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Unlocking user story potential: 7 secrets of mastery

User stories are one of the most well-known tools in Agile. They act as fundamental building blocks, guiding the development process towards creating value for users and customers. Formatting work items as "As a <user> I want <to achieve a goal> so that I can <have value>" seems straightforward when developing an app or building a website. For instance, "As a user of a travel booking app, I want to get suggestions about local restaurants, so that I can have a more enjoyable trip."
However, applying user stories can be quite challenging for teams in marketing or finance. During Agile transformation, the concept of user stories often gets introduced. But, over time, many teams revert to old habits—it's hard to blame them; user stories are not trivial.
Despite these challenges, user stories are incredibly valuable. They help teams focus on maximizing customer value delivery and facilitate better prioritization, driving enhanced business outcomes. For more insights into prioritization in Agile, check out my previous blog post.
In this post, I would like to share a few tips on how to adopt user stories more effectively, even if your team is resistant or doesn’t yet see their full value.

1. Don’t Sweat Over the Template

Agile tools, including the classic user story template "As a <user> I want <to achieve a goal> so that I can <have value>", are here to help, not to hinder. For many, sticking rigidly to this template can feel a bit artificial and cumbersome—it's admittedly not the most natural way to phrase tasks. Plus, it’s quite lengthy. If you are using tools like Jira to manage your work items, the text often gets truncated, making it challenging to skim through multiple stories efficiently.
Remember, the essence of Agile lies in its guiding principles and a continuous focus on what truly matters. Tools and templates should serve as aids, facilitating your team's work rather than becoming a source of extra burden. If a certain tool or template isn’t quite fitting the bill, don’t hesitate to tweak it. Ensure that whatever modifications you make align with Agile's core objectives, helping keep the team laser-focused on delivering maximum value to the customers.

2. Start with ‘Who’

User stories are all about the ‘user’—it’s even in the name! So, the big question is, who is your customer? It might sound obvious, but getting crystal clear on this is super important.
You’re probably not creating something for every single person on planet Earth. So, who are you creating for? Your customers could be anywhere on the spectrum, from broad categories to super specific niches. Consider things like age, where they live, or their life stage—are they college students, parents, retirees? And don’t forget unique traits or needs—like, are they non-native speakers or people with special requirements?
Also, your ‘user’ might even be someone within your own company. For example, if you are creating a tool for another team they’re your customer. If you are managing company finances, the whole company now is your customer. Just remember, while you're focusing on these internal customers, you need to keep the ultimate end user (someone who is buying your company’s products) in mind too.
So, get to know your ‘who’. It’s like setting the destination in your GPS—it makes sure all your hard work heads in the right direction.

3. Identify their Goals

Diving into the "What" part of a user story, we encounter "I want to...<achieve a goal>". You don’t have to be bound to this format, but clarity is key. The idea is to get inside the customer's head, feeling what they feel, and understanding their actual needs. The use of "I want" in the template is a tool to foster empathy, making the customer’s needs and desires more relatable.
Customers are not looking for complexity—they don’t want to deal with fees, battle through ads, or be bogged down by unnecessary buttons and processes. They are after simplicity and value—they want easy access to exclusive information, finding the best products, completing purchases seamlessly, or getting the help and support they need.
Focus on what the customer is really trying to achieve. Strip away the extra steps and processes, centering your approach around their main goals. By doing this, you align your efforts with what the customer truly values, ensuring that their key objectives are at the heart of your strategy.

4. Evaluate the Value

Now, let’s talk about the value, the benefit that customers get when they achieve their goals. For instance, consider a customer who wants quick updates on price changes. The value they get depends on various things like the product and the customer's specific goal.
Imagine a daily trader waiting for stock price updates, compared to someone waiting for a toaster's price to drop. The trader finds more value because timely information is crucial for their activities, while it’s less so for the toaster buyer.
Value is crucial when you decide which work items to focus on first. It might not always be straightforward or completely objective, but it’s essential to make the value as clear as possible. By doing so, you can better compare and prioritize user stories based on the benefits they offer to customers.

5. Define the Acceptance Criteria

User stories rarely go without acceptance criteria - think of it as an extension of the story where we clarify what exactly we expect the product to do and in which scenario. The classic template is "if... when... then..." where we describe the scenario breaking it down into prerequisites ("if I'm a new customer"), triggers ("when I buy the product for the first time"), and post-functions ("then I'm offered a discounted membership in the loyalty program"). There can be multiple scenarios - for different customers or different triggers, but adding acceptance criteria would help us to better understand the expected behaviors.
If you are not a fan of templates, you can ditch this one and write a list of bullet points, for example, to describe what are the desired changes to the product or process you want to introduce. Let's say, you're building an ultimate traveling app and your user story is "as a frequent traveler, I want to have clarity on my insurance status during my travels so that I can stay safe and purchase additional insurance if needed". Then your acceptance criteria might include items like (1) list of insurance companies I have a contract with (2) type and coverage of each insurance per country (3) highlighted gaps and risks (4) suggestions for additional insurance plans.
(By the way, if you are building an app like this, let me know, I will immediately become your loyal user!)

6. Leave the ‘How’ to the Professionals

When crafting user stories, the focus should primarily be on customer needs and objectives. Typically, this task falls to the Product Owner, who bridges customer aspirations with feasible product features, ensuring that the product remains user-centric.
However, it's also crucial to remember that the implementation—the 'how' of the story—is best left to the development team. Multiple execution paths exist, each with its nuances, costs, and benefits. Whether it’s fully automating a process or incorporating manual elements, the choice should align with the team’s capacities and the project's overarching goals.
Flexibility is essential. Rules and templates are guidelines, not mandates. In certain situations, specifying the implementation might be necessary during planning. If so, that's fine! But remember, allowing the development team room to innovate often leads to more efficient, cost-effective, and inventive solutions. So when possible, entrust the ‘how’ to your team of professionals.

7. Ensure It Aligns with the INVEST Criteria

As you write user stories, a useful concept to embrace as a guiding principle (not a rigid rule) is the INVEST criteria. What does INVEST stand for? It’s an acronym that encapsulates the attributes of a good user story:
  • (I)ndependent: Each story should stand alone, offering customer value without reliance on the completion of another story.
  • (N)egotiable: The implementation details should remain flexible. This approach allows the team to explore and adopt various strategies for optimum efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
  • (V)aluable: Each story must have a clear value. If it doesn’t contribute meaningfully, reconsider its inclusion.
  • (E)stimable: A good story is one where the scope is well-understood, enabling effective estimation processes. It doesn’t necessitate a compulsory estimate but should be clear enough to allow for one.
  • (S)mall: Keeping stories concise and focused enhances agility. The goal is to facilitate quicker delivery and faster validation of assumptions. A smaller story is more manageable and allows for more immediate customer feedback.
  • (T)estable: Ensuring that each user story is testable is crucial. There should be clear criteria to determine the success of the story’s implementation, guaranteeing that the desired outcomes are achieved.
Utilizing the INVEST criteria as an internal checklist can guide you toward creating user stories that are more refined, actionable, and aligned with both customer value and team capabilities.
User stories are powerful tools in Agile. They help guide teams to create products that truly meet customer needs. But using user stories can sometimes be challenging because of strict templates and many rules.
Don't worry too much about these challenges. You can make things easier by being a bit more flexible with the rules and focusing more on the main idea of the story. Agile tools, like user stories, should make work easier for teams, not more complicated.
So, remember, the goal is to use user stories as a helpful guide, making sure they always support the team in creating value.
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