Why my User Stories suck

Experience Reports, Software Testing

I keep on hearing how Testers must make excellent PO’s, because they’re so awesome at specifying acceptance criteria. People tell me how tester-now-POs can mold their user stories in such a way that they must be perfectly understandable and unambiguous.

I’m sad to break it to you, but my user stories are nothing of the sort. I know full well that when I feel ‘done’ with them, they still suck.

Possibly equally surprising, testers with a lot more product knowledge than me were unable to lay bare where my stories, acceptance criteria,… were lacking.

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The hills of Brighton – Devil’s Dyke

How can you live with yourself?

I accept various degrees of uncertainty. I don’t know everything, and neither does anyone else. Typically, at least in my experience, a concept has to go through several phases and through different hands to improve, to grow, to become something valuable.

This is also why the distinction between a User Story and Requirement is made:

  • A Requirement is something unambiguous, 100% clear and never changes. (Reality often proves to be different)
  • A User Story is a placeholder for a lower level of detail, often a discussion between people of different roles.


The examples you often read in blog posts or books that say: ‘As a user, I want to be able to filter on “name” so that I can easily find the product I need’ are relatively easy and make up very little of the actual work. In real projects, user stories are seldom as straightforward.

Most of my backlog is filled with stories that cover learning, investigating, building a proof of concept,… for quality aspects outside of the purely ‘functional’.
Before you can start building a filter, you must first have a minimum amount of security, stability, performance, reliability, observability, user experience… especially if you want to go live frequently and get feedback as soon as possible.

 

Most of my backlog is filled with stories that cover learning, investigating, building a proof of concept,… for quality aspects outside of the purely ‘functional’.

My hands are usually not the first ones our concepts go through. I get them by discussing problems and ideas with stakeholders. This could be a customer, a team member, a different team, anyone who might need our help to achieve something.

The concepts can be in a variety of different states: from very detailed and exactly described so that it’s hard to think about them differently,… to so vague that they hardly make sense.

 

My hands are also definitely not the last ones our concepts go through. As I pass my concepts on to the team, an 8-headed monster tears it apart with their questions, remarks, ideas, alternatives, examples, negative uses,… Which usually results in a stronger, clearer and all-round better view of the goal. Several additional tasks and potentially stories are created with this new information.

Then it gets built, tested, released, used, …

At any of these stages a concept can fall apart, need to be rethought, redefined, holes exposed, unexpected dependencies identified but also opportunities, ideas for innovation, strengthening, or additional business value found.

You have to start over so many times?

It can be frustrating, but this is exactly the strength a User Story has over requirements. They get better over time, they invite discussion and controversy and they result in better software.
From a PO perspective, it can be quite frustrating to get the feeling of having to ‘start over’. I’ve frequently thought ‘Why haven’t they thought of this SOONER?’, ‘why didn’t I think of this?!’.

We all learn new things over time. This is a core principle in agile software development. If we want to build better, we need to allow ourselves and the people around us to gain more and better insights over time.

Stories seldom end. Sometimes they are the beginning of something new, other times they have several spin-offs. The interesting ones, those that bring the most value, often sprout from several stories coming together.

They are not straightforward and that’s perfectly OK.

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Painting of a shipwreck in Church of Piedigrotta

What advantages does a previous tester have?

 

As a PO, I’m grateful for my previous experiences as a tester. Not because of my awesome acceptance criteria specification nor my powers of unambiguously writing down what a feature should do.
Instead, I’m grateful that during my tester years, I learned that:

  • Good software & software creators need time and several feedback-loops to be great.
  • Value is created by intellectual and creative people working together on a problem, not by following instructions to the letter.
  • My input should trigger discussion and controversy, rather than dismiss it.
  • Being able to hear solutions and problems from different people and asking the right questions.
  • Gathering and communicating information in a structured and understandable way to people with different backgrounds and expectations.

Combining these skills and knowledge with a vision & a strategy is how I enjoy being valuable as a PO.

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Monastary in Swietokrzyskie, Poland

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