What Is A User Story?

If you are new to product development, the term “user story” might seem a little confusing. We tend to think of “stories” as long narratives in which a character embarks on a journey, encounters conflict, eventually overcomes or is defeated, and transforms in some way in the process. 

A “user story” offers a much, much shorter narrative, but it’s not designed to entertain. It’s designed to help software developers, product owners, and other stakeholders and team members produce software that does precisely what users want and need. 

What is a “user story?”

From a software developer’s perspective, a “user story” is a small, standalone unit of work completed to allow a product to perform a specific function or achieve a defined goal. It is the smallest unit of work within product development that can produce a completed element of user functionality. 

User stories make up the building blocks of larger software development projects. In Agile project management, “epics” are typically composed of groups of user stories. 

User stories aren’t designed to be understood only by developers, though. They’re written in plain, everyday language that explains what actions a user can take to achieve specific results. Typically, they are no more than a few sentences long, giving Agile Product Owners and teams the ability to understand requirements and expected outcomes quickly. 

User stories are typically expressed as, “As a [product user], I want to [perform a specific action] so that I can [achieve a specific outcome or goal].” 

Here are a few examples: 

  • As a restaurateur, I want users to be able to access daily specials on the app’s home page. 
  • As an account holder, I want to be able to log in with a 4-digit passcode, so I can easily access my account.
  • As an e-commerce seller, I want to be able to offer a discount only for first-time visitors.

Why do product development teams need user stories? 

It’s only natural that when software developers approach a project, they do so from a professional perspective. In other words, they think like developers, which means their primary concerns often involve deeply technical issues that non-tech professionals are unlikely to understand. 

User stories help shift the focus back to the user, ensuring that everyone’s input leads to the desired user experiences and outcomes. While to-do lists can help manage the day-to-day workflow and ensure that technical requirements are met, user stories help ensure that end-users ultimately have consistently positive experiences with the product. 

Here are specific ways that user stories can enhance the user’s experience and satisfaction:

  • They increase clarity across teams, ensuring that everyone involved in the project is working toward the same end goals. User stories provide a simple way for tech and non-tech team members to discuss product functionality in terms of user experience. 
  • They enable and invite collaboration. By establishing a simple, common framework for teams to discuss functionality, user stories enable non-tech team members to share their own perspectives, experiences, and observations. Instead of becoming intimidated or bogged down in acronyms and tech-speak that can introduce “noise” into product workflows, team members can contribute according to their own expertise. 
  • They help you develop the product as a whole. A clearly defined set of user stories can help your teams get clear on every aspect of the product, eliminating confusion and minimizing errors during the development phase. You can prioritize user stories that enhance the core functionality of your product while demoting “outlier” ideas that might be “nice to have” but that doesn’t contribute to the core user experience.
  • They stretch the creativity and innovation of your teams. By expressing requirements as user stories instead of sterile task lists, you can empower your teams to think more creatively – exploring a wide range of possible solutions to a specific problem. By focusing on what the product will enable the user to do, instead of simply building a product that produces a result, you have the flexibility to exceed users’ expectations. 
  • They help minimize assumptions that can lead to problems and errors in design and implementation. Each team member and stakeholder comes to the table with assumptions and cognitive biases that can influence the development of a product. By building product development and implementation plan around user stories, teams can put aside their assumptions and focus on real-world feedback that actually adds to the product’s user value. 

How to write effective user stories

Now that you know what user stories are and why they’re necessary, let’s look at how you can create effective user stories that empower your teams to produce exceptional results: 

  • Remember, stories are not tasks. There could be dozens – even hundreds – of tasks that make up a single user story. The tasks tell the “how” of implementation, but they do not communicate the “what.” 
  • Define user personas before you begin. A user persona is a fictional representation of a typical type of person who will be using the product your team produces. Tech professionals tend to think of personas in terms of data; however, what you’re looking for here is more than that. You’re building a “snapshot” of who the person is, what their needs and frustrations are, and what goals they want to achieve. 

Remember, you will probably have multiple “user personas,” as there will likely be several types of people who will buy and use your product. It’s important to build user stories for each persona, as different types of people could have completely different needs, goals, and expectations. 

  • Define and assign each step of the story. What steps are needed for a user to complete a “story” – that is, to take a specific action and achieve a specific outcome or goal? Who takes each step? What does “complete” look like? The more clearly you can define steps, the more predictable your results. 
  • Seek and incorporate real feedback from real users. Product development in an Agile environment is iterative – that is, there are multiple releases, and with each release, the product becomes more refined and more closely matches expected outcomes and goals. Teams can not realistically produce a better product if they don’t incorporate real-world feedback from people who have actually used early versions of the product. 
  • Establish a realistic timeline with input from all stakeholders and team members. It’s normal to want to move as quickly as possible when developing software; however, it’s critical to understand the importance of building in time for iterative development, discussion, and in some cases, significant revisions. While the client may expect a fast turnaround, they need to understand the steps that go into producing exceptional results for users.  

Above all, make sure that user stories are a consistent part of your product development plan. Implementing user stories can help you increase client satisfaction, minimize errors and rebuilds, and tap into the expertise of both tech and non-tech team members. 

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