You don’t need me to tell you how important user stories are. They’re central to any Product Owner or Manager’s toolkit. But when people started working from home en masse at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, the role they play took on new significance.
With individuals from business and IT teams working remotely, it’s more important than ever to facilitate clear, constructive conversations that underpin seamless software delivery.
Are your user stories doing what they need to? Or is it time for a fresh look at why, when and how your organisation uses them?
User stories: the why and when
When use cases or epics are deconstructed into well-crafted user stories, it boosts the organisation’s ability to streamline and accelerate software delivery.
Breaking large tasks down into smaller chunks that deliver value independently makes work easier to visualise and understand. Estimating and planning the time and resources required to deliver on them immediately becomes more straightforward.
The benefits of this approach are far-reaching. Meaningful segments of work can be accommodated within a single Agile sprint or iteration. Product-centric, autonomous teams can make decisions quickly without deferring to external departments or senior leaders. Software delivery becomes inherently customer-focused, and because changes are handled in manageable, standalone pieces, progress is fast. It’s about achieving maximum value with minimal risk.
User stories are intrinsic to one of the critical success factors of the digital economy: rapid, incremental software improvements that continually enhance the user experience.
It sounds straightforward. But it’s easy to lose sight of the need for simplicity. When this happens, user stories can quickly become an ineffective administrative burden. In which case, it’s time to get back to basics and ensure everyone involved in the creation of user stories understands their purpose.
This is especially important at the moment, with many teams working flexibly and remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s vital that business and IT teams work together to convey and capture software requirements on an as-needed basis.
As product manager author Roman Pichler says in his blog Reflections on User Stories:
“User stories are great at capturing product functionality, things people can do with a digital product like searching, evaluating, and purchasing products online. You can also use stories to capture non-functional aspects of a product, such as performance, robustness, and interoperability.”
The goal is to facilitate top level discussions that foster fast and effective communication between business and IT teams. It’s about taking a ‘little and often’ approach to planning, with conversations focused on immediate needs to drive timely development of product features that add tangible value.
How to improve your user stories
A decent user story is intentionally vague. The goal is to stimulate discussion; it’s a placeholder for a deeper conversation, not a specification in itself.
If your user stories are getting bloated, or not working as they should, it’s worth revisiting the core models behind them:
The three Cs of user stories
Following the ‘Card, Conversation, Confirm’ formula helps bring discipline to user story creation.
A small card (or Post-it note) is the only physical component. The limited space ensures upfront information is focused and concise.
This brevity ensures greater emphasis is put on the conversation between various stakeholders. People have to actively engage with each other to establish the detail of what’s needed. Prior to Covid-19 this would ideally happen in person. In the current situation, it’s important to maintain the face-to-face aspect of this stage as far as possible via video conferencing.
It’s only once the conversation is complete that formal confirmation happens and there is mutual agreement on what will be delivered when.
The INVEST model
While a user story is small, it needs to be carefully crafted to ensure it stimulates focused and purposeful activity. The INVEST acronym summarises the core criteria:
Every user story should be interrogated to ensure it satisfies each of these factors.
The hamburger method
The one criterion that underpins all others is ‘Independent’. Any user story needs to function and deliver value as a standalone entity. This is fundamental to iterative value delivery. However, there can be a tendency for teams to revert to technical divisions of work.
Gojko Adzic has devised an effective way to overcome this problem with his User Story Hamburger. Every individual story or ‘bite’ incorporates all essential components, with an appropriate level of quality so it doesn’t become unwieldy but still delivers value. To put it simply, each story might include elements of the storage layer, user interface and business logic.
“This method works very nicely because it is visual, and it gets people thinking about alternatives while still staying in their comfort zone. It also works nicely with ‘bite-size chunks’ analogies. And you can easily explain why releasing just a technical task doesn’t make sense because no sane person would eat only the lettuce.”Gojko Adzic
Get user stories right to boost WFH performance
For many organisations, lockdown and widespread homeworking have exposed challenges with user stories. When everyone was in a central location, with physical story cards on display, any inadequacies with the wider process were hidden. Now that teams are reliant on digital tickets, with many people working flexible hours to accommodate childcare or home schooling, the cracks are starting to show.
Does this sound familiar? Then you need to grasp the nettle. Tear up your existing user story cards and start again. Follow the 3 Cs, use the INVEST acronym and refer to the hamburger method to ensure every user story is small and perfectly formed.
DevOpsGroup Academy has launched a Professional User Stories training course to help Product Owners and Managers turn business requirements into something awesome. Find out more about the course here.