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10 Tips on Writing Valuable Agile User Stories

In this 10 Tips on Writing Valuable Agile User Stories article we explore 10 top tips on how you can ensure that your user stories are valuable.

Valuable agile user stories on board
Creating valuable agile user stories

For many Agile teams the vague user story poses a serious impediment to team performance. Imagine the amount of time that is wasted in trying to make sense of the ambiguous customer requirement, not to mention the accrual of technical debt when our requirements assumptions are way off. User stories that don’t express business value should not be considered for an iteration.


It is the Product Owner’s responsibility to ensure that the features being worked on will yield the expected return on investment. In many Agile teams the design of the solution, or the “how” thinking is crunched into a time-boxed Iteration Planning ceremony even when backlog refinement was performed.


Agile principles and values advocate a Just-In-Time (JIT) way of working, delivering minimum sufficient artefacts in a JIT manner. Many teams, unfortunately, go into analysis paralysis panics, with no real output at the end which is really concerning.


The Product Owner has a huge job in managing the backlog and if this role is not supported in any way or form, then the outputs will create non-value adding waiting time (waste) for the teams and frustrate the customer that is paying for value to be delivered every two weeks. When you have nothing or very little to demo to your customer at the end of a two-week iteration then we have failed to stay true to the agile principles and values.


Our 10 Tips on Writing Valuable Agile User Stories

  1. Meet regularly around the backlog with your team to discuss requirements, raise questions and allow time for the solution to be absorbed into people’s consciousness. The effect of this exposure will pay off in the Sprint Planning meeting.

  2. Form close relationships with the stakeholders that are key inputs to the project’s success. E.g. Product Owners and UX designers, potential consumers, developers, stakeholders etc.

  3. Product Owner must validate the viability of the user story and have supporting use cases, success criteria, revenue projections etc.

  4. User stories must meet the INVEST criteria of user story writing.

  5. All stories must have complete acceptance criteria for happy and unhappy lines.

  6. Product Owners and teams should understand the big picture but focus on the now picture. In scaled frameworks, however, the team should also invest a portion of their capacity in backlog refinement to look at the next Program Increment’s features.

  7. Get User Experience designers into the conversation as early as possible, where it makes sense.

  8. Avoid dependencies like the plague. Where you do find dependencies on other teams, explore how you might bring this skill or capability into your team.

  9. Have a reference user story, one that can be used to compare any new user story to, to estimate size and complexity.

  10. Ensure that a definition of ready exists that the delivery team create and maintain, detailing what is required on the story before it will be committed to. The team also needs to agree on the definition of done for user stories to ensure consistent quality and common understanding.


Unpacking INVEST criteria for valuable user stories

The INVEST model, an acronym coined by Bill Wake, encompasses six essential characteristics that user stories should adhere to. By applying these principles, teams can enhance the quality of their user stories and, in turn, improve their ability to deliver valuable software solutions. Let's unpack the INVEST model to better understand its significance:

  1. Independent: User stories should be self-contained and independent, meaning that they can be developed and tested in isolation. This characteristic allows for flexibility in prioritizing and scheduling development efforts. Teams can work on different user stories simultaneously without being dependent on one another, resulting in increased productivity and faster delivery.

  2. Negotiable: User stories are not detailed specifications; rather, they act as placeholders for conversations and collaborations between stakeholders and development teams. They should be open to negotiation and refinement throughout the development process. By encouraging ongoing discussions, teams can gather feedback, make necessary adjustments, and ensure that the product aligns with the customer's evolving needs.

  3. Valuable: User stories should clearly articulate the value they provide to the end-user or customer. They must focus on the outcome or benefit that the user seeks to achieve. By emphasizing value, teams can prioritize and deliver features that have a tangible impact, thereby maximizing customer satisfaction and return on investment.

  4. Estimable: User stories should be structured in a way that enables estimation of effort and complexity. The development team should be able to gauge the size and scope of a user story, allowing for effective planning and resource allocation. Estimability facilitates prioritization, as teams can assess the relative effort required for each user story and make informed decisions about sequencing and scheduling.

  5. Small: User stories should be small and manageable, enabling them to be completed within a single iteration or sprint. Breaking down larger features into smaller, bite-sized stories promotes incremental delivery, fosters a sense of accomplishment, and provides regular opportunities for feedback and validation. Smaller stories also facilitate more accurate estimation and reduce the risk of scope creep.

  6. Testable: User stories must be testable to ensure that the developed software meets the desired criteria. Each story should have clear acceptance criteria that define how it will be validated. Testability enables teams to verify that the implemented functionality aligns with the intended outcome and enables effective collaboration between developers, testers, and stakeholders.

By embracing the INVEST model, development teams can create user stories that are well-defined, valuable, and adaptable. This approach fosters effective communication, collaboration, and ultimately leads to the delivery of software solutions that meet customer expectations. As a result, organizations can increase their agility, responsiveness, and customer satisfaction, setting the stage for successful software development projects.


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