Tired of writing the same old user stories the exact same way every single time? Are you losing a little bit of the agile spring in your step? Recently I found myself feeling just this way. I was reviewing the stories for an upcoming agile project and feeling remarkably unenthusiastic about getting started. What was the matter? The project had clearly written stories. The objectives were reasonably clear. Why wasn’t I excited about taking this project on? I realized it was because there seemed to be no life in the stories themselves. This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered this. The question before me was, “How can I breathe a little passion back into the stories that I work on?”
By now, many of us are familiar with what good user stories are supposed to look like. I learned how to write them from Mike Cohn’s book, “User Stories Applied”. The format he introduced looks something like this:As a <role> I want <function> So that I can <business goal>
I have a confession to make – sometimes writing stories in this format leaves me completely cold. Seeing that same format repeatedly tends to drive me nuts. It can be a lot of extra work to put stories into this format.
Putting a little Passion Back into Your Stories…
Sometimes I get lazy and I just give up and create a one-word story. Here is an example of one of my one-word stories:Mentoring
OK, so it’s a little opaque. I know what it means. Nobody else will understand this story, but who cares? A story is just a placeholder for a conversation, right? Well, having lived with one-word stories I find that they suffer from the following problems:
I tend to forget what the context was
The verbs are often missing – what am I trying to do?
They don’t really motivate me
Let’s take my example above – mentoring. What did I mean by that? Is it mentoring for me? Mentoring for someone else? Perhaps a mentoring program? Maybe I meant all of the above? Without some sort of context, there is no way to know what this “story” was all about.
I like having an action verb in a story. Anything will do: provide, obtain, receive, implement, create. Put any of these words in front of “Mentoring” and you automatically get a little more context in the story. Obtain a mentor. Provide a mentor. Receive mentorship. Suddenly I have a much clearer picture of what the story is all about. So here we go:Obtain a mentor
Of course, “obtain a mentor” doesn’t exactly light the fire in my belly. Boring! I feel sort of like, “OK, I’ll do it – if I really have to…”
How do we fix these stories?
We could go ahead and use the format that I was avoiding from the start:As a project manager I want a mentor So that I can be more successful on my next project.
That’s not bad – it’s a distinct improvement really. Now I know the context pretty well. I know the who, what, and why. Not too bad at all. Nevertheless, it’s still not setting my shorts on fire.
How about adding some adjectives? Let’s give that a shot and see what happens. We have to ask ourselves a few questions first. Let’s start simple:
What kind of mentor are we looking for? I want a great mentor. OK, let’s crack open the thesaurus and see what we can find… Great, Inspired, commanding, distinguished, dominant, excellent, enthusiastic – hey! I think we have a winner – enthusiastic. I like the sound of that. I want an enthusiastic mentor! Let’s re-write our story again:I want an enthusiastic mentor
Who will help me be successful on my next project.
Hmmm… I am definitely starting to like this story. I dropped the “as a” phrase because it was redundant – we’re just talking about me. Furthermore, I changed “so that” to “Who will help”. It just seems to flow more naturally and better convey the meaning of what I am trying to do. Not only do I know that I need a mentor, but now I know what kind of mentor I’m looking for. This story is getting better as we build it up word by word. After all, when we only have a sentence to describe what we want, every word counts.
I wonder if I can improve this story still further? How about a trip back to our friend the thesaurus? Let’s see: successful, flourishing, dominant, leading, noteworthy, smashing, stunning – oooh, there’s a good one!I want an enthusiastic mentor
Who will help me make my next project a stunning success!
YES! Now that’s a story I can get behind! That lights my fire! That’s a story that I want to deliver. Remember, one of the keys to successful agile development is to have audacious goals. I feel like we miss the opportunity for a little audacity in our lives when we cop out on writing good stories. Stories should be something that the customer is passionate about. They should be something that the team should be able to get passionate about. It’s hard to get passionate about single word stories. Even the standard story form is a bit bleak.
Of course, this story still has a weakness – it’s not testable! I need to define what I mean by a “stunning success”. How am I going to define success? Let’s try this on for size:I want an enthusiastic mentor
Who will help me make my next project a stunning success
by doubling the project revenue!
Aha! Bring it all back to money! Nice! Now we have a compelling AND testable story. Sign me up!
Now let’s try this technique with another story. Maybe something that feels a bit more like a real customer request. How about this:Prioritize Tasks
So I have a list of tasks and I want to prioritize them. Let’s play with it and see where we end up:I want a quick and intuitive way to prioritize tasks
So that I can maximize the productivity of those who use this tool
You’ll notice that I’ve taken some artistic license in interpreting the words that apply to these stories. The simple act of looking for different ways to describe something using a thesaurus brings up all sorts of interesting related ideas. We don’t have to settle for the most spartan explanation possible.
Here is my theory: If we invest some time, and perhaps just a little imagination, we can transform our stories into something that is really worth doing. Take a few adjectives and put the passion back into your work! I guarantee you that the time will be well spent. Be audacious! Be passionate! Have fun!