Best Practices

User Stories: Shaping a Masterpiece

Published Dec 16, 2019

The mark of a great user story? Its evolution. 

A user story is something that takes clearer shape with each iteration. The prerequisite for the iterative creation of a user story is a clear understanding of your users and their motivations. This is non-negotiable — how else will you know that what you’re about to build will provide value? This fundamental understanding will carry your user story through each round of sanding of the rough edges, resulting in a user story that is clear to your developers and compelling for your users.

When I start out with a new feature idea, I think of it as a large piece of stone. It’s rough. It has jagged edges. It’s far too large and too ambiguous to tackle as-is. This big stone needs to be broken down into smaller pieces … much smaller pieces (small enough that the development team can work on it within a sprint). Once each piece is small enough, it also needs to be very well polished. Each should shine through clear definition, excellent documentation, and an agreement from the entire team about what we are going to build together.

From feature to user story

As product managers, we owe it to our developers to make user stories as focused and narrow as possible. Often, if we don’t break it down small enough in our initial attempts, the development team will be happy to help us do so at a grooming meeting.

I wish I had better advice on how to do this if you’ve never done it before. I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s second nature to me! Sometimes, when I’m struggling with how to break a big feature into smaller pieces, I outline it in Google Docs. First, I list the 5-10 biggest  “themes” of the feature, then start to make bullet points under those (and sometimes, another level of bullet points under those) until I end up with granular story ideas. I also find that talking through the feature idea and making some rough sketches on a piece of notebook paper is helpful. Working with the UX team to develop mockups provides another level of refinement for my stories, as I think through validator messages, transitions between workflows, and edge cases.

Lastly, don’t worry if you don’t break it down perfectly on the first try. Sometimes, a story that is small from the product perspective is huge from the engineering side. This is a great segue into my next point …

Sharing is caring mandatory

User stories are not meant to be written in a silo. The best ones have been seen by as many pairs of eyes as possible. However, there’s something about sharing the work that we’ve done that makes us vulnerable. I feel it before every grooming meeting just the same as I feel it every time I write an article for ProductCraft and every time I stand in front of a room and give a speech. I worked really hard on writing these stories, and now the dev and UX teams are going to pick through them with a fine-toothed comb. What if I missed something major? Will they think less of me? What if I’m way off base? What if I spent all this time writing up about this new feature, only to be told it’s impossible from an engineering perspective? 

It’s hard. Sometimes your ego gets a little bruised. I work really hard on my user stories and try so hard to think through every possible permutation. But I can’t do it alone. Without a doubt, my user stories are much better after they have been reviewed with the development team. We all come to the table with different perspectives, and they ask questions and consider things that I didn’t. I also like to review my stories (albeit sometimes at a higher level) with the product marketing and sales teams. The more eyes, the better. The more times our stone goes through the tumbler, the more polished it becomes.

A journey, captured

Have you ever gone back and looked at the history of one of your user stories? I think you’ll be impressed by what you find. 

What often starts out as just a title and sometimes that initial sentence, “As a ____, I want to ____ so that I can ______” has evolved into an extremely detailed blueprint for what to build. And product managers have both the challenge and the honor of taking an idea and bringing it to life. It’s part of what I love about the job, but it undoubtedly comes with a lot of responsibility (and a lot of critical thinking).  

Take a look back at your user story — what it was when you started writing it, and what it has become today. The user story: something that started as an idea and became a reality. And a pretty powerful tool for any product manager.