The Art of Agile Story Writing

Prioritizing user stories

Some of the core concepts of agile software development methodology revolve around converting business requirements into stories that can be tasked out and scheduled into iterations. Without good stories, development efforts can be severely hindered, and the development team’s performance will be less predictable. When the team consistently fails to complete stories and deliver on commitments, a cultural problem is presented.

I’m making the claim that complete, well-written stories are the backbone of a successful agile team. Coming up with these stories is something that teams I’ve been a part of have struggled with for many years, and I think the trouble has primarily come from two things: not understanding what constitutes a good story and not enough design time. We would have poorly written stories with no acceptance criteria handed off prematurely to developers. The developers are then faced with an uphill struggle. Assumptions and guesses are made and the lack of acceptance criteria gives no safety net.

In order to write a good story, you must first understand what the story must provide. Here are the key characteristics of a good story:

  • Describes the business need or value provided
  • Verifiable acceptance criteria
  • Complete-able within a single iteration/sprint

Describing the business need is important for several reasons. First, talking in terms of the business instead of specific implementation details or developer-speak will help when communicating with the non-developer stakeholders. It also keeps you from locking into a specific implementation. I was recently on a requirements gathering trip with my manager. My developer mind instantly jumped into how we’ll do it instead of what we’re doing. The next day, I came up with a better way of accomplishing the what. If we’d gone forward and made the implementation details part of the requirements, it would be a bigger hassle to change those details later in the development process. It was this moment that really opened my eyes to the importance of focusing on the business requirements when gathering requirements and resisting the urge to document implementation details as requirements.

Verifiable acceptance criteria is, perhaps, the most important aspect of a good story. With a complete list of acceptance criteria that can be verified, a developer will be able to overcome any other story shortcomings. The criteria must not be subjective and not open to interpretation. When I mentioned not enough design time previously, this is where that design time was missing. Our team wasn’t spending enough time coming up with the acceptance criteria and defining what it means to be done. Our open-ended stories were doomed to drag on through several sprints and become dumping grounds for miscellaneous tasks that arose because of missed requirements and afterthoughts. Before scheduling a story for development, ample time must be spent thinking about the measurable goals of the story. Those goals should be documented as acceptance criteria, and they should provide developers with a clear view of what “done” is.

The third point, stories must be complete-able within a single iteration, is about keeping stories scoped appropriately. When a story is too big, it’s bound to linger through many sprints. It needs to be broken into smaller stories. When a story is expected to be completed in a single sprint, it’s easier to hold team members accountable when they don’t. Each time a story is completed within its scheduled sprint, that’s a success. As successes begin to happen consistently, a culture change occurs. Once stories can be reliably completed within a sprint, the team becomes highly predictable. That’s a huge win on many fronts.

The symptoms that my team’s stories were suffering from were really a side-effect of having too many developers on teams without enough story writers to put in the necessary legwork to create a solid story. The result is that stories were turned over hastily in an effort to keep everybody busy and productive, but it came at a cost. The stories had loose requirements that were open to a lot of interpretation. Developers made guesses and assumptions, some of which proved to be incorrect. Those areas where the mark was missed likely resulted in buggy software or unsatisfied customers, which are equally undesirable. If you find yourself in a position like that where there are too many developers for the number of stories, it’s important to come up with a way to change that. Tap some of your senior developers and have them assist with story-writing.

Good stories won’t solve all of a development team’s problems, but it will sharpen execution. Before putting a story in the development backlog, review it. Does it describe the business need or value? Does it have well-written, complete, verifiable acceptance criteria? Can it be completed in a single sprint or iteration? If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, you’ve probably got a decent story. Go ahead and put it in the queue with confidence!


Author: Adam Prescott

I'm enthusiastic and passionate about creating intuitive, great-looking software. I strive to find the simplest solutions to complex problems, and I embrace agile principles and test-driven development.

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