The Role of the User Story in Software Development — What Are They and Why Should You Use Them?

CEO & Co-founder

Simple user stories are a great tool for creating a description of the features a user expects. So let’s learn how to write good user stories, and how they improve the performance of the scrum team.

User stories are based on a simple “who?”, “what?” and “why?” scheme, which makes it much easier to draft product requirements. After reading the user stories, the team knows why they are building the given functionality, what they are building, and what value they are going to deliver.

In its early stages, a user story is simply a short sentence, but it’s not complete until the details and acceptance criteria are defined. A properly applied user story will therefore help you to understand the job requirements.

What is a good user story?

A user story in software development is a scheme for describing functionality from the perspective of the end-user. It briefly describes the type of user interacting with the system, their needs, and their motivation, making it easy to create a simplified description of the requirements. Its purpose is to clarify how the piece of software will deliver a specific value to the customer.

User stories facilitate planning and trigger team discussion. They are based on a template:

As a [type of user], I want to [perform some task], so that I can [achieve some goal].

Simple and short sentences are the starting point for creating the product backlog and planning iterations.

The user story should be structured to be finished in one sprint. Yet it’s worth mentioning that user stories can be written at different levels of detail, and some stories can be used to describe numerous functionalities. Large stories are broken down into smaller ones that can be used in subsequent iterations.

User story example

Here is an example of a user story, based on the pattern mentioned above:

As a chat user, I want to attach files to a conversation so that I can send important documents.

Another example might be:

As an admin, I want to generate a user activity report for a given period to better understand user behavior.

Because the user story is meant to be specific, it’s essential to accurately identify the end-user and justify their needs and requirements. This could be the person using the chat on a website or the administrator of a particular platform.

In each of the above examples, we thus have a given user interacting with the system, which will allow the team to accomplish a specific goal and achieve a specified outcome.

The next step is to provide boundary conditions, which are the acceptance criteria. It’s important to write separate criteria for each user story. They must be well understood and agreed on by the team. This will help the product owner to confirm that the user story fulfills its purpose. Writing down user stories and acceptance criteria will also help to avoid misunderstandings.

For example, in the user story “As a website user, I want to set a profile picture so that I can make my account more attractive,” the acceptance criteria could be as follows:

  • The photo should be in .jpg format,
  • The photo size should be 400 × 400 pixels,
  • The user should be able to preview the photo,
  • Adding files in other formats should be blocked.

You can also find examples of acceptance criteria in one of our blog posts.

Why leverage user stories?

Writing user stories saves time, as we don’t have to create a detailed specification. It also opens the room for discussion and helps to speed up the process – the people involved in the project know what the customer expects, which greatly facilitates the delivery of high-quality software.

What other benefits do you get from user stories?

  • A simple and consistent format that enables a detailed description of a given functionality. It enforces correct requirements definitions and ensures that the engineering team understands the specified tasks and performs them properly.
  • Versatile character, because the format for user stories can be successfully used to create both large and smaller elements of the application.
  • Reduced risk of mistakes, since user stories provide context and make it easier for developers to understand the user benefits and business value of a project. This way, the team focuses on real user needs rather than abstract functionality.
  • Time savings due to fewer revisions required. The user story formula makes it easier to avoid bringing details into the project too early, so the application development process is much more efficient.

User stories significantly improve the performance of the whole team, provided that we write them in the right way.

One major mistake to avoid is not using the template so that the roles of given users are not properly defined, which can cause a number of doubts or lead to the creation of vague requirements. Another erroneous approach is to add details and requirements too early and omit acceptance criteria.

Wrapping up

User stories encourage the team to think both critically and creatively, leading to the goal and values the client wants. By creating a user story, the team steps into the user’s shoes, so it’s a great way to describe functionality in an efficient and accurate way.

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