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I have recently returned from several weeks of simply fabulous recreational travels with only one disappointment. In the grand scheme of things, I guess that’s not too bad. And yet, I’m wondering how I could have prevented that disappointment. In this blog, I will share with you some tips on improving user stories – an Agile technique that will help you improve your project success.

For the uninitiated, a user story is an Agile technique that is used to clarify scope. The basic format for a user story is this: As a ___, I want ___, so that ____.

For whatever reason, when we were in Paris, my husband and I saw no street artists doing portraits on the banks of the Seine. I didn’t realize until the last few days how important this was to my husband. Creating a better user story about that objective would have helped.

Eighty years ago his father had sat for a street artist in Paris and that pastel hangs in our house. If I had known that he dreamed of having one done of himself, and hanging the two portraits together, I might have planned the trip so that we spent more time on the River.

In the case of my husband’s desire for that artwork, the user story might have been written like this: As a man who doesn’t travel often enough, I think it would be cool to have a street artist paint a picture of me when we are in Paris so that I can remember the trip.

OR, it might have been written like this: As a man who loves family stories and entertaining, I want a street artist near the Seine to paint a portrait of me, so that I can hang it next to the one of my father, which was done 80 years ago this year.

Those are two very different user stories. So, here are some tips for improving user stories on your business projects.

Start with the user(s) perspective(s).

Agile began in the tech world but it can teach us a lot about other worlds. Let’s say you are a nurse and work for a hospital. Every year your state legislature meets and revises a few laws, some of which might actually apply to your hospital and the work you do. How are you supposed to keep up with that? Will there be some new training or a revised manual? Will the website be changed? What is the best way to keep up with those changes, from the perspective of the various users?

Or, let’s take a residential construction project. Let’s assume you are renovating your kitchen. When it comes time to select your appliances, there are many choices. Are you a family with small children who might want ice and water on the door of your refrigerator? Are you the mom who hates the puddles of water on the floor when the dispenser spews water and misses the cup? How much space do you need? Will a recessed front that aligns with your cabinetry allow you the depth to hold the trays that you require for the part-time catering work that you love so much?

As you think about the many possible perspectives of different users, it will become clear that there may be many considerations and it’s better to talk about this early.

Consider why you want the feature in question.

In every project, there are cost trade-offs. Even when you can afford that fancy 48” range top, it does dramatically reduce counter space. What’s more important? Why do you want that large range top?

Talk about your user stories.

It’s always interesting to me that people will write down one thing, but when you start asking them clarifying questions, you will learn much more.

Talk about your user stories. People will write down one thing, but when you start asking them… Click To Tweet

Understand which stories are independent and which ones are not.

In the technology world, most experts believe that user stories should represent independent features and that the work priorities can and will change over time. In the construction world, that simply doesn’t work. You can’t paint walls until they exist. That doesn’t mean that Agile thinking and the creation of user stories doesn’t have value on construction projects.

In the business world, I typically recommend that projects be broken down into discrete activities that can be finished. If you haven’t read my blog on how to do that, it’s here.

Document the quality testing and acceptance criteria.

In documenting a user story, the previously discussed formula doesn’t include the acceptance criteria, but don’t underestimate the importance of thinking about quality from the beginning.

Even in a project where your work products are simple Word documents, you want to know whether you are producing a draft for discussion or a document that will be going to a printer without further review. If you are creating an Excel template for a client to use, do you understand the level of background detail that is needed by the ultimate user? Suppose you are building software, are you clear on who is going to do the testing? If you are creating a new training program, are you clear on the training objectives and the medium that your executives prefer?

There are many considerations as you seek to clarify scope. Improving user stories can help you unlock a secret to improved project success. The challenge is to do enough planning, and no more. Construction work often requires detailed planning. Yet agility is important in a rapidly changing business world. If you have spent hours planning, in detail, work that won’t be done for many months, you have probably wasted money.

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