Better user stories start with authentic situations of need

I drive a Toyota Rav 4 Hybrid. It’s the most sophisticated piece of equipment I have ever owned and I love it, but the satnav has been a constant source of frustration. It’s a lot better now than it was when I took delivery (frankly, it was embarrassingly bad), but one niggle still stands and I’m going to use it as an example.

Do you use the direction list (or “turn list” as it’s sometimes called) on your satnav? Not everybody does, but I like to!

I don’t know if Toyota are fans of user stories, but I can imagine some business analyst at Toyota City writing one that goes something like this:

As a driver,
I want a list of directions
so that I can review my route

Like a million other user stories, it’s short and sweet, a convenient shorthand for the feature. You can imagine the <what> part, (the list of directions) being further elaborated somewhere. Neither the <who> nor the <why> parts add much. Basically, the user story identifies a requirement. Old school! The unfortunate result here is 100% cast-iron mediocrity.

Here’s my personal job story for this feature:

When I’m about to leave the motorway (at 70MPH),
I want to know what’s coming next
so that I can choose the correct lane on the slip road

Had Toyota considered that scenario, they’d know this feature needs to be readily accessible (one click away, not three), easily found (not hiding in a settings menu of all places), and legible without reading glasses (whose idea was blue on blue icons?).

Here’s the relevant Agendashift assessment prompt (we just updated it):

4.1 We take care to understand the needs that will be fulfilled by our work and to explore the circumstances in which those needs arise

We’re not prescriptive, and we’re not insisting that you abandon user stories in favour of job stories. But do remember that to bring your user stories to life, they need to start in an authentic situation of need. And if you can’t think of one, either talk to your customer (Toyota, you can talk to me anytime) or seriously consider dropping the feature.

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

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2 thoughts on “Better user stories start with authentic situations of need

    1. Hi Mike, great article!

      Elaboration into scenarios is great if it results in deeper user understanding, getting to their personal “when” as well as the “when” of their first interaction with the system. Of course ultimately it’s not the tool, it’s motivations and skills of the people using them that counts.

      To be clear, I’m not saying “don’t use user stories”. I’m saying “don’t write mediocre user stories”, and learn from folks who have the knack of identifying authentic situations that can bring stories to life. We definitely need more of that.



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