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Book Review: "User Story Mapping" by Jeff Patton

I wanted to learn more about effective product management, especially with regards to Agile/Scrum or Kanban development. I’ve worked at two different companies now, and one adage I’ve heard passed is how “everybody has their own definition of Agile, and nobody does it right”. ‘User Story Mapping” is a subset of Agile development straight from the horse’s mouth, and after reading it I got a good number of insights into how Agile development is supposed to work. Here’s what I learned:

Stories are meant to spark conversations: In other words, get off JIRA! One point Jeff keeps pushing over and over again is the notion of shared understanding between stakeholders, customers, and engineering/product. There is no amount of documentation you could write that would increase the amount of shared understanding, because a) requirements change all the time, and b) documents always have some degree of interpretability to them. Story mapping is also a complement to story management tooling; you need to do it in addition to JIRA, because at least some stakeholders likely won’t use said tool and because it’s easier to have conversations in front of a wall of Post-It Notes instead of, say, on Slack or email. Optimize your Agile process for shared understanding and the amount of interprocess communication happening, not clean backlogs.

Software and business results are two different things: You should cheer when you find out a piece of software doesn’t need to be written, because the less software you write (while still making the customer happy), the more impactful your organization is. Too many engineers think that if they don’t build something, they don’t matter. This is kind of true, until you remind them (us) that all code is technical debt and introduces risk for development velocity slowdowns, decreased shared understanding, bugs and unintended behavior, and all the other fun stuff that happens from code merely existing.

Lazy evaluation is your friend: Break down requirements on an as-needed basis; stories that are further away should NOT be broken down into individual tasks, because there’s a good chance those specific tasks will change in the future, or the story will be thrown away entirely.

Cleanly define what software should be shipped iteratively, and what should be shipped iteratively: Iteratively develop existing features, and incrementally develop new features. Iterative development provides business value at every step of the process, which shortens build/measure/learn cycles and makes software development estimation times more accurate, while incremental development ensures the organization keeps its eye on the ball and how all the features combine to create the user experience.

At the end of the day, it’s about *structuring your organization so that everybody cares about the customer* – also called Conway’s Law, or “don’t hate the player, hate the game”. I learned a lot from this book (and a lot more stuff I didn’t cover, like the specifics of building story maps and opportunity maps). If you’re interested in bettering your Agile process, you should definitely buy Jeff’s book.