In waterfall, we are generally familiar with user requirements. They are often compiled into a document that lists the business and technical needs of a project. However, in Agile, requirements take a different form. These are expressed in the form of user stories.
When you write user stories, the temptation may be to simply write out a sentence that tells what you are going to do without giving thought to structure or the level of detail. However, a user story needs to serve a bigger purpose. It needs to clarify exactly what you are going to create, who it is going to serve, and how you will know that it is complete. For this reason, there are critical elements of a user story that need to be included.
Five critical elements of a user story
Here are five critical elements of an Agile user story that will ensure you have covered what is needed for successful completion. To illustrate, let us use the simple example of someone who wants to sign up to be notified of daily restaurant specials.
1. Story name
You will create multiple user stories through the course of your project, so you need to be able to identify them easily when prioritizing. The story name should be a very short title that lets you and others know what the story is about. If you are writing a story about getting notified of daily restaurant specials, you may title your user story “Sign up for mailing list.”
2. User role
Identify the role of the user for whom the story is written. This gives you the perspective and point of view for the story. This also helps you identify what the user may be interested in doing. In the case of our example, the user is a customer.
3. Achievable action
Identify the business value the user hopes to gain. This lets you narrow the focus of your user story. Your user will likely have many things they want to do. By narrowing your focus, you can write a story that you can clearly define and complete with less ambiguity. In the restaurant example, the user wants to add their name to a mailing list for the restaurant.
This also prompts more conversation around the story. It encourages the team to ask questions that help further define the story. The team needs to know how the user will get their name on that mailing list, and how they will know that they have successfully completed the action.
4. Desired business value
This component of the user story tells you the value the user hopes to obtain. In our example story, the customer wants to ultimately get the value of receiving information about daily restaurant specials.
Now that you have identified the three elements of the user story value statement, you can write them out in sentence format: Here is the format to use for writing your user story:
As a <USER ROLE> I want to <ACTIVITY> so that <DESIRED BUSINESS VALUE>.
Here is what it looks like applied to our example:
As a customer, I want to sign up for a mailing list, so that I can be notified of daily restaurant specials.
5. Acceptance criteria
Even though you know what your user wants, you need to be able to say when the story is complete. The acceptance criteria helps you know when you have successfully completed the story. Your team will identify what it will mean when the story has been completed.
For our example, acceptance criteria may be the following:
Ensure the customer is able to:
- See the sign-up form on the website and add their email address.
- Receive confirmation message on the web page that their email address has been added.
- Receive a confirmation email that they have been added to the mailing list.
Improve user stories with continued practice
Writing user stories is a group effort and takes practice. Your team should have conversations to ensure that they are accurate and targeted to a specific piece of work. As you do more of them, they will get easier. The key is to get started and improve as you go.
Leigh Espy, PMP, SPC, CSM, is the author of “Bad Meetings Happen to Good People: How to Run Meetings That Are Effective, Focused, and Produce Results.” She has over 15 years of project management experience with a primary focus on IT project management and has led multimillion dollar international projects and corporate strategy initiatives. Leigh also coaches and mentors project managers and those making a move to a project management career. You can find out more about Leigh at ProjectBliss and LeighEspy.com. Leigh writes about communication and project methodologies.