Storytime! Ok, well, it isn’t that kind of storytime. User stories are a fun and easy way to collect information, requests, needs, wants, problem-solve, and more. But not just collect the info; it also makes it easy to put that info to good use. The user story is a long-used, trusted process, and you’ll quickly see why.
Anybody can do it so long as they understand the assignment, and if they don’t, you’ll soon be equipped to teach them so you can go about developing whatever your next big "thing" is. A few things may seem complicated about the process, but it’s a lot easier than you think, and we’re here to break it down.
What is a user story? Our definition
The user story definition we think works best is that it’s an informal, natural language description of a software’s features, requests, and faults in an Agile development setting from the end-user perspective. Think Jira. It is the smallest and simplest part of Agile — but incredibly effective in its purpose. To be clear, it is not written by the end-user (although stories can be sourced from their feedback). If they were written by end-users, Jira would likely be barraged with well-intentioned but unusable rhetoric.
These may be written out on paper/index cards, the classic Post-it Notes (remember Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion? 😂), and more common recently — using a dedicated digital software/product management application as a more technical sticky note option.
A user story itself is not a feature or tool included in the software or product but rather a tool used to develop your software or product. User story meaning comes from looking at a feature or task from the end user’s perspective, highlighting things that may have been missed, aren’t obvious, or just not thought of initially by the development team.
What are user stories in Agile?
First and foremost, it needs to be understood that the Agile framework is a mindset in product development project management. It focuses on the larger picture and works towards a specific goal. An Agile story definition, if you will, is as simple as putting together one or two sentences about a product in some phase of development. Not just any sentences, though; a user story format in Agile describes a product and its functions from an end-user perspective, with the goal being that users consider the product to be complete.
Just saying "complete" seems easy, but complete means fully functioning and satisfactory to the user, stakeholders, and the team. Sliding into home plate at the last second with loose ends is not complete. You may have scored, but the game isn’t over. If you have to ask, it isn’t complete.
Think of Agile software development and the associated user stories as a bit of an umbrella term. A mindset, as we said. These are likely more on the epic scale ("epics" being the larger story that’s too big to fit into a sprint) for Agile teams. From there, you get into methodologies — Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, Lean, Crystal (to name a few) — which get into the more specific details of tasks. They fall more into the sprint task scale (tasks broken down into smaller sections worked over the course of one to two weeks that live within an epic) for Scrum teams or another chosen methodology. Lastly, the user story is the smallest unit of a single task or process, with each story being a step towards the completion of the primary user task. From here, you’ll work your way into story mapping to give some direction to the stories rather than having a bunch of random stories that have no direction.
For example, let’s say you have a platform for selling cars. The process is made up of several tasks which create the overall big picture. Researching cars on the site, providing financing options, arranging tests, finalizing papers, etc. — these are epics. Each epic is broken down into smaller tasks then further into the individual user stories that are needed to complete those tasks. What you work on in each sprint is decided by Scrum stories. A Scrum story once again being the smaller, broken-down version of the larger task.
Sprint or iteration meetings will determine the prioritization of these items in the backlog. This helps map out the best and most efficient workflow for product success (and hopefully less frustration on the team).
Are there different types of user stories?
There are, in fact, three user story types, and all three will live in the product backlog where they can be easily accessed and used. The three types:
A simple one or two-sentence statement from an end-user point of view about the product and its roles and abilities. The purpose is to illustrate the product’s value to the end-user in a simple, easy-to-understand little bundle.
A simple statement from a non-user perspective about internal tools and features that are needed to better serve and resolve a user story. They help create ways to more efficiently enter user stories into the backlog to deliver a better product. Additionally, this can indicate stories for things that need to function but are not from a user or user persona, as well as requirements for things users will not see or interact with directly.
Spikes can be a few things and are identified by your internal team to resolve issues within the previous two story types with the simplest solution possible to continue the development process.
A spike is a simple statement that motivates research and/or generates further information needed to continue addressing issues.
Lastly, spikes can be used as tests to locate those issues, risks, errors, etc. From there, it trickles down with the added benefit of backstopping the backlog (the more data you backstop, the better) and narrows down exactly what needs to happen.
What are the benefits of user stories?
The benefits of user stories are nearly endless, with the most significant benefit being higher satisfaction for end-users and a product they consider complete, which is why they’re so important.
Notes about what the story must do in order for the product owner to accept it as complete.
Advantages of user stories as a user
These stories are advantageous for end-users because the product is improved and issues are fixed that resolve things before it’s ever launched and can be used to apply further changes after launch. It creates a better product with more value for the user.
In a time when people more than ever want more for less, getting it right is an extreme necessity. Any user-sourced information can be triaged into the backlog and applied as needed for an overall better product.
Better product=happy customers.
The advantages of a user story as a developer
With all of the above advantages to the user, you may wonder what could be in it for the developer. Actually, there are plenty of goodies left. In no particular order — deeper and more effective collaboration, better project management, a sharper focus on details and completing tasks, and more productive and constructive prioritization in backlogging.
The beauty of this system is its simplicity. It isn’t too hard to write one or two sentences saying what you think, want, or feel — call it a story and send it off to the backlog. But, as a developer, getting that feedback in a structured and controlled manner can be huge. It’s easy to get bogged down or for morale to drop when feedback piles up in a less mediated and moderated manner.
As a developer, it gives you a chance to provide those stakeholders with what they want, too. This, of course, is great for not wasting time, money, and resources guessing or designing what you thought they wanted.
For user-sourced ideas or feedback, those ideas (or complaints) can be submitted, turned into user stories, and addressed in order of importance. This allows you to fix, improve and change things before those issues go straight to Twitter which can end rather messily.
What makes a good user story?
The most straightforward answer to what is a good user story is as simple as the question: simplicity and clarity. You’ll be surprised at how effective a sentence or two can be in the context of refining user tasks. Simple user stories say exactly what needs to be said and can be put into play much easier than writing a novel about a menial issue.
Here’s how to write a user story
If you’re unsure how to write user stories, then you’re in the right place. It’s important to note because the people writing them very likely won’t know how and if you want good ones — you need to have this down pat. After all, you’ll need to be able to teach them. However, writing user stories in Agile can be done in a few easy steps.
Define what "done" or "complete" means
This is mainly on the development side but should still be made aware to those writing the stories. Typically, however, this means that something is complete when a user can perform the task from start to finish, error-free, of course.
Outline subtasks or tasks
Decide which steps need the most resolution the soonest and who is responsible.
Define your user personas. Don’t skimp on the research. There are a lot of variables in the world. Less is not more here.
A story is the smallest unit of a single task or process, and each story is a step towards completion, write them out accordingly. Critically, a user story will always only be about one task.
Listen to feedback
Users are full of valuable information. You’d be remiss not to take advantage of that goldmine.
In the interest of time, you need to find a healthy balance for gathering stories and having conversations. It’s good to converse, especially to get the most accurate stories. Gathering accurate information is vital to the process. Otherwise, you may be working on something that wasn’t intended in the first place. A heap of things can go wrong here if clarification is not made through conversation.
Agile user story examples
We’ve put our thinking caps on and put together some sample user stories to provide a clearer image of what you’ll be working towards.
There’s a pattern that user stories follow, and it generally isn’t optional. Now there’s no law out there saying you can’t switch it up a bit to make it match your needs, but they’re written this way because it works best. So keep that in mind before reinventing the wheel.
As a user role, I want what do you want? so that how does this benefit you/the business.
There can be a user story for anything really. They come in all flavors; user story project management, user story software engineering, user story software development — the list goes on. But now onto some examples…
Software user story example
As a power user, I want to automate my daily tasks so that I can focus on getting the work done more efficiently.
As a new user, I want the option to limit how many emails I receive from this app so that I don’t get overwhelmed with junk mail.
eCommerce user story example
As a business owner, I want to print duplicate copies of invoices on all orders so that I have a copy for the customer and our records.
As a long-time customer, I want an email when my favorite products go on sale so that I can buy as soon as the price drops before it sells out.
Non-user story example
As a business owner, I want to receive a text when every new order comes in so that I can prepare the order for shipment as soon as possible.
Get started with Slickplan’s Agile user story template
Our free user stories template can be used as a guide within Slickplan’s user story software (Diagram Maker) to get the ball rolling on your next project. It’s as easy as filling in the blanks.
Who writes user stories in Agile?
It's essential to define who creates user stories you'll use. Writing Agile user stories is done by the product owner with assistance from the development team from the perspective of the end-user. They can be sourced from the end-user but ultimately are written by an internal source to be backlogged.
A user story includes which three things?
A user story includes three things. Who. What. Why. To further describe that, the “who” explains the role the writer plays. The “what” describes a function. The “why” represents its business value. Two additional items: How and the definition of complete — these are used outside of the story structure, though. The latter two are typically part of a further conversation rather than included in the simple statement user story.
What are the three Cs of user stories in Agile?
The three Cs of Agile user stories are cards, conversation and confirmation. Cards being what we've discussed throughout this article — whether it's actual physical cards is irrelevant. Finally, conversation should occur after card/story creation. Confirmation is only given once the definition of complete is agreed upon and executed.