Interesting User Stories

I recently held a coaching session with one of my colleagues around the topic of User Stories. There are a lot of articles and books written on the subject, each with the basic structure of:

As a…

I want…

So….

User stories are something that I’ve seen myself and others struggle with. In the past I’ve often put ‘get better at writing user stories’ on my personal development board as I’ve always felt they could be better. I’ve also read a lot on the subject in an attempt to get better but for one reason or another it hasn’t stuck with me.

During this coaching session, I asked for an example of a user story that we could potentially improve on. The story followed a familiar format:

As a user

I want a search field

So I can find a report

At this point I realised we didn’t have enough context or information to jump straight into improving this story. We had to take a step back and look at what we were trying to achieve with the story first. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the ‘why’. Why we do things, why we believe, why we change and many more.

I often like to take the ideas of software and apply it to something more tangible. For this session we came up with the idea of ‘Clothes’. This became the context or domain in which our character (person, user) was set. This became our product.

Our next step was to identify the ‘Why’. Why might this character need our product? For example:

  • To not be naked
  • To keep warm
  • To be fashionable
  • To feel good

Once we had this information, we then thought about the type of person our character might be. Who are they? What is their context? We then began experimenting with how we might structure a user story using this information:

As a person who wants to leave the house

I want something to cover my body

So I won’t be naked in public

Or

As a person who lives in a cold climate

I want something that will prevent me from becoming too cold

So I can keep warm

These were ok, but we could do better. By changing the person’s context and their why, our stories could become more specific..

As a person who is travelling to Antarctica

I want protection from the cold

So that I can survive -20 degree Celsius temperatures

None of these stories gave a solution. The ‘How’ could come later. By structuring our stories in this way, we allowed room for multiple solutions to a problem rather than narrowing our thoughts into one area. If we take the last user story above and provide a solution, all of a sudden our options for how is significantly narrowed:

As a person who is travelling to Antarctica

I want a survival coat

So that I can survive – 20 degree Celsius temperatures

This seemingly innocent structure is limiting our ability to innovate.

Going back to our original story, we thought about how we could make it better by following a new structure

(Who) As a <character> who…

(What) I want <need>

(Why) So <my need can be satisfied>

Our original story rewritten looked like:

As an accountant who wants to file my client’s GST report at the end of the financial year

I want to find clients who have outstanding GST reports

So I don’t miss the deadline for GST returns and I avoid any penalties

This poses the question, if user stories are supposed to tell a story, do you want to tell a boring story with ambiguity or an interesting story with meaning?

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