User Stories and Agile Development

By Aaron Sherman

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A core tenet of modern development processes is agile development. This development methodology stresses using small, bite-sized user stories to define what a system does from a user perspective, not a technical one. A user cares if a product is fast, easy to use, and solves their problem. They do not care if it follows a 3-tier architecture, has Mongo DB, or if it is using Rails or

User stories:

Storyboard That provides an ideal platform to create agile user stories and spark conversation in a format that is much less taxing than a wall of text.


In the context of user stories, an “epic” is simply a very broad story that will later be broken down into many specific user stories. Starting with an epic aligns everyone with a single, high-level vision. The epic story anchors a project from the top down, and if it doesn’t make sense to construct an epic, supporting work is also going to be a waste of effort.

Customer Care Generic Epic


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In this story, it is very clear what the long term vision is and what success should look like. A good epic story should include:

Defining Users

Especially when designing software, it is important to have a good vision of what the users will be like. Not every user will match this vision precisely, and there may be multiple categories of user, but these discrete visions need articulation. Thinking about users first guards against over-engineering and over-complication, preventing a new product from having something for everyone and being useful to no one.

Acme Corp. Users


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Creating a Story

Once an epic has been established and users have been defined, smaller, more specific stories can be constructed about particular user experiences. The stories below break down the outlined above into two narratives: looking up an order and re-ordering a product.

These narratives do not contain technical information; the users do not care how the results are achieved, so long as it performs the desired tasks. Similarly, the UX is depicted generically, to avoid stifling innovation or forcing a path. In general, stories should be:

Looking Up an Order

Acme Corp. - Looking up an Order


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Performing a Reorder

Acme Corp. Replacement Order


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Conversation & Planning for Testing

These stories should invite conversation and questions, such as:

It is perfectly reasonable to create many stories; in fact, it should be encouraged. Some of these stories will never be used, but it is important to see the path they set down. This collection of stories will flush out additional requirements and influence testing.

The stories should provoke and inform discussion about how the software will be tested and what business rules need to be explicitly defined. For example:

Further Reading

Storyboard That provides a powerful tool for creating great user stories, but it is not meant to stand alone as a framework for project management. Here are some of our favorite books on the subject.

User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development by Mike Cohn

This book lays out both the how and why of user stories and provides a comprehensive analysis of when it makes sense over other methods like IEEE 830, scenarios, and use cases.
Agile in a Flash: Speed-Learning Agile Software Development (Pragmatic Programmers) by Jeff Langr and Tim Ottinger

You have to love this pragmatic programmers’ series. They break down agile into a handful of easy to understand flash cards.
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

This is a classic book by the creator of the comic Google used to introduce their Chrome browser in 2008. It uses comics themselves to explain how the medium conveys a story.

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