How to get the complete picture from user story mapping

An easy way to discover every step and pain point in their process

It’s a weekday and you’re having the time of your life creating a story map with your new clients, customers, and/or potential users.

That isn’t a guess. Of course you’re enjoying this information rich opportunity to discover their goals, motivations, and tasks.

After all, gaining a shared understanding of a specific problem space is what we UX Strategists love and aim for, right?

Yet, something feels like it’s missing. The user’s current process is mapped out on the wall in all of its Post-it note glory, but it doesn’t feel complete. So why the uncertainty? Why the gut feeling like the path laid out before you is missing some critical details?

Don’t stop here.

Remember, great strategists and designers fall in love with the problem, not just the solution.

Instead, I urge you to try one more simple tactic to fill in these known unknowns; a reverse role play of sorts.

I want you to be their new user, customer, operator, technician, trainee, whatever role it is. Let them be the expert that they are. Engage them in a scenario where it’s their responsibility to teach you exactly how to do their job.

As an exercise, think back to the last time that someone else drove your car while you sat in the passenger seat. You were a bit nervous, weren’t you?

Sure, you trust them as a driver… or had no other choice because life is sometimes evil-grinningly cruel that way. This is your beloved car though. You definitely do not want them to damage it, and you’d like to get out on the road as soon as possible.

So what do you do?

You’ll show them how to adjust the driver’s seat. How to disengage your parking brake. How to turn on your headlights. How to put your car in Eco-mode to save fuel, and so on.

Now, take that mindset and encourage your audience to be owner of that metaphorical car. You’re going to be the brand new driver. They’ve got time and money invested in this car. As such, it is in their best interest that they don’t forget to tell you anything about how to operate it.

This role play trick has helped me through break through many moments of stagnation when documenting a user’s workflow.

It first came to mind when a software development company’s security lead asked me for help. They felt like one of their weekly activities was too cumbersome, and wondered if I had any ideas on how to automate it. I naturally asked them to explain their current process to me.

Unfortunately, I continually found myself confused each step of the way. How did they get to this point? When do they do this again?

It’s not their fault though.

We often think and act on autopilot when performing a routine set of tasks. We’ll instinctively ignore the minutia. It’s not a cognitive choice. We’re simply too familiar with the use case, and may forget to explain these details to others.

With this in mind, here’s how the security lead described their workflow:

“First, I’ll get notified of new software vulnerabilities in third-party plugins. Next, I’ll ask a group of product leads if those vulnerabilities affect any of their products. Once I get their responses, I’ll type up a report which includes their feedback and our plan of action. Then I’ll wait until I’m told that the issues have been addressed, and I or another admin will send off a final report.”

A hundred more questions were raised in my mind. How did they know who the current product leads are? How did they ask them? How do they keep track of which responses they’ve received? Did they have templates for these reports? Does the other person writing the final report have access to the same information?

I asked them to show me how they went about completing their last vulnerability report. Observing actual users working towards their goals is Discovery Phase 101. All the while, I would jot down their sub-steps and add them to our story map.

I proceeded to watch them use shortcuts, locally saved files, copies of previously sent emails, and more. So the next logical question arose…

Would a new person in their role know what to do?

In the spur of the moment, I decided to flip this walk-through around.

“Let’s pretend that, starting tomorrow, I have to completely take over your role. Unfortunately, you’ll still be responsible for the outcome of my performance, and you know that I’ve never done this before. Luckily, I’ll be able to use this story map of ours as an instructional guide. Let’s go through it right now, and I’ll start on my computer instead of yours.”

I began pointing to the documented journey on the wall and stated which sticky note task I was going to do next. I didn’t do anything that wasn’t written down.

Immediately the security lead sprang to life with quips and comments.

“Oh, you need to first download this template from the shared drive.”

“I guess I don’t know if they read my email. I just assumed that if they didn’t respond, then they didn’t have any problems.”

“Okay, now you’ll need to retype what they wrote there into here. You won’t be able to copy and paste.”

It was a glorious moment of revelation and what I live for.

With them now out of the driver’s seat, but still observing as an invested stakeholder, they were filling in the gaps without even realising it. They were identifying pain points that they had gotten used to. They were teaching me handy workarounds that they had found. Each of these crucial micro-interactions and experiences made their way onto our map.

Soon enough, we were confident that we had finally figured it all out. Not only that, but I could see confidence in their eyes. They knew that we were on the right road towards making their life easier.

So try it out! When you reach a point where you’ve established the gist of a users’ journey, but don’t feel like you’ve gotten the complete picture, switch seats. Have them guide you step-by-step, like a parent teaching their teenage child how to drive. Before you know it, you’ll have a wealth of new information.

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