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30/100 - Agile User Stories Explained | Practitioner Run Book

Agile User Stories Creation, Management, Story Flow, Techniques and Common Anti Patterns.

Agile User Stories

User story is a fundamental concept in Agile, serving as a simple yet powerful tool for capturing product requirements from the end-user's perspective. Unlike traditional requirements that often list features in technical or business language, user stories focus on the value a feature brings to the customer. Each story is a building block, contributing to a product that truly meets user needs.

In the previous article we looked at 'Agile Product Backlog Management'. In this article, we will explore how to write and manage user stories through below sections:

User Stories vs. Traditional Requirements

Traditional requirements documentation, such as functional specifications or detailed business requirements, often focuses on the "what" and "how" from a technical standpoint. In contrast, Agile user stories emphasize the "who" and the "why," centering on user needs and the benefits features bring. This shift from a prescriptive to a narrative form encourages collaboration, adaptability, and a user-centered approach in product development.

Anatomy of a User Story

The User Story Format

A well-formed user story typically follows the template: "As a [user role], I want [feature] so that [benefit]."

Example: As a shopper, I want to see product recommendations tailored to my interests so that I can find new products I like faster

This structure ensures that the development team understands not just the requirement but also the context and the value it provides. It fosters empathy and alignment with the user's needs, on what a user is trying to achieve.

Acceptance Criteria

Acceptance criteria define the conditions under which a user story is considered complete and acceptable. They provide a clear checklist for developers, testers, ensuring that the implemented feature meets the user's needs.


  1. Interest Analysis: System tracks and analyzes shopper's browsing and search history to identify interests.

  2. Dynamic Recommendations: Recommendations update in real-time based on the latest browsing and search activity.

  3. Personalization: Recommendations are personalized, including products from frequently viewed or searched categories.

  4. Feedback Mechanism: Shoppers can provide feedback on recommendations to refine accuracy.

  5. Performance: Recommendation load time does not exceed 2 seconds.

  6. Fallback Strategy: New shoppers see popular or trending products as initial recommendations with an explanatory message.


Gherkin Syntax Format

The Gherkin syntax, often used in Behavior-Driven Development (BDD), provides a format that is both human-readable and executable as tests. For example, using "Given, When, Then" statements to outline scenarios and expected outcomes.

Feature: Tailored Product Recommendations for Shoppers


  Scenario 1: Displaying personalized product recommendations based on shopper's browsing history

    Given the shopper has a browsing history of products in 'sports equipment' category

    When the shopper visits the recommendations page

    Then the shopper sees a list of products related to 'sports equipment'


  Scenario 2: Updating product recommendations based on recent searches

    Given the shopper searches for products in the 'outdoor gear' category

    When the shopper later visits the recommendations page

    Then the shopper sees updated recommendations including products from the 'outdoor gear' category


Best practices suggest keeping user stories concise and focused, ensuring they are independent, negotiable, valuable, estimable, small, and testable (INVEST criteria).

User Story Creation and Management

The Product Owner's Pivotal Role

The Product Owner is a linchpin in Agile projects, bridging the gap between user needs, the development team, and business objectives. Their primary responsibility in user story development is to ensure that each story accurately reflects customer needs and aligns with the product vision. This role involves continuous engagement with stakeholders to refine the product backlog, prioritize stories based on value and urgency, and provide clear, actionable feedback to the development team.

Eliciting Requirements

Gathering requirements in Agile does not involve lengthy documentation but focuses on interaction and collaboration. Techniques such as user interviews, surveys, observation, and story workshops facilitate direct communication and feedback from users and stakeholders. These activities help in uncovering the real needs and expectations, translating them into a backlog of user stories that truly represent value to the customer.

Breaking down Epics to Stories

Large, complex features, known as Epics, are broken down into smaller, more manageable user stories. This decomposition is crucial for Agile teams, making planning, estimation, and execution more flexible and iterative. The process involves identifying the key functionalities within an Epic and gradually refining them into detailed stories that can be completed within a sprint.

Types of User Stories: Functional, Technical or Enabler and Bugs

It's essential to differentiate between user stories, technical stories, and bugs. User stories focus on delivering value to the customer, describing features from the user's perspective. Technical stories, on the other hand, address backend, architectural, or technical debt issues that, while not directly visible to the user, are vital for the system's health and scalability. Bugs are defects that need to be addressed to ensure the product works as intended.

Implementing User Stories in Sprints

Transitioning user stories from the backlog into sprint tasks is a collaborative effort involving the product owner, scrum master, and development team. This process starts with story refinement sessions to ensure everyone understands the story's scope and acceptance criteria. Stories are then estimated, often using points or T-shirt sizes, and prioritized for inclusion in the sprint. Breaking stories into tasks allows the team to plan their work effectively, ensuring a commitment to what can be realistically achieved in a sprint. The success of a user story is measured by its acceptance criteria and the value it delivers to the user.

Agile Story Flow from ‘To Do’ To ‘Done’

Story Flow from ‘To Do’ To ‘Done’

Below is a table detailing how a user story transitions from the "To Do" lane to "Done," including specific actions performed by the software development team and focus at each stage of the board. (Read this detailed blog on Kanban board for better understanding)


Input Buffer

To Do

In Development

Peer Review



UAT/Sign Off


Lane details

Next list of prioritized stories to be refined and checked against DoR.

Prioritized stories awaiting development.

Coding begins based on acceptance criteria.

Code reviewed by another developer for quality assurance.

Stories unable to continue development due to issues.

Code deployed to testing environment for QA tests.

User Acceptance Testing conducted by Business Analyst or Product Owner.

All criteria met, story approved and merged into the main codebase.

Key Actions

- Refinement

- Check against Definition of Ready (DoR)

- Review and finalize acceptance criteria - Discuss initial technical designs and approaches

- Continuous integration - Regular commits - Track progress in stand-ups

- Automated and manual code reviews - Provide feedback and revisions

- Scrum Master works to resolve blockers - Add bug details to card if reported

- QA tests based on acceptance criteria - Report bugs for fixes

- Seek final approval from stakeholders - Incorporate user feedback if necessary

- Story is deployed to production or ready for deployment.


Ensures stories are ready and prioritized for development.

Prepares stories for the development phase with clear criteria.

Focuses on developing features according to the defined criteria.

Ensures code quality and adherence to standards.

Focus on resolving impediments to development progress.

Assurance of feature functionality and quality before release.

Ensures the developed feature meets business needs and user expectations.

Marks the completion and success of the development process for the story.


Agile User Stories: Advanced Techniques

Mapping the Journey: Visualizing Product Development

User story mapping is a dynamic, visual exercise that helps teams understand the customer's journey and prioritize development efforts accordingly. It involves arranging user stories across a two-dimensional board to represent the sequence of user activities and tasks. This visualization aids in identifying gaps, overlaps, and dependencies in the product backlog, ensuring a coherent and user-focused development path. By aligning user stories with the user's journey, teams can better understand the impact of each feature and prioritize work that offers the most significant value.

Splitting User Stories

As user stories evolve, some may become too large or complex, making them difficult to estimate or complete within a single sprint. Splitting such stories into smaller, more manageable pieces is crucial for delivering incremental value. The goal is to create smaller stories that are still valuable and testable on their own. The SPIDR framework is a powerful technique for splitting large, complex user stories into smaller, more manageable pieces, enhancing agility and clarity in the development process. It encompasses five strategies: Spike, Path, Interface, Data, and Rules, each offering a unique angle for breaking down stories. A spike is a type of user story aimed at researching information or exploring solutions, helping to reduce uncertainty and inform future decisions in the development process.

Overcoming Vague or Oversized User Stories

Vague or oversized user stories pose significant risks to project timelines and outcomes. To address these challenges, teams should employ techniques like the INVEST criteria to ensure stories are Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small, and Testable. Regular backlog grooming sessions can help identify and refine problematic stories, breaking them down into actionable tasks or redefining their scope.

Technical Stories: Non-functional Requirements and Technical Debt

Non-functional requirements (NFRs), such as performance, security, and usability, are crucial for a product's success but are often overlooked in user stories. Incorporating NFRs as technical user story ensures these critical aspects are considered throughout the development process. Also, handling technical debt is a critical concern. While these stories may not directly result in new user-facing features, they are essential for the system's health, performance, and scalability. Creating technical stories for refactoring or modernizing parts of the system helps allocate dedicated time and resources to these tasks, ensuring they are treated as a priority alongside new feature development.

Leveraging Generative AI for User Stories

Enhancing User Story Development with GenAI

GenAI tools can automate the generation of user stories from large datasets, including customer feedback or feature requests, providing a diverse and comprehensive backlog with minimal manual effort. This capability not only speeds up the initial stages of backlog creation but also ensures that a wider range of user needs is considered.

AI Insights for Precise Requirement Gathering

GenAI can analyze user interactions, support tickets, and feedback across platforms to identify patterns and trends. These insights can then be translated into detailed user stories, capturing real user needs that might not have been explicitly articulated. By leveraging AI for data-driven story generation, teams can ensure their product backlog reflects genuine user demands, enhancing the product's market fit.

Several tools are pioneering the use of GenAI in Agile planning, such as AI-driven backlog management software, user story generation platforms, and NLP-based acceptance criteria tools. Incorporating these technologies into the Agile toolkit can significantly enhance efficiency, accuracy, and innovation in product development cycles.

12 common anti-patterns or pitfalls associated with Agile User Stories

  1. Overly Broad Stories: User stories that are too vague or encompass too much functionality, making them difficult to estimate and implement within a sprint.

  2. Technical Jargon: Writing stories with technical language that is inaccessible to non-technical team members and stakeholders.

  3. Lack of User Focus: User stories that fail to clearly articulate the value or benefit to the user, focusing instead on technical tasks.

  4. Insufficient Acceptance Criteria: Acceptance criteria that are too vague, lacking specificity, or entirely absent, leading to ambiguity in what constitutes a completed story.

  5. Solution Prescribing: User stories that dictate the solution rather than focusing on the problem or need, limiting innovation and exploration.

  6. Ignoring Non-functional Requirements: Failing to include or address non-functional requirements (such as security, performance, and usability) in user stories.

  7. Over-Specification: Including too many details or constraints in a user story, which can restrict flexibility and creativity in finding the best solution.

  8. Stakeholder Exclusion: Not involving or considering feedback from all relevant stakeholders, leading to missed requirements or misaligned expectations.

  9. Batching Too Many Stories: Attempting to work on too many stories at once, resulting in reduced focus and quality.

  10. Neglecting Story Refinement: Skipping or insufficiently conducting backlog grooming and story refinement sessions, leading to surprises and delays during sprints.

  11. Lack of Prioritization: Failing to prioritize user stories effectively, which can lead to focusing on less important tasks over critical ones.

  12. Siloed Story Creation: Creating user stories in isolation without collaboration from the development team, testers, and UX designers, which can lead to misunderstandings and rework.

User stories are more than just a method of documenting requirements; they are the narrative that guides the development journey, ensuring that every feature, task, and line of code serves the user's needs, enhances value delivery and their experience.

Recommended Readings

  1. Book - User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development

  2. Blog on Agile User Stories with example from Atlassian

  3. A short vide from Mike Cohn on SPIDR technique to split user stories

Coming up in the next blog - 'Agile Estimations Techniques'.

Note 1: This blog is part of a 100 Days of Learning Series on Digital Project Management frameworks and best practices published on Program Strategy HQ. For more details on the 100 days of blogging campaign check out Blog 0.

Note 2: Reach out to for any queries.

Note 3: Program Strategy HQ Disclaimer for Reference.


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