Shared Understanding: The Secret to Helping Stakeholders, Developers, Designers and Marketers Get Along

Article by | August 17, 2016 Marketing Strategy

The rate of change in the tech industry is always increasing, and companies are realizing that the convergence of sales, marketing and product development is what will allow them to remain responsive and competitive. One of the best frameworks we have found to help SaaS companies through this process is called User Story Mapping.

Author Jeff Patton is the definitive maven of this discipline. In his book, Patton describes User Story Mapping as a process that “maps user stories into a useful model to help understand the functionality of the system, identify holes and omissions in your backlog, and effectively plan holistic releases that deliver value to users and business with each release.”

It sounds complicated, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s not! After sitting in on just one session, anyone would understand how it works. Here is a real-world story that shows its value. In May of 2015, a couple of us flew up to New York to help lead the User Story Mapping process for Allure Security Technology’s new product Novo.

The primary value that we brought to Allure’s team wasn’t our knowledge of the process; it was the power of having an objective, smart, user- and market-focused third party in the room.


Take one look at Allure’s team page and you’ll quickly see that they are not messing around. Allure is home to some of the brightest minds in their business, and together they have created an incredible product with real value. This is true of a lot of today’s leading technology companies — and so is the following problem:

When you have such a talented team, it’s easy for everyone to be highly invested in their own segment of the product — whether it be the integrity of the code and data, the wooing of potential buyers, the relationship with current accounts, etc.

However, so many talented people fighting for their own interests (often speaking in segment-specific terms that not everyone on the team understands) creates a breeding ground for tension, misunderstanding, frustration, and false agreements.


The User Story Mapping process is perfectly suited to relieve these issues. It provides a tangible, visual representation (or map) of the product and what it can do. Progress made during the debates and discussions can be tracked and viewed by everyone. User Story Mapping also gets everyone around the table at the same time, to talk about the same issues, with the same goal of shared understanding and progress. There are five keys to success when it comes to an effective User Story Mapping Session.

1. Have the right people at the table.

The User Story Mapping process is effective because it creates shared understanding between the four most important influencers in the product’s life:

  • stakeholders (company executives, sales, PMs, POs, user advocates etc.),
  • the development team,
  • UI/UX designers,
  • and (the one that many product teams forget about in the initial process) the marketing team.
  • (and of course it maps the user’s story through the product)

2. Don’t do it alone! Have a third party facilitate the process.

A few dangers stem from only including the above participants:

  • If someone from within your company is in charge of facilitating the USM process, it is only natural for the facilitator to advocate for their respective segment of the product and have difficulty empathizing and listening to the other influencers. It’s bound to happen—and that causes tension.
  • When everyone in the room is directly involved in the creation, development or marketing of the product, there is no one who can objectively advocate for and inhabit the space of the user.

A third party can help manage the needs of each group while pushing the team toward solutions that benefit everyone—especially the customer.

3. Expect and encourage spirited debate.

This is where the magic happens. Each person in the room is encouraged to advocate for their segment, knowing that the ultimate solution is more than likely a compromise and likely lies just out of sight. You can get there if you work together towards the common goal of shared understanding.

These are the conversations that all too often go unexplored until wireframes are produced and you realize no one was on the same page at all. Our goal in this process is to get everyone on the same page so that we can get it right the first time.

4. User is king.

When it comes down to it, the experience of the user wins. Use it as a beacon when discussions get confusing or cloudy. If you get stuck, start a sentence with “So, from [user name}’s perspective…” or “As [user name] I want to…” The user and their experience is more important than anything else, knowing that the solution built to serve them needs to have integrity. If you do not have someone that can unabashedly and relentlessly advocate for the user, get one.

Remember that users have a problem they are trying to resolve, and that is why they are using your product. Also, remember that the user does not work at your company and therefore does not have the context that you and your team do (which is why it is advantageous for your third-party facilitator to also be a user advocate).

5. Achieve shared understanding.

If anyone is unclear about anything that is happening or is having a hard time grasping an idea or concept, do not give up. The only way that your company is going to be on the same page about what you are creating is if everyone understands and agrees on what is being built. If development does not understand a story, how can they program it? If design does not understand a user control, how can they design it? If marketing does not understand something about the user’s experience, how can they tailor a message to speak to the market problem.

Think, write, explain, sketch, debate…anything you have to do to achieve that shared understanding.

My background in user interface and user experience design combined with my user-centric approach, and history of communicating with stakeholders and developers helped me quickly become an effective facilitator of the user story mapping process. With my addition to the Allure team, we were perfectly set up to meet all five keys to success. In two days we were able to:

  1. achieve shared understanding about the backbone or primary user story of Novo and its functionality and features from beginning to end,
  2. finish the user story map for Novo,
  3. identify the Minimum Viable Product (or Pilot) user story map, and
  4. sketch a Wireframe of the Novo dashboard.

Through the USM process and having the right people at the table debating, empathizing and putting the user first, we were able to pack a lot of productivity into two days. I was able to contribute to Allure’s talented team by asking questions to clarify functionality from a visual/user perspective, suggesting features that would be helpful or intuitive for the user, creating sketches to brainstorm user interface screens, and helping keep focus on the user and his/her desires and felt needs.

“Golden Spiral spent considerable time not only getting to know our product and technology, but the why of our work. The end result is a site and message that authentically captures who we are, the people behind the technology, and speaks directly to our customer.” — Erin Ehsani, Director of Product Management & Business Development

The results are very evident at Allure. This User Story Mapping framework has permeated the company. Now everyone is operating on the same page about their product and experiencing the joy of shared understanding and ultimately putting a product with outstanding integrity into the hands of the users that are having their needs met by a product that intuitively understands what they need to do and fully captures the intent of the creators.

Want to find out more about how we helped Allure discover their story? Explore the Allure Case Study here.

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