What is a user story? UX Question #97

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Jaqueline from Madison, Wisconsin, asks: What is a user story?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Jaqueline. This is UX Question number 97 and I am Ben Judy.

What is a user story? Well, this is a common term for teams practicing Agile software development methods. See episode 25, What is Agile UX?

A user story is a general explanation of a software feature written from the perspective of the end user.

I’ll give an example and then break down what it does and does not do.

A good user story might be:

“As a retail store associate, I want to quickly determine if a specific product is in stock, so I can help a customer make a purchase.”

Notice the template of the user story: as a user or persona, I want to achieve a small goal, so that I can realize some bigger benefit.

The ultimate purpose of a user story like this is to simply explain how a software feature will provide value to the user, and thus also to the business.

When writing user stories, follow the 3 C’s: card, conversation, and confirmation. The story should be short enough that it could easily be written on a 3 by 5 index card. You should have a conversation with the product team—don’t treat your first-draft of a user story like it’s a hard requirement. And then explain how someone might objectively confirm that the product team fulfilled the user story—usually by writing clear and specific acceptance criteria.

Avoid common mistakes with user stories.

Don’t turn them into detailed technical specifications. The acceptance criteria can reference a spec document, but keep the story and story details brief.

Don’t focus so much on how to implement the feature. Again, the story should be from the user’s perspective. There is a need for developer chores, but treat these differently and separate them from your user stories.

Also, don’t define a story so broadly that it can’t be estimated. One thing a product team needs to do with a user story is estimate how much effort it will take to complete the work—that is, deliver the value encapsulated in the story and in accordance with the acceptance criteria. I wouldn’t know how to estimate, “As a shopper, I want to see the product catalog so I can find the products I want.” Too broad.

User stories can be really useful, especially in concert with other Agile practices. Just remember to keep them human-centered, not too long, not too vague, not too detailed, and talk about them as a team before you work on them.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: What’s the difference between Graphic Design and UX design?

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