User storymapping with Houghton Miffln Harcourt

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
May 13, 2016
example of a user storymap

Agile development breaks software development down into small chunks, called user stories. These are short descriptions of a feature from the user’s perspective.

User stories have a common format:

As a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>

Utilizing user stories makes development more manageable. Programmers can focus on one aspect at a time and measure progress accurately.

But there are some drawbacks to Agile development: it’s easy for a team to lose sight of the big picture of what it is they are building.

To help form a common vision, Agile coach Jeff Patton devised a technique called User Story Mapping, detailed in his book by the same name. The exercise is simple but effective: the team maps stories to the user journey.

Typically, the exercise is done offline, utilizing sticky notes and a whiteboard. With MURAL, teams can map their user stories online. This is a great benefit for distributed groups.


In February of 2015, MURAL partnered with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), a global learning company, to run a pilot user story mapping exercise. The participants were all part of a distributed development team - from Dublin, Ireland to Boston and Chicago, USA.

Normally, HMH manages user stories with a project management tool. While this is a great way to track progress, it doesn’t necessarily align the development effort to the user’s experience.

In this case, the team at HMH believed user story mapping would give them a better shared understanding of the solution from the customer’s perspective. Together, we set out to pilot the exercise using MURAL as the platform for collaboration.

The pilot had three phases: preparation, collaboration, and follow up.


First, we planned a live remote session. In this case, there was a co-located team in Dublin working with people in various locations in the US. We scheduled a 90-minute meeting at a time that worked across all time zones: 2:00 pm GMT / 9:00 am EST / 8:00 am CST.

Then we created a user story mapping template in MURAL. This had three large sections: the customer journey at the top, the user stories from backlog in the middle, and personas at the bottom.

Template created in MURAL prior to the live session


At the scheduled time, everyone joined the session via conferencing software. Several people in Dublin gathered in a conference room, while others dialed in from their individual locations. Everyone had their own laptop to join individually.

After a brief introduction and demo of MURAL, we started with the personas at the bottom of the template. HMH already had personas relevant to the project, so we spent about 5 minutes reviewing them. Then, we brainstormed benefits the planned software solution would offer each persona type.

Next, the team fleshed out the steps in the user journey. This in an open discussion facilitated by a developer at HMH. After about 45 minutes, we had the basis of a customer journey.

Differences in understanding of the intended user experience and in the scope of functionality emerged during the conversation. The exercise provided an opportunity for the team to resolve those discrepancies and get on the same page.

Finally, the group sorted user stories into releases based on the user’s journey in an open discussion.

hmh insession
Image of the HMH working in MURAL


The team did not complete the entire user story mapping exercise in the single 90-minute call. As a next step, we planned to complete the task and fill out the stories.

After the user story map was completed in MURAL, epics -- or grouping of stories -- were determined. The user journey provided the basis for categorizing stories into epics.

Finally, we updated the template based on how the participants interacted with it during the exercise. So the pilot allowed us to find the best approach and customize a solution specifically for HMH.


Overall, the team felt very positive about the exercise. One participant said, “It was a very helpful exercise to get everyone on the same page.”

Another team member commented how much better working visually is for getting the big picture: “It’s easier to comprehend what we’re doing from this view compared to what’s in [our story management system].”

User story mapping is a visual exercise that helps align development efforts to the customer journey. When teams are remote, MURAL provides an excellent means to work through the method online. Our work with HMH is a successful example of that.

Each team is different. They have different contexts and situations. It’s our recommendation to experiment with techniques like user story mapping when working with remote teams and find what works best for you.


For more on how to create your own templates in MURAL, please see a summary of our webinar on the topic in this blog post:

You might also enjoy our other how-to videos and blog posts on remote collaboration:

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About the author

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.

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