If you’re just getting started in UX, user stories will probably be something you’ve heard about.
But you may not fully understand just yet how to make the most of them, or what a good user story looks like.
I’ll kick things off with an explanation of what user stories are, before looking at why they’re important. I’ll then explain how user stories are used in Agile. After that, I’ll share some tips on how to write a good user story and some user story examples.
To skip ahead to any section, use this clickable menu:
- What are UX user stories?
- Why are user stories important?
- User stories and Agile
- How to write a good user story
- Examples of UX user stories
- Closing thoughts
What are UX user stories?
User stories are short, specific, and goal-oriented statements, written in the first-person, that represent a user’s goals, needs, aspirations, or expectations.
UX user stories are generally one sentence long and made up of three parts:
- The subject of the action (i.e. the user’s name)
- The action the subject/user wants to do
- The outcome they want to achieve
By following this structure they look like this:
As <1>, I want to <2>, so that <3>.
We’ll go into a few specific examples of UX user stories in more detail in a later section, but here’s a one to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:
As <Stephanie>, I want to <get notified in advance about when I need to update my OS>, so <I don’t have to stop working for half an hour when it’s inconvenient>
Another way of thinking about the three parts of a user story that might be helpful for you is “who?”, “what?”, and “why?”:
- Who am I?
- What do I want to do?
- Why do I want to do it?
Here’s how you could apply the content from the example above to the “who?”, “what?”, and “why?” structure:
- Who am I? A mac user
- What do I want to do? Get notified in advance about when I need to update my OS
- Why do I want to do it? So I don’t have to stop working for half an hour when it’s inconvenient
While this may look like a very simple sentence, it actually reveals a lot about who you’re designing and building for and why.
And it’s for this reason that user stories are used regularly and systematically by UX designers, product designers, and product managers.They’re tools for getting an in-depth understanding of users’ needs, and the starting point for generating solutions that will give those users value.
Now that I’ve explained what user stories are, let’s look at why they’re so important.
Why are user stories important?
User stories are important for UX designers, product designers, product managers, and development teams for many different reasons. Let’s take a look at five of the most important ones:
- User stories help keep products user-focused and user-centered. To avoid creating features that haven’t been externally validated, user stories ensure that all features are user-focused, based on real user needs and goals, and driven by empathy for users.
- User stories give designers a realistic and concrete view of the user. User stories help designers to get important context on users’ goals. By putting yourself into your user’s shoes, you understand how your product or feature fits into their day-to-day life. UX user stories should be created with—or at least validated by—UX research.
- User stories encourage team collaboration by creating alignment on the user and development priorities. Many projects include a wide range of stakeholders, including content designers, UX researchers, product managers, product owners, and developers (in addition to the UX designer). Ideally, user stories should be accessible, manageable, and understandable to all of these stakeholders.
- User stories help with task prioritization by acting as a roadmap or navigational aid. On top of informing the functionality of the product, user stories can help designers determine the order in which features are designed and how they are designed. User stories can help projects stay focused on what is implementable and achievable at each stage, and what should be left out until later on. We’ll talk about this in the context of Agile in the next section.
- User stories drive creative solutions. This collaborative process of putting yourself in your users’ shoes encourages the team to think critically and creatively about the best solutions for the users’ goals. Often, this results in finding creative solutions that would otherwise have been missed.
Now that I’ve outlined five reasons why user stories are important, I’ll explain why they’re part of Agile software development and how they fit into the bigger picture.
User stories and Agile
User stories and Agile are often mentioned in the same breath.
The concept of user stories originated in Agile, and they remain a core component of an agile program.
As I explained above, user stories help to ensure features and products are user-centered. This means that—in the context of Agile—they act as a user-focused framework for daily work. They help make sure work is collaborative and creative, driving teams towards better products.
User stories are the smallest units of work in an agile framework and they serve as building blocks for larger agile frameworks like epics (larger projects broken down in multiple stories) and initiatives (multiple epics). Epics and initiatives exist to make sure that the day-to-day work fits into wider organizational goals.
In an agile framework, teams should be able to complete user stories in a sprint. And if a story is too big to be completed in a sprint, it should be broken down into smaller ones or subtasks.
Completing user stories often gives teams a sense of achievement during a sprint and helps them to build momentum.
User stories work well in both scrum and agile frameworks. Because of space, I won’t go into the details here, but if you’re interested in learning more about user stories in scrum or agile (and how user stories fit in the wider context of Agile project management), Max Rekhopf has written an excellent guide on the subject for Atlassian: User Stories – Examples and Template.
How do Agile frameworks help UX?
Laura Klein, in a blog post for the Interaction Design Foundation, explains that Agile is “a great aid in user-centered design, not least because it offers us a faster track by which to research and plan, particularly in that we can structure and fine-tune epics to help find every possible dimension of a project”.
She also explains the relationships between user stories and agile compellingly—user stories give us a firm grasp of the users and their wants; and this combines with the structure and flexibility of epics to powerful effect.
To learn more about using Agile as a UX designer, check out our guide to Agile UX.
Now that I’ve looked at how user stories are used in Agile, I’ll explain how to write a good user story.
How to write a good user story
As user stories are short and follow the same simple structure, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking they’re easy to write.
In fact, they can be very challenging to put together.
A good user story needs to be clear, actionable, and user-focused. Here are five things you can do that will help you create good UX user stories:
- Involve user research and talk to your customers. Because user stories need to reflect real needs and goals, getting user research is essential. Qualitative user research like observations, interviews, and other ethnographic methods can be extremely useful in generating relevant user insights. You may also realize around this stage that you need multiple user stories for different personas (for more on personas, check out Raven Veal’s comprehensive guide, How to Define a User Persona.)
- Define your user stories collaboratively. Creating user stories collaboratively acts as a quality-check, ensuring that the whole team both supports them and believes they are implementable.
- Be short, specific, and lead to a measurable outcome. User stories that are too long or vague don’t work because just actioning them—let alone measuring their outcomes—isn’t possible. You can include any extra information in subtasks or tasks, if you need to.
- Be clear on what the user wants to achieve, not what the feature should be. This is related to number 3—it’s crucial that the user story does not prescribe or spell out the feature or product that needs to be created. That comes later. The team needs to be given freedom to figure out and implement the best solution. Your user story should instead be focused on what the user wants to achieve and why.
- Include a definition of “done”. Most of the time this is easy to define, because the story will be complete when the user can complete the task. But remember to define exactly what that looks like.
Now I’ve gone over some ways you can create good user stories, it’s time to take a look at some examples and understand what makes them good.
Examples of good UX user stories
Going back to the first section of the guide, you’ll remember that user stories are made of three components, the subject of the action, the action the subject/user wants to do, and the outcome they want to achieve. This means they typically look like this:
As <1>, I want to <2>, so that <3>.
Here’s an example with the subject, action, and outcome included:
As Carla, I want to buy a used bike for under $400, so I can cycle to work.
This user story is good because it is clear, actionable, and user-focused. You can see how this would quickly generate design questions, like “How do we let Carla filter bikes by price?” and “Should we suggest price brackets, let users enter them themselves, or both?”
Here’s another example:
As Armin, I want to invite friends to share a cab to a party, so I can save some money.
Like the first one, this user story is clear and user-focused. If you were part of the team responsible for actioning it, you’d ask questions like “Can Armin invite his friends before he’s booked the cab, or only after?” “What if Armin’s friends don’t use our app?” and “How many friends can Armin invite?”
Going through these questions—and dozens more of course—would help the team come up with potential solutions in the ideation phase.
Let’s look at one final example:
As Anjali, I want to save the shows I want to watch later, so I don’t have to waste time scrolling for them.
Once again, this example is clear, actionable, and user-focused. It’s short and specific too, and it doesn’t include any prescription on what the feature should be. It also has a very easily measurable outcome and definition of done: “Can Anjali now easily save her shows?”.
Because user stories follow a very simple structure, when they’re done well, they can help your projects in many ways. They can help them stay user-centered, goal-focused, and realistically implementable.
User stories should be based on a solid understanding of your users, one that is based on evidence rather than assumptions (hello, UX research). And good user stories can act as excellent drivers of creativity and innovation, as well as navigational aids for projects.
If you’re new to UX design or product design, it’s 100% worth getting familiar with user stories. Hopefully this guide has helped you do that.
Want to dive deeper on the basics of UX design? Take our free 5-day short course in UX design.
Or explore our comprehensive guides:
- 7 Principles of Design: A UXer’s Guide
- The Best UX Bootcamps and How to Choose One
- The Difference Between UX and UI Design: A Beginner’s Guide
To get a better sense of the day-to-day work of a UX designer, watch this video with Dee Scarano, an experienced UX designer: