User Stories or User Wishes? – Can narrative help build products?

User StoryI have a problem with user stories, I don’t see many well written user stories, I often just see a bunch of wishes expressed parrot fashion.

What? Does that sound like Scrum treason or Agile anarchy?


This has bothered me for a while, but before I go on let me just say I don’t have a problem with the established “As a.. I want.. So that..”  template for writing user stories. I don’t have a problem with the “In order to.. I want.. “, variant either, but these are not really user stories.

I mentioned this in a twitter thread the other day and got the following, quite correct, response from Rachel Davies;

I completely agree with Rachel, but like all great ideas I think we should question them, change them and build on the them to suit our needs.

So I’ve been playing around with telling user stories from a different perspective.
You see, I think the standard templates are a little bit dry. They’re missing something, they leave me feeling like someone has expressed a wish and why, but it might not necessarily engage me.

Personas, go some way to helping this, I see a lot of stories written like, “As a user..”, and personas address this by giving life to the user, giving them a back story and some depth. That’s great, but the result still feels a bit disjointed. “As Bill…” Ok, I know who you are, and your persona, and I can see why you want it from the value proposition of the story “I want to..”. Still, I’m not feeling like I love that story,  I am part of it,  I am involved, especially when there are many stories repeated over and over this way. It still feels like Bill’s story.

Lets, remind ourselves, for a second, not to get too hung up here, they are as Rachel mentioned a reminder for a conversation.

So as a reminder, they’re fine.

What though if we changed the story a little, what if we told a story, with a beginning, middle and an end. What if Bill’s story were written as a story?

How different would we feel if  we wrote the the story, as a narrative, from Bill’s perspective.

Let’s look at an example, taken from Mike Cohn’s website.

As a power user, I can specify files or folders to backup based on file size, date created and date modified.

If we made Bill our power user, and gave him a persona and filled out his character some it’d help, a lot.

What if we told the story in a different way?

Bill, was working late, his hard drive was starting to make funny sounds, he suspected it might be on its way out. He was worried he’d lose all the work he’d put in today, he was grateful to find that he could identify files, by size, creation and modification dates. This would help him find the new work he’d added and back it up.

Ok, I’m no JK Rowling, and my attempts don’t weave a great deal of magic. The point I’m trying to make is when I read a story, any story, I don’t read it in a detached or remote manner. I find that I identify with the character, his or her experiences or emotions resonate with me. I’m in the book, I am part of it. That’s what I want to see from user stories. I want to see user stories told from the point of view of the user, rather than have the user just be part of a template. I’d like to think that narratives will help tell the real story from the perspective of the user.

There’s more to it, a collection of user stories forms a backlog, but what if each story formed part of a larger narrative with the protagonists guiding us through their journey. What if the backlog was a larger narrative in its own right, with the user stories small narratives within.

Would it help if a Product Owner were able to draw us into the story we’re about to create? If I could identify with the characters, feel their needs, would I, as part of a team, be more engaged?

7 Responses to “User Stories or User Wishes? – Can narrative help build products?”

  1. Anne G November 15, 2013 at 23:40 #

    I loved the article and the different take on the well known user story templates. Being creative with them does not make them any less useful and when you written, read and re-read, hundreds of user stories which are “As a X user I must be able to do / not do blah” with effectively only the ending changing it can be very dry! I think it helps everyone, not just the BA having the initial conversation, to understand where people/users are coming from and the emotion/s experienced along the journey without becoming sidetracked by it. I suspect the users would feel more understood and engaged by having the option of having their story told this way. Of course happy engaged stakeholders make the rest work well!

  2. jemdjelal November 15, 2013 at 13:13 #

    Very interesting post. As an advocate of user stories, I always remember that they are conversation starters. They ain’t static pieces of information which we would take away and develop WITHOUT a convo. So if a story is picked up, there should be some stakeholder involvement. The power of 3 if you will. In Scrum I push the BA, PO & Dev to work together every time a story is picked up – here we would get the finer details behind the user story. So why reinvent the wheel? Are you doing this because of a lack of interaction?

    • Scrimmers November 15, 2013 at 13:22 #

      It’s not a reinvention, I see it as a variant, same purpose, same concept, the same information. Certainly not a static piece of information to be developed in silo’s.
      It’s about helping those that struggle to write stories, and giving them an alternative.
      Tom’s comment below is all too familiar with the many teams and organisations I’ve worked with, the ‘pattern’ can feel clumsy or awkward. Voicing the same information (user, need, value) in a narrative as a conversation starter is just a different style.
      Personally I like it because it’s not formulaic, each story I write is different and evokes different contexts and emotions. It’s helped me keep my stories small, given greater insight into why and also collectively told a larger story of the product. We want teams to care about what they are building, and sometimes I suspect that they can switch off a little without the emotive contextual aspect, written or verbal.

  3. Tom Howlett November 14, 2013 at 22:37 #

    I’m with you, if the card is the catalyst for the chat it should inspire. Whilst the standard pattern is a useful reminder of the purpose of the story, it often feels clumsy. I imagine just writing a story like this would help me think a bit more deeply about the story. I wonder if it would work as a good addition rather than a replacement. A great starter to the conversation.

  4. Dave Grant November 14, 2013 at 15:15 #

    This is exactly like the personas and scenarios you get in UX. See

    • Scrimmers November 14, 2013 at 15:22 #

      That’s brilliant… “an instance of use in context”, Exactly.. I feel a lot of the nuance is missed in the template version. Nige is right (below) about the ‘telling’ being the important part. Often though I find that’s forgotten and those ‘instances’ are missed opportunities.

  5. nigelbaker November 14, 2013 at 14:18 #

    The conversation and narrative are the important bit. Verbally rather than written. The Card is a catalyst for that chat, not the chat…

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