Put the User in User Stories

May 21, 2013 Trace Wax

I’ve often been in situations where people see user stories in Pivotal Tracker as just a punch list of to-dos, line items for snippets of code we can write that does one little thing in a product owner’s head. Even that much is useful for its prioritization and clarity, but thanks to a great chat last week with Lean User Experience wizard Josh Wexler, I’ve found myself paying closer attention to the reason they’re called User Stories in the first place: the users.

Complicated business logic becomes much easier to grok when you have a clear scenario in mind for the person who’s using it. I was recently working on a piece of particularly thorny logic with a new client developer for Case Commons. It had to do with subtle requirements for when and how to get permission to update a foster family’s license. We read and reread the story and the explanation, but it was hard to communicate why we were doing the thing we needed to do. We were talking in circles, and as soon as that happened, we knew we were doing it wrong.

So I pulled out the blog post I wrote a month ago, and it turned out that my friend’s family and newly adopted children were in an almost identical scenario to the one we were working on. I pulled up pictures of my friends and their adopted kids to show to the guy I was pairing with, and described the social worker, Tania, who had connected them with their new family. From then on, it wasn’t some abstract user we were talking about, it was Tania. My pair and I discussed what would happen if my friends became able to adopt more kids, the process Tania would have to go through to make that happen, and where that information would go on the physical, printed foster family license we were implementing. Having faces and names to go with our code made all the pieces click together, when we see as the story title in tracker: “Foster Family Licensing worker sees checklist only if capacity has changed”

I’m looking forward to putting more users into more user stories to make them come to life. When each story is complete, what new awesome thing will that person be able to do, and what need of theirs will it fulfill?

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