What Are Agile User Stories?

User stories are an important part of product development, which means they’re something that any product manager worth their salt needs to master! User stories might be confused with user personas, as user personas are more commonly known across a variety of disciplines, but they are in fact very different things.

You might have seen user stories in their most common formula:

Persona + Need + Purpose

But that’s not the full story. These are user stories at their most basic level, and if you’re going to master agile product development and become a truly great PM, you need to know how to write actionable stories that have maximum impact, why they’re so important, and when to implement them.

Here’s everything you need to know about agile user stories for product managers.

What Are User Stories?

User stories are used throughout the development process. They are a simple, but effective description of a feature through the eyes of a user. Using formats like the one above, they briefly encapsulate user persona, the job they need the feature to accomplish, and what their overall needs are.

You may notice that a user story doesn’t state what the team should build in order to fill the need, and that’s because a user story is not just something to be passed on to the engineers and ticked off of a list.

User stories put the voice of the customer at the centre and keep every member of the team focused on their needs. It can be shockingly easy to forget the mission and build what teams want to build, and not necessarily what the user needs.

User stories are the smallest unit of work within typical agile frameworks, such as Scrum and Kanban.

Examples

Let’s visualize what we’ve learned with some examples. Remember that each story is attached to a user persona. So although we’re just seeing first names, the team who created these stories know exactly who that ‘person’ is, what their goals are, how they think, and what their primary drivers are. In this way, stories are packed with much more information than meets the eye.

Pro-tip, remember the formula: Persona + Need + Purpose.

Richard wants to compress his files so he can better manage his drive space

Monica needs to buy TechCrunch Disrupt tickets in bulk for her team so that everyone can attend

Gilfoyle needs to receive updates on Bitcoin prices so he knows when to start/stop mining

Dinesh wants a high quality video calling service so he can see his long-distance girlfriend

Jared wants to be able to tag team members in an online whiteboard so they can see their assigned tasks

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Key Benefits of User Stories in Agile

User stories are important for a few reasons…

  1. They keep the teams’ focus on the user, and how a certain product feature will benefit them. This is key for user-focused product development.
  2. They help teams to manage workflow with both speed and flexibility.
  3. They encourage collaborative, creative thinking. By stating the why but not the how, they empower designers and engineers to build with the right goal in mind.

How User Stories Fit Into Agile Frameworks

While user stories themselves remain relatively unchanged depending on your agile approach, they can be used in different ways depending on which framework your teams follow.

Scrum:  In Scrum, user stories make up the product backlog, where they will be prioritized collaboratively by the Scrum Master and the Scrum teams. The higher priority user stories will then be made into the Sprint Backlog and worked on by the development team.

Kanban: The main difference between how user stories are used in Scrum and kanban is that they are not prioritized collaboratively, but by the Product Owner. The kanban backlog remains flexible, and the Product Owner can re-prioritize tasks without disrupting the team.

Epics and initiatives: User stories are important components of epics and initiatives. They’re among the first building blocks in the structure, which help break large jobs into smaller and more manageable tasks:

Themes and initiatives

Themes are the larger areas of the business (say, B2C and Enterprise for example). Initiatives that work towards those themes are broken down into epics, which are again broken down into stories.

Using this framework helps teams to communicate more effectively, and understand how each piece of work contributes towards a bigger picture. It also makes it easier to come up with time estimates, as each large task is revealed to be the sum of its parts (stories).

How To Create Actionable User Stories

So what does a good user story look like? While stories look short and simple, there’s a lot of work that goes into writing user stories that actually have an impact and help to achieve the desired outcome.

  • Use fleshed-out user personas. Things like user journey and user story mapping only work when you’ve already built your user personas! It’s much more effective to create a well-researched and fully understood persona called ‘Sarah’. Then your stories will be more human and contain more information than just using ‘As a manager…’ or ‘As a millennial…’
  • Think big or small as needs be. If a user story will take too long to complete, or is actually more complicated than you first realized, don’t be afraid to break it down into even smaller stories.
  • Define ‘done.’ The goal of a user story is to eventually be ‘done’, but don’t take it for granted that everyone involved in development will have the same definition of the word ‘done!’ Each story will have its own version of done, and everyone working on them needs to understand what that is.

User Story Acceptance Criteria

Part of defining what ‘done’ means for a story is defining your acceptance criteria. This is a list of all the scenarios that lead up to a story being complete. A user story can only be considered complete under a certain set of conditions, and you need total alignment on what those conditions should be.

This is important for many reasons. For example, serving as a basis for tests.

It could be easy to confuse user stories with requirements documentation, or rather, the entire product backlog may be a sort of replacement for requirements documents. In truth, user stories alone are not quite detailed enough.

Stories can be used to indicate requirements documents, but they aren’t a straight up swap! 

Learning About Agile? Here’s Everything You Need!

So, you’re learning more about agile product development. That’s great! There’s a lot to it, so it can feel overwhelming, but we’ve got your back. Here are some things you can do to get started.

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