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User Stories vs Use Cases in Agile Development

Instructor: Stephen Meyer

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

One of the unique aspects of Agile is the documentation of project requirements in the form of user stories. Some consider these interchangeable with use cases, which are employed by other methodologies, but this is not the case. Learn how user stories and use cases compare in Agile Development.

Definitions

Eric's software company has recently transitioned to Agile after years of using traditional project methodologies. The team has understood and embraced the unique aspects of Agile, but is struggling with some areas that do not seem distinct. One area of confusion is project documentation, particularly the difference between user stories and use cases. The team is more familiar with use cases and wants to continue using them instead of user stories. Eric looks to differentiate between the two in terms of definition, purpose, and timing, and hopes that the team will see user stories are better suited for Agile.

In Agile, a user story is a broken-down form of project requirements that identifies desired functionality for a user role. It involves answers to the questions of who is taking action, what action they are taking, and why they are taking the action. For example, if Eric's team was designing a registration website for a charity event, a user story might focus on the ability for a donor to register online. It might read: 'As a donor, I want to be able to create an online account so that my information can be stored securely.'

User stories are written at a high level, but they involve lower level details, known as acceptance criteria. These detail specific actions and results, but are not a part of the basic form. This is a change for Eric's team because, on its own, the user story is high-level compared to the amount of detail in a use case.

Like user stories, use cases involve functionality. However, they are focused on specific actions and are extremely detailed. Use cases align more with acceptance criteria than the user story itself. They focus on the interaction between an actor and system or between systems, and record the path from the triggering event to the result. They include the main flow of events, referred to as the basic course, as well as additional potential flows, referred to as alternate courses. They are comprehensive and attempt to identify an end-to-end sequence.

Differences

One of the most significant differences between user stories and use cases involves purpose. At a high level, both user stories and use cases have the purpose of providing project requirements. However, the way in which they each accomplish this purpose, and the timing in which it occurs, vary between the two.

The purpose of user stories is twofold, with the first being collaboration, specifically on the low-level details. The individual who requests the project, known as the product owner, with input from other stakeholders, writes user stories. They only contain high-level requirements and are not broken down any further before they are presented to the development team in a meeting called Sprint Planning. In this meeting, the development team reviews user stories with the product owner, and they collaborate on acceptance criteria. The value is that the knowledge and experience of each team member is used. Additionally, any bugs or missed requirements can be written into additional user stories, so the requirements can grow and evolve. Collaboration helps Eric's team understand the requirements better because there is conversation about them. Not only will they have a better understanding, they will take more ownership of the work because they are more involved in the process.

The second purpose of user stories is to establish a minimum viable product, or MVP, which focuses on providing the maximum benefit compared to a minimum amount of time and effort. The goal is to produce a working product rather than have comprehensive documentation of every aspect of work that could be done in associated with the project. The benefit to Eric's team is that it allows them to focus on work that is adding value. Before Agile, they might have spent a significant amount of their time and effort working on items that might have brought the project to full completion, but did not add much value. This will no longer be the case.

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