Feb 28th, 2024

An Introduction to the World of User Stories [Updated]

Preeth Pandalay
Preeth Pandalay

An executive turned transformation consultant with 25+ years of learning, Preeth trains and coaches... Read more

What Are Agile User Stories?

Any product development process is rooted in user satisfaction. Matching customer preferences and delivering unique, high-quality products is the ultimate goal of any product team. And a user story is a written description of a product feature that meets the preferences of the customers. 

A user story captures the “who,” “what,” and “why” of a product/software requirement in simple, clear language. It’s a tool that puts the user in the middle of the development process to understand who will build the product/software, what they’re building, and why they’re building it. 

If you go by the definition of a user story— It’s an informal description of a software feature written from the end user's point of view. 

In agile ways of working, a user story is a small unit of work that has an end goal. Although user stories are mostly associated with software development, you can apply them to various domains beyond just software. 

Agile user stories are also the stepping stone to larger requirements like Epics and Initiatives. 

Basic Concepts of User Story

User stories originated with the Agile and XP realm in the late 1990s. They were introduced as a way to shift the team's focus from documentation to concise collaborative communication. 

A user story often follows a similar format: 

“As a (user type), I want (feature), so that (some goals or reason).” 

This standard format of user stories focuses on the user’s perspective and the value delivered by the feature. 

In the past, developers used to write user stories in sticky notes or colorful cards to plan a discussion. Nowadays, you can easily create them using tools like Trello, Jira, Asana, Miro, etc. 

User stories are written in informal language without using any tech jargon. Each story consists of less than 10-15 words.

To assess the quality of a user story during the mid-2000s, Bill Wake introduced the INVEST criteria. The acronym stands for Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small, and Testable. Using this framework, your team can create more manageable user stories that are focused on delivering value incrementally. 

Another way you can ensure the user story isn’t just mere documentation and facilitates conversation is the Three C’s— Card, Conversation, and Confirmation. The three Cs put emphasis on the importance of facilitating conversation and collaboration between team members to clarify product requirements. 

Defining a user story incrementally in small manageable units is the key aspect of Agile development.

Here’s how you can define a user story incrementally: 

  • Start with the basic definition of the user story with three basic elements: The user role, the required feature, and the reason or benefit. 
  • Decide the initial acceptance criteria under which the user story will be considered complete. 
  • Place the user story in the product backlog. Prioritize it based on its importance and value. 
  • During sprint planning, break down the story into smaller tasks that can be completed at the end of the sprint. 
  • Collaborate with the product owner, developers, and stakeholders to refine the user story details. Discuss the potential challenges, clarify requirements, and adjust acceptance criteria based on the revived feedback. 
  • Start working on the user story in iterations. 
  • Include feedback from the stakeholders and end-users to make adjustments to the user story. 
  • Once the user story is complete, review the outcome in a sprint retrospective. 

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Why Create User Stories?

User stories are created from the end-users perspective, focusing on their needs, expectations, and goals. This user-centric approach helps teams deliver features directly, contributing to user satisfaction and value. 

In traditional requirements, the documentation is more system-focused. They usually start with a “The system shall” statement. For example: 

  • The system shall integrate with third-party APIs for payment processing. 
  • The system will implement end-to-end data encryption to ensure the confidentiality of sensitive information. 

Requirements can change as the developers learn more about the system and user needs as the development progresses. So, when working on static requirements, it becomes challenging for the team to deliver quality software quickly. 

However, with user stories, you can save maximum time by shifting to a just enough approach. You don’t have to waste time writing system-centric documentation. Using the user story, you can deliver high-quality software more quickly. 

Not just software development but any project or product design becomes a lot easier with user stories. It helps you understand the purpose behind your project. It allows your team to implement user value and facilitate a collaborative work experience with users and the team. 

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Best Practices for Writing Good User Stories

  • 1The best way to write a user story is to define the three elements: the user or persona, their need, and purpose. Let’s break these elements down into five easy steps to understand how to write an effective user story.
  • 2Identify the User or Persona - First, identify your ideal user’s persona by analyzing the target audience. You can ask these questions to identify the user persona: Who will be impacted by the product/project we’re working on? What type of features does the customer or end-user want from the product? What are the demographics of the end user? What are the pain points of the end user?
  • 3Note: You can create multiple personas in a single user story based on the size of your target audience. An example of a target audience for a health and fitness app could be fitness enthusiasts.
  • 4See the Big Picture- There should be a big picture, goal, or purpose behind your product or software. Your team should understand how the product’s features will meet these goals and why the end user will want to use the product. To define the purpose of the product, you can ask these questions: How will this product benefit my end user? What challenges will my product solve? What’s the larger purpose behind building this product? Having a clear understanding of the bigger purpose of your product will help you determine its value. For example, the big goal behind building email marketing software could be— to optimize the process of creating, managing, and analyzing email campaigns for businesses.
  • 5Define the Acceptance Criteria- It’s crucial to decide the acceptance criteria while writing the user story. It outlines the conditions or criteria that must be fulfilled for a product backlog item to be considered completed. For example, for a user story related to a payment gateway app login feature, acceptance criteria might include conditions like “User can enter a valid username and password,” “User receives a confirmation notification after successful login,” etc.
  • 6Break Stories into Tasks - To make your stories more manageable, break them down into smaller tasks. You can even add detailed descriptions and subtasks to complex requirements. Breaking down stories into multiple tasks and subtasks also helps to decide which tasks need to be completed and who is responsible for managing each of them.
  • 7Consider Time Length- Instead of relying on the estimation framework, discuss the time for completing each of the user stories. Ideally, a user story should be completed in one sprint. So, if your stories are taking more than a week to complete, you should break them down into smaller stories.
  • 8Gather Feedback - To create effective user stories, gather as much feedback as you can. Ask your end users or stakeholders to share their problems and needs to write good user stories. Based on their feedback, you can add new features to your user story. Now that you know how to write user stories, how do you decide what is considered a good user story? Let’s discuss this in our next point.

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What Makes A Good User Story? 

As of now, you’ve understood that a standard template of a user story is: “As a (user type), I want (feature), so that (some goals or reason).” You can write the user story by figuring out the Who, What, and Why of your product. 

But how do you know that your defined user story is effective? Are there any specific methods or formulas to measure that?

Well, in the mid-2000s, Bill Wake came up with a model named INVEST to assess the quality of user stories. There’s another model named the Three Cs that emphasizes that a user story is not just written documentation but a way to improve communication and collaboration between teams. 

So, how can you use these two models to make a good user story? Let’s dive deeper into that—

The INVEST Model 

The acronym INVEST stands for Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small, and Testable. This model or framework is mostly used to create more manageable value-driven user stories incrementally. According to the INVEST model, the user story should be independent in nature. That means it won’t depend on any other tasks. You can work on it from any order. 

A good user story must be negotiable. That means a user story should be flexible and leave room for discussion between the product owner, stakeholders, and customers. Your user story should clearly describe the value of the product or software you’re building. Having a clear understanding of the value of the product will help you.

A good user story must be estimable. From the user story, your team should estimate how long it will take them to complete a story. The ideal time length to complete a user story is a single sprint. So, an effective user story must be small enough to finish within a sprint. 

A user story should be testable to align with your organization’s quality assurance standards. So, if your written story doesn’t meet these INVEST model criteria, it’s time to change it. Once the story meets the INVEST criteria, your team can start working on it and schedule daily meetings to check the progress.

The 3Cs Model (Card, Conversation, & Confirmation)

  • 1Card - In Agile, a user story is like a narrative snippet outlining what a user needs. The card is the written expression of this story, succinctly describing the user's goal and the value it brings. It serves as an invitation for a broader conversation. The card helps in sprint planning by providing a clear starting point for discussions about user needs. Example Card: As a [user], I want [action] so that [benefit].
  • 2Conversation - The conversation is where the user story truly takes shape. It's a discussion involving customers, users, and the development team. Through this dialogue, we delve into the specifics of the user story, clarifying doubts and determining potential solutions. It's not just about the card; it's about refining the details collaboratively.
  • 3Confirmation - Once the development work is done, we need to make sure it aligns with what was discussed. Confirmation involves creating acceptance criteria or tests. These criteria act as benchmarks for the product owner or customer to ensure the user story has been successfully implemented. It's the agreed-upon conditions of satisfaction that validate the completion of the user story.

Who Writes User Stories?

Anyone can write them. The role of writing the user story isn’t limited to the product owner. In agile project management, every team member can write the user story. 

However, a product owner must ensure a product backlog of user stories exists with all the information needed for the developers.

The developers then organize the stories based on priority and start working on them accordingly. 

When Are User Stories Written?

Typically, user stories are written throughout the project’s lifecycle. During the early stage of the agile project management process, the entire scrum team gets together to write the user stories. 

The primary goal of this meeting or workshop is to collaboratively create a product backlog that outlines the features or functions to be included either throughout the project duration or within a three- to six-month release cycle.

Within this dynamic framework, certain user stories evolve into what are termed epics—broad narratives that encapsulate significant functionalities. These epics are subsequently broken down into smaller, more manageable stories that align with the scope of a single iteration. 

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Describe the life cycle of a User Story?

  • 1From the early stage of story creation to completion, the lifecycle of a user story typically follows a set of stages. Let’s keep on reading to find out the brief description of each of the stages.
  • 2Creation- The user story is initially created during a collaborative session between the product/project team, users, and product owner. During this phase, the user story is a short written description of a desired feature or functionality from an end-user’s POV. At this stage, the team doesn’t discuss anything in detail. The main goal of this initial creation stage is to remind the team about the scope of future discussion on the user story.
  • 3Prioritization- In the next stage, the user story goes through a phase of prioritization. Usually, the product owner prioritizes user stories based on business value and project requirements. Prioritization helps the team focus on the most critical features and functionalities early in the development process.
  • 4Estimation- During the estimation stage, the developers estimate the efforts needed to implement each user story. The team puts the user stories into a time-boxed event called Sprint. Estimating the effort and time required for each user story helps the team plan and allocate resources for future sprints.
  • 5Discussion- In the discussion stage, the developers discuss the scope and acceptance criteria for each user story. Any uncertainties or questions about the user stories are clarified, and the team collectively defines the acceptance criteria that must be met for each story. For each user story, the team may break down the work into smaller tasks or sub-tasks. Task breakdown helps assign specific responsibilities, track progress, and identify potential challenges early in the sprint.
  • 6Development- Once the team gets a clear understanding of the acceptance criteria, requirements, and uncertainties of the user stories, they start to work on the features. Collaboration between team members, including developers, testers, and other stakeholders, is essential during this phase.
  • 7Testing- The implemented user story undergoes testing to ensure that it meets the specified acceptance criteria and doesn't introduce new issues. Testing may include functional, integration, and regression testing.
  • 8Acceptance- The product owner reviews the user story against the acceptance criteria and decides whether it meets the requirements. If accepted, the user story is considered complete; otherwise, it may be sent back to the development phase for adjustments.
  • 9Completion- Once accepted, the user story is marked as closed or completed. Any relevant documentation or lessons learned during the development process are recorded. After completion, the end user can access and interact with the new functionality. If the user has a new requirement, it’s added to enhance the completed user story or considered as a new feature for the next user story for the next sprint.

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What Details Are Included In The User Stories?

Imagine you’re planning a surprise birthday party for your best friend and hiring a catering service to provide food for the event. Now, if you tell the customer, “I need food for a party,” how will they figure out your friend’s taste and food preferences? 

On the other hand, if you give the caterer an excessively detailed food list with specific ingredients, cooking schedules, and recipes, you’ll mess up the order with an overly complicated menu. 

That’s why it’s important to give the right balance of detailed information. You need to communicate the essential details like the type of cuisine, dietary preferences, and the overall atmosphere you aim for. This allows the caterer to use their expertise to create a delightful menu that aligns with your vision and suits the occasion.

Similarly, it’s important to provide the right amount of details while writing user stories. If the Prodigy owner provides less information about the product, the developers won’t have enough ideas during sprint planning to understand what to build. 

With too much detail, the developers might feel confused, and they might even deviate from the acceptance criteria. 

So, how detailed should a user story be? Is there any ideal measurement for this? Here’s what you should know:

  • The user story should be detailed enough to define the conditions that must be met.
  • Include a set of acceptance criteria that must be met for the entire feature to be considered as done
  • The acceptance criteria might include functional and non-functional use cases, what a specific feature is intended to do, end-to-end flow, UI/UX concerns, etc. 
  • The product owner should assign priorities to user stories
  • Your team can add all these details to the story by breaking it down into multiple smaller user stories. As you write more information into smaller stories, you can consider more details have been added. 

Let’s take a look at an example here: 

User story- As a software development team lead, I want to implement a code review system that allows for efficient collaboration among team members, ensuring high-quality code and knowledge sharing.

Acceptance Criteria: Compatibility with Multiple Programming Languages: Ensure that the code review system supports various programming languages commonly used within the team, promoting a diverse technical environment.

Cross- Team Collaboration: Facilitate collaboration between development teams by allowing members from different teams to participate in code reviews, fostering knowledge sharing and a collective understanding of the codebase.

Integration with Version Control Systems- Integrate the code review system seamlessly with popular version control systems (e.g., Git, SVN) to provide a unified experience for tracking changes and managing code repositories.

Customizable Review Deadlines- Allow team members to set customizable deadlines for code reviews, promoting a balance between thorough examination and timely task completion.

Feedback Mechanism- Implement a robust feedback mechanism that enables reviewers to provide specific, constructive feedback on code changes, facilitating continuous improvement and learning within the team.

By addressing these conditions of satisfaction, the software development team ensures that the code review system is adaptable to the team's technology stack, promotes collaboration across teams, integrates with existing tools, allows for flexible review timelines, and encourages effective feedback for ongoing skill development.

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Benefits Of Adopting User Story Approach In Agile Development

  • 1User-Centric Focus- User stories shift the focus from technical details to user needs and experiences. This helps teams understand the end users' requirements and priorities better. For example, User Story - As a registered user, I want to reset my password easily in case I forget it so that I can regain access to my account. In this example, the user story focuses on a specific user persona ("registered user") and their need ("reset my password easily"). By framing requirements in this manner, the team ensures that development efforts align with real user needs and experiences.
  • 2Enhanced Communication - User stories provide a simple and understandable way to communicate requirements between team members, stakeholders, and customers. This leads to improved collaboration and shared understanding among all involved parties. Now if you look at the previous example to understand this— the team discusses the user story in a Sprint Planning meeting, ensuring everyone understands the user's need for a seamless password reset process. This discussion involves developers, testers, and other relevant team members. Through this interaction, everyone gains a shared understanding of what needs to be built and why, promoting effective communication.
  • 3Flexibility and Adaptability- User stories are typically short and flexible, allowing for easier adaptation to changes in requirements. This is crucial in an Agile environment where changes are expected and welcomed even late in the development process. For example, midway through developing the seamless password reset process, the team discovers a more secure authentication method. Because of a user story’s flexible nature, they can easily adapt the story to incorporate the new approach without disrupting the overall development process.
  • 4Incremental Development- User stories facilitate the practice of incremental development. Teams can prioritize and work on user stories in a way that delivers tangible value to users in short iterations, known as sprints. Now, in the password reset example scenario, the team prioritizes user stories related to basic account functionality first (login, password reset), delivering a functional but basic system early on. Then, gradually adding more advanced features in subsequent sprints.
  • 5Prioritization and Focus -User stories are usually maintained in a backlog and prioritized based on their business value. The product owner prioritizes user stories based on customer feedback and business value, ensuring that critical features are developed and released early in the project. This enables the team to focus on high-priority features and deliver the most important functionality first.
  • 6Easier Estimation - User stories are often easier to estimate in terms of effort and complexity compared to more traditional, detailed requirements. This makes it simpler for teams to plan and allocate resources effectively. Based on our password rest example scenario— The development team estimates that implementing the password reset user story will take two weeks, allowing for better planning and resource allocation.
  • 7Testability - User stories provide a basis for defining acceptance criteria, making it easier to develop test cases. This ensures that the implemented features meet the specified requirements and expectations. For example, acceptance criteria for the password reset user story include successful email verification and secure validation of the new password, ensuring that the implemented feature is thoroughly tested.
  • 8Continuous Feedback- User stories encourage continuous feedback from stakeholders, allowing for regular inspection and adaptation. This feedback loop is essential for refining requirements and ensuring that the product meets user expectations. After the first sprint, the product owner reviews the implemented features and provides feedback, leading to adjustments and refinements in subsequent sprints.
  • 9Improved Visibility- By breaking down features into user stories, progress becomes more visible. Teams can track the completion of individual stories, providing a clear picture of the overall project status. The team can use a task board to visualize the progress of individual user stories, making it clear which features are in progress, completed, or pending.
  • 10Encourages Collaboration- Writing user stories often involves collaboration between various team members, including developers, testers, and product owners. This collaboration fosters a sense of shared ownership and responsibility. For example, the development team collaborates with the security team to ensure that the password reset process adheres to security best practices, fostering a sense of shared responsibility for the feature's success.

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Examples of User Stories

Let’s break down the ins and outs of an agile user story from an end user’s perspective. Here’s an example: 

Product: User Registration for a Food Delivery app

User Story:

As a new user, I want to quickly register for an account on the app so that I can access the app’s personalized features and services. 

Acceptance criteria: 

  • When I visit the platform's homepage, I should see a prominent "Sign Up" button.
  • Upon clicking the "Sign Up" button, I should be directed to a registration page.
  • On the registration page, there should be fields to enter my email address and password.
  • I should receive a confirmation email after submitting the registration form.
  • The confirmation email should contain a link to verify my email address.
  • After clicking the verification link, my account should be successfully activated.
  • Once my account is activated, I should be redirected to the platform's login page.
  • I should be able to log in using the registered email address and password.
  • If I enter invalid information during registration, I should receive clear error messages guiding me on how to correct the issues.

Passwords should meet security requirements, including a minimum length and a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters.

Wrapping Up

The user story approach in Agile development promotes a user-centric, flexible, and collaborative mindset. It allows teams to respond to changing requirements, deliver incremental value, and maintain a focus on customer needs throughout the development process.

Initially, a user story might be a high-level placeholder, and as the team approaches the implementation, more details can be added during backlog refinement sessions or sprint planning. The key is to strike a balance between having enough information for the team to work effectively while remaining adaptable to changes and feedback.


A user story is a written description of a product feature that meets the customers' preferences. It’s a tool that puts the user in the middle of the development process to understand who will build the product/software, what they’re building, and why they’re building it.


A user story often follows a similar format: “As a (user type), I want (feature), so that (some goals or reason).

There are no rigid rules when it comes to writing the user stories. From product owners to developers, anyone from the team can write user stories.

The 3Cs are crucial elements of writing a good user story. These 3Cs are— Card, Conversation, and Confirmation. 

There isn’t an ideal size for user stories. The length of a story depends on the complexity of your project, team skills, etc. 

Preeth Pandalay

An executive turned transformation consultant with 25+ years of learning, Preeth trains and coaches organizations to be agile and more importantly to stay agile. Preeth’s pragmatism finds its root in his diverse experience at various leadership positions.

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