User Stories – The Beginner’s Guide

Our Beginner’s Guide series is designed to help those who are just starting to learn about user experience, or those who want to brush up on the basics. In this part, we take a look at user stories.

What is a user story?

A user story is a short sentence which encapsulates a need or piece of functionality in the language of the end user. It sums up what the requirement or goal is and the reason for it. It also means requirements are presented in a user-centric way.

User stories can be written at differing levels of detail which means you don’t always have to get down to the nitty gritty of the functionality to capture a particular user requirement. This makes them particularly useful for kicking off discussions with either your client or project team.

The user story is something that forms the basis of Agile projects. Rather than a traditional functional specification document Agile projects have a list of functionality comprimised of user stories called a product backlog.

User stories can still be useful in a waterfall type approach as a means for expressing what has been learnt in the discovery portion of a project. Rather than producing a massive report with all your findings you can present back a list of user stories which act as the deliverable for what you have learnt in an easily digestible way.

This has the added benefit that the user stories can be taken forward into the development process meaning you haven’t spent lots of time producing something for a limited audience which may not be read again.

When do I create a user story?

User Stories on a TableThe user story from a UX point of view is a discrete piece of functionality or user goal that you will have identified through your user research. This will include among others inputs from your personas, user journeys and even your information architecture.

As such, you will normally create your first user stories after your initial research phase is complete. If you are working in Agile you can expect to help write user stories throughout the project as you work through the various iterations.

How do I create a user story?

Fortunately a user story is extremely easy to create once you have done the initial thinking behind it. Depending on how you intend to use it there are three ways I would suggest:

  1. On paper cards – useful if you wish to run a planning workshop or get an idea how to group the stories.
  2. In a spreadsheet – put your user stories in a spreadsheet if you have a very large number, or wish to manipulate them easily (for example by different priorities)
  3. Online – online tools like Trello can be useful for helping create and organise your user stories and distributing them among your team and clients
Trello is a useful online tool for user stories

Depending on the level of detail in your user stories it may be beneficial to get a developer or business analyst to help you. This is because you may need to create stories for things such as back end requirements.

For example, a user story in which the user wants to see the homepage may be dependant on having a database set up in the back end. This is where you start getting into the realms of actually building a product, so be sure that you need to go to this level of detail.

What should a user story contain?

 As a user I want to be able to <functionality/goal> so that <motivation/reason>

MicroscopeThat is essentially your user story. Of course depending on the granularity of the requirement you may be describing things here such as the timings for an animation on a drop down menu, or something as ‘large’ as being able to log into an account.

The important thing is to not go into too much detail until you absolutely have to.

When you are getting into the actual planning of an iteration developers will put estimates of effort onto each story and this will be a guide for the product owner to help prioritise the stories to be built. The full Agile process is out of the scope of this article but Wikipedia has a good overview.

What’s next?

We have now covered most of the activities you will be conducting on a new project. Next time we will take a step back and look in more detail at some of the specific user research activities you may need to get involved in such as user interviews, user testing and Analytics.

Images courtesy CannedTunaJacopo RomeiIITA Image Library