You Don’t Build Stories

by Jeff Langr

February 24, 2011

I recently responded to a poster at JavaRanch who was asking about how stories are used in agile. I think a lot of people use the word “story” improperly–they use it in the sense that a story is a feature. “I built 10 stories into the product.” No, a story is a discussion around a feature. A story is also not a card.

While this may seem like a nit that I’m picking, I believe misuse of the word “story” has led to unfortunate insistences, such as rigid formats for cards that capture feature conversations (and I’m going to stop calling these cards “story cards,” which isn’t quite as bad a term, but it does help reinforce the wrong things).

(Most of the rest of this post is taken directly from the exchange on JavaRanch.)

“Story cards” are simply placeholders, or tools. The word “story” is the important thing here. A story is something we tell people; the card is simply a reminder, a summary of that oral storytelling. A card is a convenient medium. I suppose I’m thankful I don’t hear about “story whiteboards.”

Story cards (I tried… it’s not easy!) are not artifacts! Once you complete work on building a feature, the card is meaningless. You might think you could use it to track what had been done in a given iteration, but a 5-word summary of a several-day conversation (between customer and developers and other folks) scribbled on a card will not likely be meaningful to anyone six months down the road.

Instead, we get rid of the conversation piece, and replace it with something that documents how the system behaves once that new feature is in place. The best form for that document is a series of well-designed acceptance tests that anyone can easily read and understand. (See our Agile in a Flash card on Acceptance Test Design Principles for a definition of well-designed.)

Acceptance tests are the closest analogs to use cases (a tool popularized almost 20 years ago now), but with slightly differing granularities. The name of an acceptance test can map to the goal, or name, of a use case; it can also map to a much smaller slice of functionality. This is because features in agile are intended to be very small, taking only a day or so to complete. So someone might tell a story: “allow users to filter sort results by age.” That’s likely not an entire use case, it’s an alternate path on a larger use case.

Otherwise, the focus is the same: Jacobson said you could produce user guides and documentation from well-written use cases. The same can hold true for acceptance tests (with a little assembly work), which have the vastly superior quality of eternal accuracy: As long as all your acceptance tests pass, you know that they describe how the system works.

Stories, on the other hand, are just conversations, and the memory of all conversations eventually fades from memory. The cards act as great tools while the story is in progress–they help us track things and remind us what we were talking about, but other than that, we should just recycle the cards once we deliver the corresponding features.


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J. B. Rainsberger February 24, 2011 at 12:57 pm

I don’t worry about stories. I turn nebulous product ideas into feature areas, then feature areas into examples. A story becomes an arbitrary bundle of related examples. This helps avoid some of the confusion you describe here.

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Jeff Langr

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Jeff Langr has been building software for 40 years and writing about it heavily for 20. You can find out more about Jeff, learn from the many helpful articles and books he's written, or read one of his 1000+ combined blog (including Agile in a Flash) and public posts.