account”, “put an item in shopping cart” or “select credit card for payment.” As you walk through the user story journey you’re building together with your team, identify any of these behaviors that you believe are crucial to the success of the user journey and are strategically important to the company at this time. 

Each item you identify, if written as a “short verb phrase”, is inevitably a behavior of your customer while using your system. The story map process offers a layer of aggregation where you can group similar tasks into activities (e.g., “make a purchase”). These too are short verb phrases. Essentially, every element in the “backbone” of the story map as well as each of the “activity” groupings is a potential key result. 

The goal for your team is to identify where you believe you should focus your efforts in the immediate term. This will require an understanding of what’s important strategically to the company right now as well as where you believe you and your team can have the most impact. With these criteria in mind you can select a set of customer behaviors that could potentially become your key results. The bonus here is, if you did the user story mapping process as a collaborative team, the team can also work together to set its own goals (a key aspect for the success of OKRs) while doing within the context of the system you’re building rather than a set of “disembodied” decisions done out of context. 

Choosing OKRs in a story map helps with your release strategy

The last step in a user story mapping process is to “slice” out potential releases from the functionality you’ve identified that could support the user journey. If you’ve already picked your key results from the map, this process becomes much easier. With a clear sense of the behavior you’d like to influence in the immediate future you can create a release strategy that not only delivers value to the customer but focuses on the strategic goals of the company. For example, perhaps your customers have no issues logging into the system but getting an item into their shopping cart is a problem and a big focus for the company this quarter. Your first few “slices” of functionality may focus heavily on solving that problem before moving on to features elsewhere in the user journey. 

User story maps can unblock teams setting OKRs

By definition, story maps are user-centric. Building them together with product, design and engineering in the room at the same time builds a shared understanding of the entire, desired user experience. Filtering the desired behaviors through a strategic lens then empowers a team to make choices about where their releases will focus initially. This unblocks the team both from setting goals and choosing how to prioritize their next few releases. Give it a shot and let me know what you think.