How To Improve Performance With User Stories

Image Credit: Story by 742680 (Pixabay.com)
Image Credit: Story by 742680 (Pixabay.com)

User stories are a popular agile method to develop requirements and help project teams achieve customer satisfaction. Instead of abstract technical details, user stories put the human user or consumer of the project front and centre. In this article, you will learn how to develop effective agile user stories and how to use them in projects. Let’s dive in and explore how to make the most of this new technique.

What Is An Agile User Story?

An agile user story describes a user accomplishing their goal rather than the technical details of how a system works. Typically agile user stories use a three part structure that combines a goal with steps. Some authors use the term “user story” and “use case” in the same sense. I see the many difference in the fact that user stories emphasize a person’s interaction. Here are a few examples of agile user stories that could be used for various projects.

  • E-Commerce: As an sporting goods customer, I want to order replacement clothes easily so I can be ready for my next game on the weekend.
  • Mobile Banking: As a busy professional, I want to make quick payments on my smart phone during commutes so I can relax at home.
  • Cell Phone Service: As a business traveler, I want to have steady service during travel so that I can focus on business.
  • Online Map Service. As a tourist, I want to quickly navigate through new cities so I can enjoy myself.

As the examples above show, there are common patterns in user stories. First, they are short (the examples above are a single sentence). Second, they describe a specific action that is easy to visualize and understand. Third, the examples conclude with a benefit statement. These three components help developers, project managers and others involved in the project easily get into the shoes of the end user.

Agile User Stories Vs Traditional Requirements

Agile user stories emphasize the customer and the benefit they are seeking to achieve. Here are some of the advantages of using user stories to supplement or replace traditional business requirements. Consider the following benefits of using agile user stories on your projects.

1. Set Better Priorities. In project planning, users and customers will typically ask for a large number of requirements. By asking for this input in user story form, it is easier to discern the true priorities.

2. Guide Project Decision Making. Efforts to collect requirements are never perfect and change is part of the project management profession. With robust user stories to refer to, the project team will have a reference point to guide their decision making.

3. Improved Technical Flexibility. User stories focus on outcomes rather than means. This emphasis helps the project team imagine a variety of technical solutions instead of using familiar technology alone.

While user stories are an exciting concept, they may not be suitable for every situation. The traditional requirements process is helpful for a number of situations such as regulatory projects. If a government agency issues new regulations with firm deadlines, there is relatively limited scope for imagination. In those situations, on time and precise delivery is valuable. In addition, technical requirements may need to be developed if the project team includes third parties who are far removed from the end user or customer. In those cases, detailed requirements will help

5 Ways To Improve Performance With User Stories

Let’s look at a few specific situations where creating and using user stories improves project performance.

1. Increase Customer Involvement. Scott W. Ambler recommends asking users or customers to write user stories rather than developers. That is excellent advice! For that exercise to have value, the project team will introduce and explain the user story concept first.

2. Analyze User Stories For Supporting Requirements. Earlier in this article, we had a mobile banking user story. This story needs to be further developed and refined into specific features and service levels for the project team. For example, the project manager may include a capacity requirement (e.g. “the application will process 1 million transactions per hour without errors”). The testing lead may include several testing scenarios (e.g. test using three different smartphones, test using different browsers and other cases).

3. Validate The User Story With A Prototype. The Lean Startup concept created by Eric Ries is a great way to test early and test often. Seek to create a simple prototype of the product and ask users to attempt to use it. In most situations, you will receive more useful feedback when users have a working prototype to use.

4. Manage Scope By Using A Small Focus. As the INVEST model for user stories states, a key best practice is to write a user story as a small concept. Keeping the user story brief makes it possible to build out the user story in a short period of time.

5. Focus on testable concepts. As we learned from the scientific method, the ability to test an idea is valuable. By developing a user story that is easy to test, the project team will improve performance.

Agile User Stories Resources

The user story concept in agiles dates back to the late 1990s. You can continue your training in this topic by exploring the following resources.

User Stories Applied by Mike Cohn

Published in 2004, this book provides an overview of the user stories concept. The book’s examples and author come from the software industry. The book also covers how to use and develop user stories for acceptance testing. This book is best suited for project managers who work on software development projects.

Doing Features and User Stories the Right Way by Magda Sitarek (Netguru)

In this blog post, we learn best practices from Netguru. My favorite insight from the article: “We always urge others to remember that user stories are not a contract – they are usually hints or reminders of features for the team and clients to negotiate and collaborate to clarify the details when the time of development nears.”

Agile Requirements: How to Write Good User Stories (YouTube Video)

In this 9 minute video – part of a series of videos – you will gain further guidance on how to write a user story. The video builds on concepts from agile, scrum and the International Institute of Business Analysis.

10 Agile Resources For Project Managers

Image Credit: Rocket Launch by WikiImages (Pixabay.com)
Image Credit: Rocket Launch by WikiImages (Pixabay.com)
The agile methodology is rapidly becoming more popular in project management. As an approach that promises speed and flexibility, it is easy to see why agile is attracting popularity. After all, many organizations have criticized “water fall” or traditional project management approaches for the measured approach that seems to emphasize process over results. Others have raised the question of whether agile is just another flavour of the month in the project management world.

Where Did Agile Come From?

 I first encountered agile in the software development field. As I understand it, agile remains most popular and understood in software and IT circles. A major part of the appeal lies in the fact that one can test and adjust software quickly. In contrast, applying agile to the building construction industry requires more of a conceptual leap. That said, there were presentations on applying agile methods to the legal industry and construction at the 2015 PMI Global Congress. There are creative people in the profession!

Agile Training Courses and Certifications

 I write this article shortly before the start of the PMI Global Congress in Orlando. Given that fact and all I have learned from PMI, it makes sense to start with the Project Management Institute’s resources.

1. Manifesto for Agile Software Development

Published in 2001, this document is considered the foundation of agile. Unlike ISO standards or other similar documents, the manifesto is admirable for its clarity and brevity. The manifesto is summarized in twelve principles. These principles include the following:
“Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.”
“The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”
Two observations:
The emphasis on live conversation is remarkable. I would tend to agree with this observation. I wonder how to reconcile this idea with the rise of virtual project teams. The authors clearly intended to speak to the concerns of software development. It is thus no surprise that software developers continue to be the most significant agile professionals.

2. Agile Certified Practitioner (ACP) Certification

As one of PMI’s newest certification programs, ACP is not yet well known compared to the PMP. Earning the certification attests to your commitment to learn and grow. As with other PMI certifications, the ACP requires a combination of specific project experience, completing an agile course and completing the exam. In addition, there is a fee to apply for the certification. In terms of cost in time and money, the ACP is an expensive option. The professional benefit is that relatively few people hold this certification so you will stand it if you seek it out.

3. OSP International Agile PrepCast

Cornelius Fitchner’s professional education programs are widely respected for good reason. In early 2015, I went through several of his programs to prepare for my PMP certification. I have no doubt that his agile training programs are excellent and well worth your time. An important note to consider is that his programs provide both a solid education in the fundamentals and preparation for specific exams.

4. Becker Professional Training

While I do not have direct experience with Becker’s programs, I respect their strong track record in professional education. For example, many accountants have used Becker’s programs to complete their professional exams. At the time of this writing, Becker offers two online agile courses: an introduction to agile and an ACP prep course. Becker also stands out to me in the continuing education space because they have been proactive in aligning to PMI’s Talent Triangle.

5. Agile Project Management Online Course (Charles Sturt University, Australia)

This free online course provides an introduction to agile for project managers. Topics covered include agile implementation and when to implement the method. The University describes the program as a short course. If you are starting at ground zero, this course may be suitable for you. It is also a good option if you prefer a university style learning experience on a budget.

Agile Project Management Books and Resources

 For those who prefer to build their knowledge with books, you are in good luck. There are several good agile books and articles on the market that serve as a useful introduction as well as helping more advanced professionals.

6. Agile Project Management for Dummies by Mark Layton, PMP

For Dummies books offer a great introduction to various topics. I have long found this book series to be an excellent way to learn about technical subjects. This 2012 book is written by an author with expertise in Scrum. This book is a good choice if you find textbooks or technical books difficult.

7. The Software Project Manager’s Bridge to Agility by Michele Sliger and Stacia Broderick

If you have invested months or years of study and practice with the PMBOK Guide and traditional project management, agile may be a threat. Does the agile trend suggest that you will have to abandon all the skills and knowledge you have worked so long at developing? The answer is no. This book is a well suited to professionals seeking to make a transition from traditional (sometimes known as waterfall) methods to agile. The authors made a good case that agile methods are fully compatible with the PMBOK Guide. Further, the myth that agile means an end of rigour and order will also be covered.

8. User Stories Applied for Agile Software Development by Mike Cohn

 Published in 2004, this book focuses on the requirements challenge. As many project managers and business analysts know, gathering and clarifying requirements on a project is often a time consuming and uncertain process. Yet, well crafted requirements are a foundation for project success. In this book, you will learn several ways to gather requirements including surveys and indirect approaches.

9. Agile Estimating and Planning by Mike Cohn

 One reason that many projects fail to meet time, cost and quality requirements is failure to plan. In his 2005 book, Cohn explains how the agile approach can be used to improve estimates. Iteration and adapting the plan are major points covered in the book. The book also ends with a case study so you can see how this planning and estimation approach works in practice.

10. Agile Practice Area On ProjectManagement.com

 As a regular contributor to ProjectManagement.com, this resource is a must read for serious project managers. On this website, you will find articles, webinars and other resources. One of the best aspects of the website are the agile project management templates that you can use and apply in your daily work. To get the most out of the website, log in with your PMI member credentials.

How To Use Agile Project Management (No Coding Skills Needed)

Image Credit:  Mike Licht, Notions Capital (Flickr)
Image Credit: Mike Licht, Notions Capital (Flickr)

Agile is a popular methodology for developing software and IT projects. According to Amazon, there are over 600 books about agile software development. In contrast, there are 360 agile project management titles. In this article, I will introduce agile project management and show how it can be applied to non-software projects. Today’s case study will be an economic development project in Pakistan run by the Peace Through Prosperity charity.

Agile Project Management: A Very Short History

Given the wealth of titles available through Amazon, agile project management is an important field. Even with hundreds of books on the topic, many project managers are still unfamiliar with agile. Agile is unknown to many for two reasons: the movement’s formal origins date back to February 2001 (source: History of the Agile Manifesto) and it is mainly concentrated in technology project management.

The Agile manifesto expresses the key principles of the movement. In contrast to traditional project management, agile welcomes changing requirements. According to the Agile Manifesto, delivering working software quickly is a key priority. The methodology emphasizes speed, regular conversations and delivering working software. Agile is also notable for emphasizing the importance of “motivated individuals [who need to be] trust[ed] to get the job done.”

Fast Facts About Agile Project Management

Applying Agile Project Management Beyond Software: Agile International Development

Creative application of ideas is one of the best ways to spark innovation and achieve better results. Project managers outside of the IT field have studied the agile approach and found ways to apply it to their work. As you read this case study, ask yourself what new ideas you could adopt from other industries. Limiting your knowledge to your direct industry peers will lock you into a provincial mindset.

Improving the efficiency of international development projects is difficult. That’s why Kubair Shirazee, co-founder of Peace Through Prosperity, decided to adopt agile in Pakistan. As readers may know, Pakistan is a developing country facing significant economic challenges. According to the CIA World Factbook, 22% of Pakistan’s population lives below the poverty line and 55% of the population is literate. Commentators have suggested that the country’s socio-economic woes are fueling radicalism and violence. Providing greater development is one way to address the situation.

Note: My source for this article is an article from the September 2014 issue of Project Manager Today, “Boundaryless Agile: Peacekeeping in Pakistan.”

Kubair Shirazee combines agile expertise and a passion to make the world a better place. In his previous work in IT project management, he started using agile methodologies in 1998. In his opinion, many international development projects “… fail because most of them take a waterfall approach.” Turning his eye to the problem of radicalization, Shirazee focused on the talent management strategy: “Poverty doesn’t lead to radicalisation in itself, but desperate social conditions create a ripe breeding ground where it is easy to sell a dark narrative.” Equipped with this understanding,

Peace Through Prosperity launched a five day mini MBA to provide additional business skills to local entrepreneurs. The project provides traditional classes and several weeks of customized consulting to program participants. Thirty percent of program participants have achieved 50% revenue increases shortly after completing the program.

Agile Project Management Lessons from Pakistan

  1. Adjust plans quickly based on feedback

Sometimes project managers are criticized for devising plans far removed from the reality of project work. By working closely with participants, Shirazee learned what worked and could make adjustments quickly.

Tip: Rapid change means having a pragmatic attitude regarding your project planning. Your project plan is not a law of nature.

  1. Measure results quickly as the project unfolds.

In some project management circles, it is common practice to delay measuring the benefits of the project until it fully complete. This case study shows that benefits can be measured, albeit imprecisely, while the project is still underway. In the case

  1. Embrace micro-failure.

Early in the project, a lawyer was hired to determine the feasibility of established a trade association. The effort met with laughter from some quarters and it was uncertain if the effort would succeed. The willingness to risk some of a project’s budget and time to explore new options was a key ingredient for its success.

  1. Use small budgets.

As Shirazee puts it in the Project Manager Today article: “I think the key lesson [major aid organizations] need to embrace is micro fail experimentation. Instead of spending £1b on a bridge nobody needs… they should fund start-up and pilot projects for much shorter time periods.”

 Consider this perspective they next time you plan a project with a seven figure budget.

 What has your experience been in adopting agile project management? What challenges did you experience in adopting a new way of running projects?