Collecting User Stories (User Stories 101: Part 3 of 5)

on July 29, 2014

In Part 2 of our “User Stories 101″ series, we discussed the qualities of a great user story and how to write them. Now, we’ll talk about the ways in which we can retrieve user stories from a disparate team of people.

User stories 101

At this point, you’ve identified your users and their unique needs. To help articulate these thoughts further, I often like to facilitate a workflow workshop. Start with an empty box and use this as your starting screen or interaction point. Walk through what happens next, and take a depth-first approach: follow each trail to its end, rather than trying to go one level deep across the whole experience.

While creating your workflow, prompt the group with questions such as:

  • What will the user want to do next?
  • What mistakes might the user make?
  • What additional information might the user need now?

Focus on quantity over quality at this stage. You’re brainstorming, so postpone UI. Sometimes I’ll even draw circles or just words on a whiteboard to remind everyone that we’re not talking about how something looks, but how it works.

Now we have a list of key users and an understanding of what they need to do with the product. It’s time to actually write stories. I like to facilitate short bursts of creative writing, normally around card passing.

I use a Time Timer, a really fantastic visual timer, to keep things moving. I typically go through a few different ways of writing stories, all with stacks of notecards around a table with our stakeholders and clients.

timerIndividual Writing

Normally I’ll set a five-minute clock and have everyone “claim” a user workflow or feature set. Then, each person writes as many cards as they can. Once the five minutes are up, I read each card (without revealing its author) and allow the group to sort the cards and identify duplicates. Remember, we’re still brainstorming. Don’t tear up any cards… yet.

Group Writing

Next, I’ll set the timer and have each person at a table write an “As a…” statement, then pass the card to their left. The next person writes an “I want…” and so on. Complete cards in this way until your time has elapsed.

Then, start with the “So that…” followed by  the “As a…” statements. The “I want…” comes last.

Passing cards forces everyone at the table to stop thinking linearly. They’re often presented with a user type or business value they don’t normally think about, and so they have to creatively come up with ways to serve those needs.

I find that group writing typically yields more in terms of card volume, and, as you’d expect, the general quality of the cards goes down. That’s ok – the point here is still quantity over quantity.

Once we’re done, I stop the group and we check in again by reading all the cards. It’s important here to make sure all users are represented and at least some level of functionality is recorded for each of the workflows, features and ideas we’ve had around the table. Once we’ve confirmed that as a group, we start sorting.
user story sorting

User Story Sorting

Story sorting allows us to weed out bad ideas, poorly written or duplicate cards. It also allows us to stack relevant thoughts together as we chain features and needs together in a workflow. Ultimately, we strive for consensus but it’s always best to have a true product owner in the room to establish priority and our team’s direction.

At this point, you should start to have an idea of what you’re building. Feel good? This process should be draining, but incredibly satisfying.

We’re just getting started. In Part 4, we’ll unpack how to add the right amount of criteria to our user stories so they can actually be worked on. Stick around!

Editor’s Note: This series was originally drafted by Jon Arnold, but was not published until after he left Centresource for his next adventure as Product Manager at Taonii. You can find Jon on Twitter @jonarnold.