Every project (be it a new piece of software or a new building) requires documentation. Before a team of specialists can start bringing a client's vision to life, they need to understand to the full extent possible all the functional and non-functional requirements of the product that they are about to build.
Most difficulties when drafting project requirements occur when the client doesn’t share details that are clear enough to render what is being built or why the project is being undertaken, but still provides enough details for the team to understand the features of the product.
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There are many different approaches that one can take to bridge this divide, and using user stories to describe the product is a common way to solve the issue.
What Are Agile User Stories?
What is a user story? User stories in product requirement terms, and, in particular, for software requirements have become very popular as a simple way to articulate the business need and describe the desired functionality.
The idea behind a user story is very simple, but it can be misleading too. So in order to learn how to write good user stories that are valuable for the business and useful for the development team, we can start by defining what a user story isn’t:
It isn’t a feature description.
It isn’t a separate non-functional requirement.
It isn’t a vague idea about some functionality that “it would be nice to have done some time”
If we remember these limitations, we will discover that at its core each user story in Agile is the minimum unit of work that the teams should focus on, as each user story focuses on the desired outcome for the end user. User stories themselves are often called agile user stories, to empathize that they are an integral part of various Agile frameworks.
Why does writing user stories, their refinement and prioritization fit so well into various Agile frameworks and methodologies?
There’s a couple reasons for that.
First, user stories are by definition not finite in their form, they invite open discussion and require detalization.By doing that, using user stories reinforces the spirit of collaboration that Agile requires.
Secondly, user stories provide a context to help developers understand the business needs more clearly. They can then work on the software keeping those needs in mind.
Why Create User Stories?
1) User stories provide a common language for the team. Using user stories as the foundation for software requirements helps everyone on the development team to be on the same page, by ensuring that every member of the team is aware of their work’s goal.
2) User stories increase team collaboration. User stories give a team additional reasons to ask the product owner open-ended questions, inciting a more thorough investigation into the users needs and business goals for the product. Because of this, teams that rely on user stories in their planning tend to be more efficient at estimating tasks, both in terms of their technical complexity and the time required to implement them.
3) User stories are equally beneficial for different teams, whether their preferred framework is Scrum or Kanban or a mix of both. User stories are beneficial for more inclusive project management frameworks as well, since the refinement of user stories can also extend through to risk management.
4) User stories motivate non-technical team members to participate more actively. A lot of valuable inputs can be lost, particularly if a person who has a unique perspective from the business’s side is too shy or gets discouraged from speaking when intimidated by the presence of more tech-savvy team members. Because user stories are not written in technical language, using them creates a more equal and welcoming atmosphere in the team.
5) User stories help with logical, iterative, step-by-step product development. User stories can be combined into larger pieces of work (epics) to form a bigger picture, which helps the project team to grasp the idea behind the product as a whole and keep it in focus while working on smaller details.
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How to Write User Stories
How to write a good User Story?
To make sure your user story is as useful as it can be, you should follow several best practices:
- Keep in mind user roles
Traditionally each user story includes a mention of a user role. This way, from the very beginning everyone in the development team is forced to keep their focus on roles and permissions and what each type of user wants to accomplish with the help of the product.
Come up with a clear “Definition of Done” and - with acceptance criteria
When working with a user story developer needs to have a clear expectation of when they can consider their work complete. ‘Definition of Done’ is a set of criteria that serves that purpose, which the team agrees on using for a particular project.
Definition of done is often confused with acceptance criteria. The difference here is that the definition of done is applied at a higher level and is the same for all user stories in a project, whereas acceptance criteria describes specific characteristics applicable to a particular user story.
Defining when a user story is complete and ready will help the team to plan their work and will make testing of new features easier and more efficient.
Define sub-tasks that can be completed within one user story
There’s nothing stopping you from dividing a user story into multiple sub-tasks, so that they are easier to work with for the development team:
- Validate User Needs
- Create Epics
- Focus On User Types
INVEST User Story
People in IT often resort to using abbreviations to memorize something important in an easy and fun way. One such abbreviation - “invest” - was designed specifically to describe six essential characteristics that user stories must have in order to be most useful.
What does INVEST stand for exactly?
A great user story must be:
"I" - independent. It means that the team can work on implementing user stories in any order that they choose, and since stories aren’t dependent on each other, the team won’t be blocking one another.
"N" - Negotiable. As we mentioned above, good user stories are a direct result of team collaboration and are born from an open discussion that goes beyond a predefined workflow
"V" - Valuable. This characteristic refers to the fact that each user story - when implemented - brings additional value to users.
"E" - Estimatable. A team should be able to discuss and define how long it’s going to take them to implement a particular user story.
"S" - Small. A User story can be broken down into several tasks, but in essence it is low-level enough to be processed within one iteration (sprint). Each user story can be worked on by a different team and by the end of this iteration it will be fully completed.
"T" - Testable. Good user stories are easy to test because they have clearly defined acceptance criteria. This allows quality assurance to make sure that the story is implemented in accordance to its description. User stories acceptance criteria are instrumental in making sure the business value will be delivered, and that the team will be on the same page as the product owner.
User Story examples
When it comes to user story format, there’s a couple options that are widely accepted by the industry. However today we are going to look into the most common framework that will let you create a universal user story template, which can then be adjusted to your project’s needs.
The most common template you’ll find has the following format, but there’s no standard, since Agile doesn’t call for a specific format for defining a user story. Let’s look at some illustrative agile user story examples.
As a [type of user/role], I want [an action/state] so that [a benefit/a value]. Let’s break it down and look at it more closely:
- Our user story starts with a part that defines the angle - how a particular user with a unique point of view and unique permissions for the system perceives all functions/features of the system this story covers. This is what this first part might look like:
<As a particular class of user/ persona /role>
- As a second step we indicate the need for a particular action - in essence, this action here is what the user wants to “hand over” to our product:
<I want to ...>
- The last component of the user story reminds us of the value that its implementation will provide to the user, and through the happy user - to the business:
<so that I ...>
A lot of people tend to omit this last bit as non-essential and sometimes too obvious, but it is crucial in order for the Agile approach to work. It's a very simple test, that allows the product owner (or anyone else on the team) to catch unclear or low-value requirements that the team shouldn’t waste time on. If it’s not clear what there should be at the end of the user story, it generally means that the story itself should be discarded.
Tools for visualizing user stories
What tools could be used for User Stories visualisations?
A lot of Agile frameworks and approaches call for workflow visualization, so that everyone on the team is on the same page and the progress is easily tracked. Since Agile teams in software development are often partially or fully distributed, using something like a traditional board with sticky notes isn’t really a viable option. However, a lot of companies have come up with their own tools that can be used to visualize user stories, and their life cycle within a project.
Here are some of the tools that you can look into for user story visualization and mapping:
- Trello is known for its images and has user lists and all the essential features required for story mapping. It allows comments and real-time discussions for the team. Management can organize the backlog by adding due dates, creating checklists, labels, and it's even connected to Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive for uploading files.
- FeatureMap provides a digital board where your team can share updates in real-time. Product owners like using this tool because it lets them visualize the complete project and prioritize tasks within it. FeatureMap integrates with Jira and with Trello.
- Craft is another powerful tool liked by Agile teams for its flexibility and supports the linking of stories and sub-stories, and the real-time collaboration between teams.
- Storiesonboard.com is another tool for story mapping. With StoriesOnBoard users can prioritise the most urgent aspects of the project. StoriesOnBoard gives unlimited storage and has a very clean user-friendly interface. It’s also free.
- Mural is a tool that visualizes working with sticky notes. It is often referred to as a great choice for remote teams, and is very much focused on the design. Mural provides a wide variety of templates that can be used for various purposes, including story mapping.
Users can also go with JIRA add-ons such as Agile User story map.
Taking all of the above into consideration, it becomes obvious that creating user stories is a core element of the Agile approach, and a well designed user story brings a lot of value, creativity, discussion and collaboration. At the same time, there are certain best practices about user story creation that should be followed, so that the user stories actually benefit your product and facilitate your project workflow.
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