User Stories: A Beginner’s Guide for Product Managers

Author headshot for CareerFoundry blog contributor Kinzal Jalan.

If you’re a product manager or an aspiring one, you’ll have encountered the phrase “user stories” at some point. 

It’s pretty popular with product teams following the agile framework, as it accurately captures what users want and aids in successful product development. Therefore, if you’re involved or interested in product management, you must know how to write and work with user stories like a pro. 

In this blog, we’ll be taking a closer look at the user story and how to use it successfully in the agile product development approach.

Read on to learn more about:

  1. What is a user story?
  2. What is the importance of user stories in product development?
  3. How to use user stories in agile methodologies
  4. How to write a user story
  5. What is user story mapping?
  6. User stories FAQs
  7. Wrap-up

1. What is a user story?

A user story is a short informal description of a feature narrated from the end user’s perspective. The idea behind crafting it is to shift focus from writing about features to discussing them. 

User stories are an excellent starting point to generate valuable discussions, enabling development teams to modify, add or remove the required product features flexibly. 

Usually, they follow a template. The most common template is:

As a (user role), I want (goal or objective), so that (reason or benefit). 

Here are some examples of user stories

  • As an online shopper (user role), I don’t want to enter a lot of personal information on checkout forms (goal or objective) so that my data is not misused (reason or benefit). 
  • As a job seeker (user role), I want to upload my resume without difficulties (goal or objective) so that there are no delays in getting interview calls (reason or benefit). 
  • As a business owner (user role), I want to automate different manual processes (goal or objective) so that I can focus on more important things (reason or benefit). 

2. What is the importance of user stories in product development?

User stories are essential to navigate the agile development approach successfully. As you already know, the agile development methodology is a non-linear product development approach that ensures you complete projects quickly, with maximal flexibility to make changes depending on evolving needs.

In the agile framework, user stories play a pivotal role in efficiently prioritizing end users’ experiences. As product managers, they help you understand the intrinsic value of each feature to your end user and build products that ultimately help them. 

Moreover, they also help you plan your sprint meetings and set the agenda well in advance. Using them, you become better equipped to accurately predict what will likely work and what won’t. 

Furthermore, user stories also help you to provide proper context to the development team to understand and implement tasks from an end user’s perspective. 

3. How to use user stories in agile methodologies

Typically, any agile product development project is considered an initiative comprising various tasks (epics), further broken down into user stories.

In it, these stories define why you should include certain features and functionalities by keeping end users in mind. 

Here’s a rundown of a typical agile user story life cycle you can expect:

  • First, the product owner (a Scrum term for the person in charge of developing a product) or someone from the development team writes user stories to describe user needs from a user’s perspective. 
  • The product manager examines the user story and iterates it if necessary. This may be based on their judgment or by collecting feedback.
  • Other team members assess the user story and confirm approval for integrating it into the product backlog.
  • The development team estimates the work necessary for implementing each user story. 
  • The agile team prioritizes user stories based on the time required and the business objectives. Risk, dependencies, and user feedback also influence their prioritization. 
  • The development team initiates technical implementation as per the prioritized hierarchy. 
  • After multiple iterations, user stories are marked “completed” if they meet all the successful completion criteria. Usually, the product owner or the client formally accepts the successful completion of a user story. 

It’s important to note that the user story lifecycle is flexible and iterative. Each stage builds on the previous one, and the product backlog is constantly reprioritized. With that, let’s go further and understand how you can write a user story.

4. How to write a user story

When you write a user story, you need to first make it a point to remember what end users want from a product. With that in mind, simply follow the steps below:

Step 1: Define the user and understand the user’s personal characteristics. Interviewing and empathizing with typical users is an excellent way to get a well-rounded picture. 

Step 2: Collate feedback and conduct surveys. Use feedback from customers and end users to write your user stories. 

Step 3: Consider the element of time. Ideally, you should complete a story within one sprint. As a result, it’ll help if you break it down further, or consider larger stories epics in their own right. 

Step 4: Finally, follow a template to draft your user stories. The most common template, as stated above, is: “As a (user role), I want (goal or objective), so that (reason or benefit).”

With these steps, writing user stories may seem simple to you. However, keep in mind that you’ll need to put a lot of thought into writing them well for successful implementation by the development team. 

Here are some best practices you can keep in mind while writing user stories:

  • Keep your stories brief and straightforward. They should be easy to understand and written from the user’s perspective in a non-technical language. 
  • They should focus on the users. You should be able to define who the user is and invoke their personas at will. 
  • It’s good to follow a standard template and make sure that your user stories are written in a manner that they can be objectively measured as “complete” or “not complete.” Acceptance criteria consist of rules and conditions that must be met before a user story is deemed “complete.” So, you must be able to set specific, measurable, and testable acceptance criteria. 
  • Prioritize your stories based on their importance and business value, efforts required to complete the user story, risks and dependencies involved, and user feedback. 
  • Continue to refine and update them regularly. Agile methodology is based on flexibility, so your user stories should be flexible too. They should accurately depict changing needs and desires of the users. Moreover, whenever you feel a user story is getting too complex, consider it an epic and break it down further.
  • Involve internal and external stakeholders so that your user stories accurately reflect user needs while being achievable from a development perspective. 

However, here you must note merely writing user stories ain’t enough. You must also categorize and get a complete picture of all the stories you collate. This is where user story mapping comes into play. 

5. What is user story mapping?

User story mapping refers to categorizing and arranging different user stories in a manner that provides an easy-to-understand workflow. Jeff Patton introduced the concept in 2005 to help arrange stories into categories and levels. 

The idea behind user story mapping is that by simply looking at the map; you can know which user stories are important in the hierarchy and attend to them pronto during agile meetings, aka “sprints.”

User story maps are helpful to visualize, organize, and update your stories during meetings. They can also help your on-site and remote workers to remain on the same page regarding product development. As a product manager, user story maps can enable you to achieve the desired results by providing clarity during collaborative meetings.

You can follow the steps below to create user story maps:

Step 1: Identify user roles, persona, and goals. 

Step 2: Create user story cards for each user goal or objective. On each card, briefly describe the user goal and acceptance criteria. 

Step 3: Map your user story cards by placing sticky notes on a wall or whiteboard. You can also use digital tools such as Jira for this.

Step 4: Move around your user story cards according to their evolving priority. 

Step 5: Refine and update your user story maps to reflect evolving user needs and product requirements

6. Wrap-up

So there, we have it—a product manager’s quick guide to what are user stories!

As we’ve covered, this tool help you and your agile team to remain focused on solving user problems instead of just focusing on tasks that need to be completed during product development. They help you collaborate better and understand different team members’ perspectives. 

As a result, your team begins to think creatively and critically, which encourages brainstorming. Eventually, stories build up on each other. When each story is successfully completed, your team feels like they’ve achieved something. This helps build momentum and navigate successful product development.

Want to learn more about product management and build a career in the field? Then check out this free 5-day product management short course, or read the following guides to get a beginner’s idea:

7. User stories FAQ

Still need some things cleared up? That’s quite normal.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions on this subject. 

What is the difference between a user story, a use case, and a user requirement?

A user story is a brief statement that describes the user’s requirements in a simple and easy-to-understand language. It’s short and high-level, allowing greater freedom and flexibility to change or modify across an agile user story lifecycle. 

User requirements are more formal, granular, and broken down into exact specifications. Making changes to them takes time and requires multiple approvals. 

A use case is a detailed step-by-step description of how users interact with a product. It describes a user, their interactions with the product, and how it behaves. Typically, use cases present different scenarios that may arise when users interact with a product. 

While user stories are used in agile development frameworks, user requirements and use cases are typically used in traditional frameworks such as the waterfall method

Are user stories written for internal stakeholders or external users?

You can write user stories for both internal and external stakeholders

A “user” refers to anyone who interacts with a product. Hence, it can include both internal and external stakeholders.

How many user stories should be there in a product backlog?

The number of user stories depends on the size and complexity of the project. As the product backlog is a dynamic document that continues to evolve during agile development, the user stories also often change. 

However, a product backlog should contain enough user stories to be successfully completed during a sprint. This can vary according to the project and the number of people available. Hence, it is challenging to generalize this with a number estimate. 

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