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Agile User Stories: Definition & Format

Instructor: Stephen Meyer

Stephen has worked as a Project Manager and is PMP certified, as well as certified by the Scrum Alliance.

While there are different methodologies used to implement Agile, the treatment of project work is the same in each. Agile project work is consistently broken down into user story form. Learn the definition and format of Agile user stories.

Definition of Agile User Stories

Margaret has decided to transition her software company's approach to projects from a more traditional methodology to Agile. When she discusses different areas of change, one of the areas her company focuses on is the treatment of project work. One of their primary concerns has been the time and effort involved with documenting project work. Agile offers an alternative to traditional approaches and Margaret's team is excited to learn more about it.

Project work in Agile takes the form of user stories, which are project requirements broken down into smaller, more manageable forms. They are high-level and brief, no more than a single sentence or two. Each is written from the perspective of an end user to express desired functionality. The basis of the user story concept is directly related to the foundation of Agile. Agile is founded on principles from the Agile Manifesto, which is a set of statements that describe the values of Agile. These include:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Each aspect of the Manifesto is valuable but in circumstances where there are limitations and they are not all obtainable, some aspects are valued over others. The first two principles include individuals and interactions, as well as working software. These relate to the definition of user stories. The end-user perspective directly aligns with individuals and interactions and the desired functionality is representative of working software. The remaining aspects that are valued include customer collaboration and responding to change, which are related to how user stories are created.

Creation of User Stories

Once Margaret and her team are able to define user stories and understand their basis, they move on to how user stories are created. The creation of user stories involves a source as well as timing. Like the definition of user stories, the creation can also be traced back to specific Agile values. The source of user stories involves customer collaboration and the timing is related to responding to change.

In Agile, the individual responsible for user stories is the customer or person who has requested the project. Often this person writes the user stories and is the source. However, this does not have to be the case. User stories can come from stakeholders and even the development team. This is the appeal for Margaret's team because they have a voice in project requirements. The engagement of various stakeholders and team members is representative of customer collaboration. While any of these can be a source, the customer or project requester provides final approval.

User stories can be written throughout the project, unlike traditional project methodologies, which document all project requirements at the beginning. Specifically, user stories are written and prepared for each iteration. This flexibility allows the team to learn and make adjustments, which is significant for Margaret and her team. Project requirements can evolve for them over time instead of being rigid and bound to a static list. This enables the ability to respond to change.

Format of User Stories

The last aspect of user stories that Margaret explores with her team is the format. It is valuable for them to define user stories, understand their basis, and learn how they are created. However, understanding the format of user stories is what allows them to put the user stories to use. The format answers three primary questions:

  • For whom is the functionality being created?
  • What functionality is needed?
  • Why is the functionality needed or valuable?

The first question that dictates the user story format is, for whom the functionality is being created. This involves a specific end user, such as a customer, student, wholesaler, administrator, etc. This is extremely valuable because rather than internal stakeholders deciding what they think is best in general, the emphasis is placed on specific individuals who will actually use the product. For example, a project involving an online college course would have many user stories for individuals taking the class and would start out, 'As a studentā€¦'

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