What is a User Story and Why Should I Care?

Marcin Niebudek

User Story is a most widely used tool in many Agile methods. Sooner or later you will need to work on some of them or you will need to write a few yourself. At first glance the whole idea may look strange. All those agilists tell you about index cards, about putting them on the wall. They organize them into themes, create some strange maps, call some of them epics, etc.

What is a User Story?

Let’s start from the beginning. User story describes part of your requirements or part of whatever you are trying to achieve in general. In software development we got used to some template (but this is just an example):

“As a [user/role] I want a system to have [some functionality] so that I can achieve [some goal].”

For example:

“As a blog author (my role) I want to be able to create categories for my posts (functionality), so that I can organize all the posts that I write into related topics for better reading (the goal / why I need this).”

But also:

“As a doctor (role) I need to have access to a patients health records and history before the patient comes to a hospital for a scheduled visit (process improvement) so that I can prepare a plan and book some procedures and a patient stay shorter (the goal / why I need this)”

The goal

Actually a template is not so important and if you like different one, then just use it. The most important is a goal part. A user story should bring some value, otherwise why would you want to do it? When writing a story always think about presenting it to a person mentioned in a story (doing a demo)? How would you show that the goal was achieved? If answering this question is a problem, then you should probably rethink your story.

Big and small stories

We usually tell that a story should fit into an index card or a post-it note. The point is not to put too much detail in a single story, but it’s not a level of detail that matters. It’s about story complexity and the expected amount of work required to be done. You should be able to complete a story in some reasonable time. If you work iteratively, then your story should fit into iteration. If you measure cycle time, then the best amount of work put in a single story would fit more or less in that time frame.

Does it mean a story cannot be bigger. No, not at all. Sometimes you will have just a raw idea about what needs to be done. Your story may initially be just called “Customer service improvement”. We will call it an epic. This story will get more details over time. You will split it into smaller stories that can actually be implemented.

Lifecycle

A story have its own lifecycle. It lands in your backlog as an epic, then it gets some details and becomes a set of stories that we can call ready. This is time to start implementing them. They will now go from to do to completed through some various states (depending on your process). There is one more important step…

A story needs to be accepted. This is when you present the outcomes of your work. You will verify if that story meets the set goal. If not, then it will require some more work (which means it will get rejected), otherwise it’s done.

Themes and story mapping

If you are dealing with a complex product or service then you may have a lot of stories to deal with. Having a large backlog is in my opinion a bad idea in general (and I will write a bout it in a few days) but if you do have such a backlog then it’s a good idea to group stories in themes. Themes will usually evolve from groups of epics.

There is also a very useful practice called story mapping. It’s out of scope of this post and I encourage you to read more about it at Jeff Patton’s blog.

What to do next?

So let’s get back to the main question. Why should you care about stories?

My answer is because they are a powerful tool. I would encourage you to think about user stories even if you do not intend to dive into Agile world. They will give you a good perspective and will help you focus on the right things. If you want to learn more about effectively using stories there is a book I especially like. It’s “User Stories Applied” by Mike Cohn.


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