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Powerful Tips for Writing the Best User Stories in Scrum

The main reason most projects move to Agile is they would like to see results fast. These result cannot be achieved quickly if there is a lack of clarity on the outcome, this is where user story comes in.User stories are like mini single line business requirements which tell you the Who for, Why and What to development. Requirements in Agile are written in a story format and not in name-value pair format either - this is because when you read a story you understand better.It is easier to understand :“As a user logging into the application the first time, I would like to be displayed help popupsWhen compared with:Users: New loginWhat: Pop up guide.so that I can understand the layout of the screen better”Why: Guidance.In Agile all business requirement should be expressed in user story format, and any requirement which cannot be documented in this format is probably not a business requirement or they do not have a value.format,Who owns and who documents User stories There has never been any confusion about who is responsible for a User story - It is the Product Owner. But there are often doubts about who can write them - And the answer is “Anybody”. Anybody who has clarity on the requirement can add details in, usually, if there is a Business Analyst in the team, they would document requirements, and in other teams the team member documents them. In the end, the Product owner should, however, review and accept them.Anatomy of a User story The user story has elements which have to present and is usually documented in the pattern given in all Agile projects. This helps in bring in uniformity and the structure ensures that none of the components that make a story so powerful is a lot.The most common user story Patterns are:As a  Persona I should  be able to do something so that I get this benefitorIn order to receive benefit as a role, I can goal/desireHowever, there are many attributes of a user story which define and make them: A Unique IDTo identify a requirement uniquely. When an ALM tool is used, this attribute is set by default by the team for each requirement.SummaryThis is the short name/summary/ title of the requirementDescriptionThis is the user story as given in the user story formatAcceptance CriteriaThese are the details and the actual content of what is to be developed to achieve the end result.There are many formats for writing acceptance criteria, and it could also be just single line criteria. The important point to note is, that if it is not in the acceptance criteria, it is not to be developed.EstimationEvery user story is estimated in Story points which is the standProgressard metric in Agile projects.StatusThis indicated the completion stage of the user story- It starts from Idea (single line usually) to Defined, Refined, Planned, In progress, Completed, Accepted.When user stories are displayed on Storyboards they are often displayed on Post It notes and referred to as Story Card or just “Cards”.This card displays basic and yet enough information to start a discussion :Writing User StoriesA user story is only as effective as the discussions on them, and they are only as effective as the participation. Having ceremonies such as Refinement sessions or Amigo sessions is the what makes user stories effective. A user-story written in the correct format is the biggest step, and the next step is getting the acceptance criteria clearly documented. Characteristics of user storiesA good user story is written in one to three linesA good story should always be in the active voiceUser stories are used to communicate. So make them visible and accessibleTips for writing good user storiesKeep your user stories clear and conciseWrite user stories collaborativelyStart with EpicsRefine the stories until they are readyUser stories acceptance criteria:There are many formats for documenting acceptance criteria -Just simple sentences orAs scenarios orAs scenarios in Gherkin format (Given.. When.. Then..)Gherkin format is especially popular in teams where Testing is automated since the Acceptance criteria can be reused, and this reduces any instance of requirement ambiguity or misinterpretation.Non-Functional Requirements in User StoriesOften, non-functional requirements are not documented as stories, and they are a part of the Definition of Done (DOD). Performance, for example, should not be impacted by any story, and the development should be scalable for in every user story. These may be documented for final verification however cannot implement as a separate story.Managing User storiesRequirements in agile projects are negotiable. They can be discussed and modified till they are in the sprint, and even when they are in the sprint when there is better clarity the requirements can be modified. To manage this change and have a central repository it is important to manage requirements in an online tool which would provide a single version of the truth.There are multiple tools available online such as Jira from Atlassian, Rally, Rational Requirement Composer (RRC), VersionOne etc which provide a platform for managing requirements and also their lifecycle from idea to the acceptance stage.The lifecycle of a User storyThe detailing of a story card is done through multiple stages of the grooming process. These are broadly classified into 3 stages known as the 3Cs- Card – At this stage, only the purpose of the card is highlighted with no or very little details on the actual expectationConversations on the card – At this stage members from the development, test, and requirement/business teams discuss the scope of the card (in scope and out of scope functionalities) and detail out the card and also provide estimates on the cardConfirmation- At this stage, the acceptance criteria and tests which have to be completed to confirm that the requirement is working are added into the cardINVEST in good user storiesWriting requirements in User story format was a practice first adopted in Xtreme Programming. This was a part of involving the end users early and getting their perspective of what has to be developed. In 1998 Alistair Cockburn visited the Chrysler C3 project in Detroit and coined the phrase "A user story is a promise for a conversation.". It is a business statement of what is needed and why. However for the user stories to become effective it is also important that they follow some best practices so that the business and development teams have a common guideline.These guidelines are referred to as the INVEST criteria, where INVEST is an acronym for :"I" independent (of all others) - The story can be worked on independently and shown to the end user - all dependencies are completed and no longer a blocker"N" negotiable (not a specific contract for features) - Stories should be the starting point for conversation and they should not be treated like a contract negotiable."V" valuable (contract negotiable or vertical) - They should provide value to the end user. "E" estimable (to a good approximation) - Only stories which are clear can be estimated, and in agile estimation are the best understanding guess based on the relative size."S" small (so as to fit within an iteration) - Story should be sized appropriately. They should not be too small or too the big."T" testable (in principle, even if there isn't a test for it yet) - If there is a value expected from the story it should be testable and validated as delivered stable.Why do other requirements still exist if this is so good?User stories are starters for conversation and so they are preferred in projects where the Product owner is available for discussion. When the presence of a business member is not possible for the team all through the sprints, it could be difficult to have User stories as requirements.User stories do not tell you how to develop - They just tell you what and why. If the team is new to the technology, user stories might not be good enough and the team would need a lot of support and guidance from experts to start the implementation.Often user stories are misunderstood as being flexible even during implementation and team implement more than documented- unless guided well the technical implementation could be impacted.Sometimes writing a user story can be tricky and time-consuming. User stories have a simple single sentence template, and are supported by acceptance criteria - and the acceptance criteria could depending on the maturity of the team become a binder or be treated as a contract by the members making it extremely difficult for the person documenting them. ConclusionAgile projects have requirements documented as User stories and approved by the Product owners, and with a self-motivated team which is aware of the business goals working on them, User stories trigger the right conversations leading to best designs.

Powerful Tips for Writing the Best User Stories in Scrum

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Powerful Tips for Writing the Best User Stories in Scrum

The main reason most projects move to Agile is they would like to see results fast. These result cannot be achieved quickly if there is a lack of clarity on the outcome, this is where user story comes in.

User stories are like mini single line business requirements which tell you the Who for, Why and What to development. Requirements in Agile are written in a story format and not in name-value pair format either - this is because when you read a story you understand better.

It is easier to understand :
“As a user logging into the application the first time, I would like to be displayed help popups
When compared with:
Users: New login
What: Pop up guide.
so that I can understand the layout of the screen better”Why: Guidance.

In Agile all business requirement should be expressed in user story format, and any requirement which cannot be documented in this format is probably not a business requirement or they do not have a value.format,

Who owns and who documents User stories

 There has never been any confusion about who is responsible for a User story - It is the Product Owner. But there are often doubts about who can write them - And the answer is “Anybody”. Anybody who has clarity on the requirement can add details in, usually, if there is a Business Analyst in the team, they would document requirements, and in other teams the team member documents them. In the end, the Product owner should, however, review and accept them.

Anatomy of a User story

 The user story has elements which have to present and is usually documented in the pattern given in all Agile projects. This helps in bring in uniformity and the structure ensures that none of the components that make a story so powerful is a lot.

The most common user story Patterns are:
As a  Persona I should  be able to do something so that I get this benefit
or
In order to receive benefit as a role, I can goal/desire


However, there are many attributes of a user story which define and make them: 

A Unique IDTo identify a requirement uniquely. When an ALM tool is used, this attribute is set by default by the team for each requirement.
SummaryThis is the short name/summary/ title of the requirement
DescriptionThis is the user story as given in the user story format
Acceptance CriteriaThese are the details and the actual content of what is to be developed to achieve the end result.
There are many formats for writing acceptance criteria, and it could also be just single line criteria. The important point to note is, that if it is not in the acceptance criteria, it is not to be developed.

EstimationEvery user story is estimated in Story points which is the standProgressard metric in Agile projects.
StatusThis indicated the completion stage of the user story- It starts from Idea (single line usually) to Defined, Refined, Planned, In progress, Completed, Accepted.


When user stories are displayed on Storyboards they are often displayed on Post It notes and referred to as Story Card or just “Cards”.

This card displays basic and yet enough information to start a discussion :

Writing User Stories

A user story is only as effective as the discussions on them, and they are only as effective as the participation. Having ceremonies such as Refinement sessions or Amigo sessions is the what makes user stories effective. A user-story written in the correct format is the biggest step, and the next step is getting the acceptance criteria clearly documented. 

Characteristics of user stories

  1. A good user story is written in one to three lines
  2. A good story should always be in the active voice
  3. User stories are used to communicate. So make them visible and accessible

Tips for writing good user stories

  1. Keep your user stories clear and concise
  2. Write user stories collaboratively
  3. Start with Epics
  4. Refine the stories until they are ready

User stories acceptance criteria:

There are many formats for documenting acceptance criteria -
Just simple sentences or
As scenarios or
As scenarios in Gherkin format (Given.. When.. Then..)
Gherkin format is especially popular in teams where Testing is automated since the Acceptance criteria can be reused, and this reduces any instance of requirement ambiguity or misinterpretation.

Acceptance Criteria Vs User Stories in Scrum

Non-Functional Requirements in User Stories

Often, non-functional requirements are not documented as stories, and they are a part of the Definition of Done (DOD). Performance, for example, should not be impacted by any story, and the development should be scalable for in every user story. These may be documented for final verification however cannot implement as a separate story.

Managing User stories

Requirements in agile projects are negotiable. They can be discussed and modified till they are in the sprint, and even when they are in the sprint when there is better clarity the requirements can be modified. To manage this change and have a central repository it is important to manage requirements in an online tool which would provide a single version of the truth.

There are multiple tools available online such as Jira from Atlassian, Rally, Rational Requirement Composer (RRC), VersionOne etc which provide a platform for managing requirements and also their lifecycle from idea to the acceptance stage.

The lifecycle of a User story

The detailing of a story card is done through multiple stages of the grooming process. These are broadly classified into 3 stages known as the 3Cs-

  •  Card – At this stage, only the purpose of the card is highlighted with no or very little details on the actual expectation
  • Conversations on the card – At this stage members from the development, test, and requirement/business teams discuss the scope of the card (in scope and out of scope functionalities) and detail out the card and also provide estimates on the card
  • Confirmation- At this stage, the acceptance criteria and tests which have to be completed to confirm that the requirement is working are added into the card

The lifecycle of a User story in Scrum

INVEST in good user stories

Writing requirements in User story format was a practice first adopted in Xtreme Programming. This was a part of involving the end users early and getting their perspective of what has to be developed. In 1998 Alistair Cockburn visited the Chrysler C3 project in Detroit and coined the phrase "A user story is a promise for a conversation.". It is a business statement of what is needed and why. However for the user stories to become effective it is also important that they follow some best practices so that the business and development teams have a common guideline.
These guidelines are referred to as the INVEST criteria, where INVEST is an acronym for :

INVEST in good user stories in scrum

  • "I" independent (of all others) - The story can be worked on independently and shown to the end user - all dependencies are completed and no longer a blocker
  • "N" negotiable (not a specific contract for features) - Stories should be the starting point for conversation and they should not be treated like a contract negotiable.
  • "V" valuable (contract negotiable or vertical) - They should provide value to the end user. 
  • "E" estimable (to a good approximation) - Only stories which are clear can be estimated, and in agile estimation are the best understanding guess based on the relative size.
  • "S" small (so as to fit within an iteration) - Story should be sized appropriately. They should not be too small or too the big.
  • "T" testable (in principle, even if there isn't a test for it yet) - If there is a value expected from the story it should be testable and validated as delivered stable.

Why do other requirements still exist if this is so good?

  • User stories are starters for conversation and so they are preferred in projects where the Product owner is available for discussion. When the presence of a business member is not possible for the team all through the sprints, it could be difficult to have User stories as requirements.
  • User stories do not tell you how to develop - They just tell you what and why. If the team is new to the technology, user stories might not be good enough and the team would need a lot of support and guidance from experts to start the implementation.
  • Often user stories are misunderstood as being flexible even during implementation and team implement more than documented- unless guided well the technical implementation could be impacted.
  • Sometimes writing a user story can be tricky and time-consuming. User stories have a simple single sentence template, and are supported by acceptance criteria - and the acceptance criteria could depending on the maturity of the team become a binder or be treated as a contract by the members making it extremely difficult for the person documenting them. 

Conclusion

Agile projects have requirements documented as User stories and approved by the Product owners, and with a self-motivated team which is aware of the business goals working on them, User stories trigger the right conversations leading to best designs.



Tanisha

Tanisha Joseph

Blog Author

Over 11 years of experience in Agile projects. Experienced Agile first hand as a Team member, Business Analyst, Scrum Master and Agile coach. Through her career she has been a part of projects in Banking, Tourism, Media and Networking domains. Strong advocate of being Agile in Agile projects, and experimenting to find whats best for the team.

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Safe Agile Ceremonies - Expert Guide

“Winners take time to relish their work, knowing that scaling the mountain is what makes the view from the top so exhilarating.” ― Denis WaitleyWhat are SAFe agile events (or) ceremonies? – a brief overview:Before we jump into the topic, could I just take you a step back and remind you what SAFe is all about? SAFe is a way of taking any iterative Agile way of working (normally restricted to a team or few teams) and scaling it up at various levels of the organization, whilst applying a mindset of Lean manufacturing. It also deals with scalability at various levels. Beginning from Essential SAFe right up to Full SAFe, the framework caters to all organizational levels of scaling agility. As part of this, it broadens the core idea of agility mindset beyond just projects/development teams right up to executives/CXOs, who must prepare for enterprise level uncertainties. In a sense, it provides valuable enterprise level scaling insights helpful for the executives to tackle any uncertainties/risks associated with a project.As you start applying SAFe in your organisation, it is important for you to understand how each level works in conjunction with the other, depending on how mature your SAFe enterprise is. The key link between these levels is the SAFe specific events which help with smooth value delivery facilitation. The events help with alignment across teams, ARTs etc thus helping in managing risk by providing a level based cadence and synchronization.Essential SAFe - Your First Level of Scaling Using an Agile Release Train (ART). Courtesy © Scaled Agile, Inc. Source: Scaled AgileWhy do we need level-based ceremonies?While it is important to go through your team level events (like the 4 sprint events if you are doing scrum etc.) it is important to have the scaling events that help with bridging gaps and unblocking dependency between teams. The most important part of these SAFe specific events is for ‘Business Stakeholders’ to get a look (demo) at a proper incremental product and thus the value arising out of it. Makes sense? It did for me and let me tell you why.I was once associated with 3 feature teams, who were working towards a common product goal. They all had the same business stakeholders but were working on individual features. Team A was working on developing a Login page, Team B was working on a landing dashboard while Team C was hopping along, trying to provide a search functionality for the user. All of them were applying the Scrum framework and were running their own events. Sprint demos were happening individually and were being represented by the Product owner separately along with his business analysts. All seemed fine but there was a nagging problem. The product owner was worried, because he couldn’t bring any business stakeholder to view the demos, as they were being run in silos and there was no visibility on the incremental product. Well technically there was, but they would have to sit through three or four-hour events individually to get bits and pieces of the product demo. In the real world, it's not a possibility simply because your business stakeholders will not have that much time to spend on multiple demos. It is not a good use of their time either. So, what’s the solution? Simple, it’s SAFe to the rescue! Let’s try and understand how the SAFe specific events help with this.Prescribed PI Cadence for Various Levels of Scaling. Courtesy © Scaled Agile, Inc. Source: Scaled AgileHow do the events (or) ceremonies help to scale up according to the levels in SAFe:SAFe is very relevant and designed to thrive in situations where there are significant cross functional dependencies between agile teams and support / functional teams (infrastructure teams, architect community etc).  Essential Level:   As you start to scale up one level up, you will be working with anywhere between 5-12 agile teams who will all be collectively working towards a common goal which is the program increment or PI. The anchoring catalyst that brings them all together is your ART (Agile release train). Before getting into the events, lets understand the various roles involved at this level because this is the common denominator across all levels of SAFe and across organizations. This is where you need to get it right without which there is not much use in scaling higher. Key Roles involved: Release Train Engineer (RTE) System Architect/Engineer Product Management   Business OwnersPrescribed events on a typical Agile release train (ART). Courtesy © Scaled Agile, Inc. Source: Scaled AgilePI PlanningAccording to me, PI planning (hands down) is THE most significant aspect of executing this framework. This is where all the magic happens. It is sometimes referred to as the heart of the framework as it offers a clear vision of what the program increment needs to be, what the cross-team dependencies are and how they bring together the cultural sustainability much needed within the release trains. It is so important, that if carried out incorrectly it could lead to several ambiguities, development challenges and mostly a disastrous product increment. However, when it works well, the iterative cycle serves to flesh out the crucial elements of the plan and the processes ensure buy in from the stakeholders.Duration: A normal PI planning is a 2-day activity, which is a face to face cultural get together of the various ART teams. However, a new 3-day distributed PI planning has been introduced to help with geographically distributed teams (across various time zones), very apt for the current pandemic situation.“There is no magic in SAFe® except maybe for PI Planning”. – The authors of the SAFe framework.In big organizations with multiple distributed teams across multiple vendors, work streams etc. it is almost impossible to run these teams independently, whilst still having to deliver an incremental program. SAFe via the PI planning exercise mentioned above, helps with sorting out these issues by recognising cross team dependencies upfront, constantly negotiating & visualising them. This doesn’t just stop with the PI planning but the framework also proposes a cadenced way of continuing this via the scrum of scrums. The Program Board is an ideal way to showcase the cross-team dependencies.A sample SAFe Program board. Courtesy © Scaled Agile, Inc. Source: Scaled Agile1. Inspect and Adapt (I&A)An inspect and adapt event is scheduled after every PI. This event is dedicated to aligning to the principles of Kaizen, which simply means to change for the better. The events contain self induced thought processes to revalidate your assumptions that everything is working OK. The I&A event consists of three sub-parts as below:  PI System DemoQuantitative and qualitative measurementRetrospective and problem-solving workshop2. ART Sync Agile release trains tend to apply a cadenced synchronization process to help manage the ability to focus on continuous value delivery. An ART sync will typically comprise of the below sub-events.  Scrum of Scrums: This event is for representatives from all the teams on a release train to come together in a regular cadenced manner, especially on large ARTs. This is normally facilitated by the release train engineer (RTE) and will involve scrum masters of the individual teams and a few selected team members (authorised by the team). The sole purpose of the SoS calls are to understand progress towards the common goal, validate cross team dependencies and unblock impediments that may arise out of them. Duration: The length and frequency of the meeting will depend on a few factors like the size of the ART, the release frequency, type of features being worked on, ability to decouple releases etc. For e.g an ART which releases features into production every 4 weeks might want to have an SoS call every 2 weeks for about an hour. Again, if this doesn’t work for you, just inspect and adapt to what works well for your organizational needs. Just make sure that the SoS is utilised for its sole purpose and not just status updates as depicted in the below comic representation.Scrum of Scrums PO SyncThis event is represented by the Product Owner, business analysts and the product management group. This is used mainly to level up the product backlog refinement and for clarifying PI (Program Increment) scope, reviewing roadmaps and grooming for the upcoming PIs.Duration: Very similar in concept to the SoS, so just follow what works for the group. 3. System DemoAs part of a common understanding towards delivering incremental software, shortly after each iteration in the PI, there is a system demo scheduled. Work completed across all teams from the release train are compiled in a stable environment before it is reviewed by the business stakeholders and other important sponsors who may have a keen interest in the product. This is on top of the individual team level demos that happen after each iteration.Duration: Anywhere between 2-3 hours that will allow time for a demonstration of the program increment in a collative manner, on top of what has been delivered from the previous PIs as well.In case your ART is pretty small, then you may want to have just have some of the events combined into a more generic ART sync, where all roles come together to collaborate towards the program increment. This can sometimes occur if the ART is focusing on a particular value stream, confined to limited business functionality, rather than elaborate features.Solution/Portfolio LevelsAs you scale higher, the processes and events become much less prescriptive. There is a good reason for this because the focus at this level is not just on having repetitive demos that have already happened before but on building thought leadership around business outcomes and enhancing business agility. Which is why we will not be diving deep into that in this blog. But let us look at the events that occur at the macro level.Lean Budget Review  Idea Sharing via Communities of Practice (not a formal event but a collaborative group)Solution DemoPortfolio SyncRoadshowWhat are the benefits of SAFe Agile ceremonies?:The Magic of PI planningWell, the more I talk about this, the more excited I am. A PI planning event when carried out to its truest purpose, gets half the job done. Here is where most of the brainstorming occurs and business value gets determined and, in some cases, gets assigned in a quantifiable manner to user stories and helps with the prioritisation.PI Planning Synchronisation towards a common goalThe events are a constant reminder that all teams are working towards delivering incremental value either on a particular value stream, or feature or program. An RTE and Product Management will help reiterating the need to focus on the larger goal whilst helping sorting out inter team dependencies.Less prescriptiveAs is the framework itself, SAFe events/ceremonies are less prescriptive. An SPC would recommend, apply the principles but inspect and adapt as to what works for your organization. As per the example I provided earlier w.r.t to the duration of the SAFe events, start with something reasonable and then validate its effectiveness. Then leave Kaizen to do the rest.Visualization of incremental value deliveryOpportunity for Business stakeholders and sponsors to have a look at the overall program increment every iteration, thus helping them evaluate the progress and provide timely feedback on market trends. What are the common mistakes?Lack of a shared product visionThings can go wrong if there is not enough representation in the product management group, say for e.g at the PO Sync event. This can lead to a blurred product vision with each team working out of sync. This may ultimately get detected too late, probably at the time of the system demo, and lead to a whole lot of unwanted rework.SoS as a status updateThe Scrum Of Scrum event should be used as an event to unblock cross team impediments or dependencies and not to just update what each team has been doing or is doing in its current sprint. TimeboxingGiven the scale at which these events will be conducted, it is critical that the associated events are facilitated in a timeboxed manner or else the participants could end up sitting and talking for hours. Roles like RTE, SPC Coaches etc will be critical in addressing this issue.Remote facilitationLack of effective collaboration tools could lead to some disastrous situations whilst facilitating the SAFe events. Given that most teams are running virtual ceremonies/events at the moment, its crucial to establish a working distributed model. This will then ensure that the platform is set up for the most effective collaboration and cross-functional work to take place.While you try to scale, as per the implementation roadmap, its essential that you solidify the process around which your ARTs will be functioning. It’s like setting the railway tracks with the correct track gauge matching the configurations of the wheelsets of the trains that will run on them. If not, they will just derail. As your ARTs pass through your set process, they will only benefit by sustaining focus and pace while moving towards a successful incremental product delivery.Thanks for your patience and wish you all the very best in your Agile journey. In case you want me to write about any specific topic, please feel free to comment below and I’ll be more than happy to add them to my ‘Blog Backlog’. If you liked the article, please do share it among your agile community to help spread the word.  Hope to see you soon, with more such interesting topics.
Safe Agile Ceremonies - Expert Guide

“Winners take time to relish their work, knowing... Read More