How to Write Smarter User Stories for Product Design and Development

Most of you probably have some tried-and-true best practices that you lean on to formulate requirements and articulate what needs to be done.

In many cases, that may involve the creation of use cases and user stories. While both are valuable tools, neither go quite far enough in defining the problem and desired outcome. But as I think you’ll see, a very simple change in the user story format will profoundly impact the finished product.

What’s Wrong With Traditional User Stories?

User stories aren’t flawed; they’re incomplete.

I’m not advocating doing away with user stories—I’m advocating that we make them more useful to our product teams.

User stories don’t describe a user’s entire journey from start to finish, nor do they consider the motivations or needs that drive the journey. Typically no more than a couple of sentences in length, they stop short of explaining how users think and feel, and they don’t address the business goals that should support every item on a list of requirements. As a result, user stories may inadvertently ask more questions than they answer.

I offer for your consideration a simple way to boost the power of your user stories: address the user’s goal behind the action, as well as how that action solves a problem for the organization. In addition, this simple change also illustrates the benefit the organization stands to receive from the user’s action.

Instead of:

“As a [ user ], I want [ function ], so that [ action ].”

Write it like this:

“The [ user ] wants [ function ] to achieve the goal of [ user goal ].

The current inability to do this is causing [ adverse effect ] for the organization.”

You can also substitute that last sentence with:

“Enabling users to do this would deliver [ specific measurable value ] to the organization.”

This changes the user story from a statement of fact to a statement of intent. It opens the door to a new question: “How do we do this in a way where we can track and measure its success?”

Remember, we’re talking about designing like a startup. All startups focus on the most important problem—the one with the potential to completely sink your ship, if left unsolved.

In this case, your overriding focus must be on the things that provide measurable value to users, and in doing so, back to the organization. It really is that critical to your survival and success.

Task Completion vs. Success

Traditional user stories operate at a very tactical level; the focus is strictly on task completion, but I have a problem with that. Task completion is not the same as success. If you want better UX, you have to focus on success, which is where the value I keep harping on about lives.

Uncover and incorporate how users feel about the interaction, along with their intended goal, the reason they’re doing it in the first place. You need to capture why a particular interaction or behavior provides a better user experience. You also need to capture why that experience, in turn, benefits the business.

Using the format above, your new user stories might look like this:

Task Completion

“As Jane the Bank Teller, I want a preset shortcut list of one-touch transactions so that I can complete more transactions.”

Success

“Jane the Bank Teller wants a preset shortcut list of one-touch transactions, to achieve the goal of getting customers through the line faster to minimize their frustration and automate lengthy transaction sequences. The current inability to do this is causing a significant percentage of customers to leave our bank for a competitor.”

For Jane, getting customers through the line and completing their transactions is task completion; she’s already doing that now. Doing this same task better (in a way that is more accurate, efficient, and makes customers feel like the process was pleasant and really fast) is success. And when people feel like they’re being taken care of, when their needs are met and expectations are exceeded, they remain loyal.

When you shift your focus from what people do to why it matters, both your head and your feet are firmly on the path to creating powerful end-user experiences.

For more practical advice, download the 91-page e-book Fixing the Enterprise UX Process by Joe Natoli.

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Photo by Maria Kosowska