Hitting the target with effective user stories

User stories are an essential component of the agile methodology. The entire feature development takes place based on the acceptance criteria mentioned in a user story, so stories must be written clearly and follow certain good practices.

There are some ways to make user stories more effective. With these suggestions, your team can prevent problems such as scope creep in requirements and instead focus on building features in small increments and releasing faster.

1. Follow the INVEST acronym

All user stories need to be:

  • Independent: As much as possible, create user stories that are not dependent on each other. If there are dependencies in user stories, they may be combined into a single story, or play the story in such a way that it does not become a bottleneck to the team
  • Negotiable: Requirements keep evolving; this means we should be able to edit the user story until development work starts. Teams should be flexible with changes
  • Valuable: The user story should be of value to someone — the customer, stakeholder or business folks. If there is no value, there is no point in developing it
  • Estimable: We should be able to estimate any user story played in the iteration. Larger user stores can be split into smaller ones to make them easier to develop
  • Small: User stories should be small enough to reduce dependency and incrementally develop the feature. At the same time, there is a fine balance between being too granular or too large. Make the right decision as a team
  • Testable: If all user stories are not testable, then either the requirements aren’t clear, or we need to go back to the drawing board to make the functionality less complex

2. Resolve ambiguity early

Getting clarity in user stories starts right from the planning phase. The whole team should discuss each user story so they understand the technical, business, stakeholder and testing requirements. This may include discussions related to complexity, dependencies, testability challenges and much more.

By the time development work starts, the user story should contain all the information needed for the precise development of the feature. Early involvement in getting rid of ambiguity helps to catch problems before the start of the development process.

3. Have a checklist

A great way to know if a user story has all the necessary information is to have a checklist. Attach the checklist to each user story to remind the team of the different activities that have to take place for a story to be deemed complete.

The team should collaboratively decide the different activities that go on the checklist. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so the team should choose items that work for them in their context.

Some examples of activities that go on a checklist could be:

  • Is the Three Amigos meeting complete?
  • Are all necessary mockups attached to the user story?
  • Were all the necessary unit tests and automated tests created?
  • Is integration testing complete?
  • Is the product demo to the product owner complete?

4. Keep stories visible

All user stories must be visible to the entire team at all times. Anyone should be able to access a particular user story and view, add or edit details in it. Update the user story continuously as an activity associated with the story is complete. People can add comments in the story to let others know what was updated.

5. Implement a change management process

User stories evolve throughout the development lifecycle, and providing timely updates gives the whole process more clarity. But at some point, the story needs to be locked down to prevent scope creep in requirements. This can be one of the biggest problems in agile teams.

One way to lock changes is to implement a change management process where the story is locked after the development work starts. Any further changes need to go through the change management process, and another separate story is created with the edited requirements. This approach helps to prevent the common problem of a story getting updated while feature development still happens. This leads to unnecessary waste of time, cost, and effort due to the feature not meeting acceptance criteria.

Follow these approaches to help teams create user stories with clarity.

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About the Author

Raj Subrameyer is an international keynote speaker, writer and tech career coach with a rich technical background. In his blog, rajsubra.com/blog/, he posts inspirational news, resources, and updates to help his readers lead a better life.

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