The AwkEng Sees the Forest and the Trees

Hi all,

I'm still forming some ideas in this post, but wanted to share some hacks for Trello and thoughts on leveraging user story maps. The punchline, is that with a Chrome browser extension, I can get Trello to give better insights into the short and long term outlooks of a project on a single page.

Background - User Story Mapping

One of my favorite techniques for breaking down large, complex problems, (particularly product devlopment problems), is to lean heavily on user story mapping. If we're being nit-picky about terms, I'm blending user story maps, service blue prints, and product breakdown structures together into one amalgamation, but the important part is that we use the narrative of the customer's experience to organize things.

The idea is that giant lists of features and giant lists of tasks can be overwhelming and hard to remember, but people are reasonably good at telling narrative stories, and it serves as a useful framework to structure thought and planning.

For example, think about a restaurant, and all the details that might go into it... of course we all think of the food, and the menu, but what about the plates, the silveware, the little stand that the maitre'd stores menus behind? It's overwhelming. But if you tell the narrative of the customer experience, it become a lot more cohesive.

The customer might hear about the restaurant from a friend or online review, book reservations, arrive, drop off their coats, wait to be seated, sit, order, wait, eat, pay, and leave. It's something that's easy to imagine and relate to. Each step along the way encapsulates a number of things that need to be designed, procured, managed, etc... This in turn, implies a certain amount of work for each thing.

If we're trying to take an agile approach, and deliver full working products with each iteration, we can improve each step of the user story map over time. This example is a little contrived, but the "book reservations" step of the restaurant journey could be done on pencil and paper to start quickly, then moved online to a 3rd party site at a later point in time, and if so desired, booking services can be directly integrated with the restaurant's website, in the most polished, final implementation.

Journey Map

The point is that by taking "slices" out of the story map, you can focus on delivering full experiences quickly and learning, prior to overbuilding a feature for a single step of the journey.

The Problem With Story Mapping Tools

While story maps are a fantastic tool for visualizing the big picture view of the work to be done, my problem is that they don't give a good view of what people are working on right now.

A minimal Kanban process might have simple lists with To Do, Doing, Done. This is great for showing what's in progress under "Doing", and the UI for moving cards from one column to the next is pretty fast and easy, but the To Do and Done lists might have very little context. A giant list of "To Do's" if often called a "flat backlog", and it's one of the problems that a story map is meant to address.

Flat Backlog

Unfortunately, most tools aren't set up combine both views at the same time. Switching between the macro views (the map) and the micro views (a Kanban board), often involves an integration between the mapping tool, and a project tool, like JIRA or Trello, or it takes a heck of a lot of clicking.

I love the UI and ease of use of Trello, (I wrote about using Trello with physical paper here), and I wanted to see if I could make it work with a structured backlog to track the multiple workstreams I had at work.

Note: seeing the macro/micro views becomes trivial if we're moving physical sticky notes around on a board, but then you lose comment histories, the ability to do remote work, and a whole bunch of other features of the digital world. Enter the metaverse, I suppose.

Hacking Trello

My quick hack was to use a Chrome browser extension that creates what are called "swimlanes" for Trello. (The extension is approiately name Swimlanes for Trello.) It means that the board is divided into horizontal lanes, or sections.

I divided my board into two lanes. One section has the micro view of To Do / Doing / Done for the week, the other section has the macro view with the larger map.

Forest and Trees

Thoughts So Far

So far, at least for my hybrid paper/Trello system, I like it. I have about 8 or 9 distinct categories of work that that I'm involved with at my day job, and although they don't necessarily fit into a journey map structure, It gives me a nice view of everything I have going on (the big picture in macro), and a way to make it clear what I should be working no now (the micro).

Paper Trello system

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