Agile User Stories Made Simple: A Step-by-Step Guide with Cardboard

user story diagram
Last Updated: August 7, 2023

Want to get better at writing Agile user stories? That’s a smart move. Maybe you’re a Scrum Master, Agile coach, or a member of a product team.

User stories are more than just a tool for planning and managing work. They’re a way to focus on the customer’s needs, foster communication within your team, and deliver a product that solves the problem. But writing effective user stories isn’t as straightforward as it seems. There are pitfalls that teams often stumble into.

In this guide, we’ll cover the basics: what are Agile user stories, how do you write them, and how to use them effectively. Then we’ll show you how they fit into the bigger picture – the value stream. This holistic approach will help your product team avoid common problems that often pop up with user stories across product discovery and delivery. By the end, you’ll have a solid understanding of Agile user stories and a clear path to apply them effectively in your team.

Let’s take your Agile user stories to the next level.


What are Agile User Stories?

User stories are a fundamental element in Agile and Scrum methodologies. They help us keep our focus where it should be: on the user. But what exactly is a user story?


Definition of a User Story

A user story is a simple, concise description of a feature told from the perspective of the person who desires the new capability, usually a user or customer of the system. It typically follows a simple template: As a [type of user], I want [an action] so that [a benefit or value].


What are the 3 C’s of Agile User Stories?

User stories in Agile are often described using the 3 C’s: Card, Conversation, and Confirmation.

  1. Card: The user story is written on a card to promote simplicity and flexibility. The card doesn’t contain all the details. It’s a reminder to have a conversation about the story.
  2. Conversation: The details of the user story come from conversations between the development team and the customer (or product owner). This conversation is where the team gains a shared understanding of the story and what it involves.
  3. Confirmation: This is about acceptance criteria, or how we’ll know when a story is done and working as intended. It confirms that the story has been implemented correctly.


What are the 3 Parts of a User Story?

Every user story generally includes three parts:

  1. Who: This is the user or the type of user who will use the feature (e.g., a new customer, a blog reader, an admin).
  2. What: This is the feature or capability that the user needs.
  3. Why: This is the benefit or value that the user will gain from the feature.


What is a User Story in Agile Example?

Here’s an example of a user story:

As a frequent flyer, I want to be able to check in online for my flight, so that I can save time at the airport.

In this example, the frequent flyer is the user, the ability to check-in online is the feature, and saving time at the airport is the benefit.


Diagram of a User Story Structure

Understanding user stories and their structure is the first step to mastering their use in Agile and Scrum. In the next section, we’ll delve into common problems teams face when working with user stories and how to avoid them.

user story diagram


Writing Effective User Stories

Writing user stories is a skill that can be honed with practice and a clear understanding of the principles involved. Here’s a detailed guide to help you write effective user stories:

  1. Start with the User

Every user story should start with the user and their needs. Identify who the user is and what they want to achieve. This forms the basis of your user story and ensures that you’re focusing on user value.

  1. Use Simple, Clear Language

User stories should be written in simple, clear language that everyone on the team can understand. Avoid technical jargon and focus on the user’s perspective.

  1. Define the Desired Outcome

Every user story should clearly define the desired outcome or benefit for the user. This helps to keep the focus on delivering value to the user.

  1. Include Acceptance Criteria

Acceptance criteria are a crucial part of every user story. They define what must be done for the story to be considered complete. Make sure your acceptance criteria are specific, measurable, and agreed upon by everyone involved.

  1. Keep It Small and Manageable

A good user story is small and manageable. If a story is too large or complex, consider breaking it down into smaller stories. This makes it easier to understand, implement, and test.


User Story Tips and Best Practices

  • Involve the whole team in writing user stories. This promotes shared understanding and buy-in.
  • Regularly review and update your user stories as you gain more information.
  • Don’t forget about non-functional requirements. Consider aspects like performance, security, and usability.

user story structure diagram

With these guidelines, you’ll be well on your way to writing effective user stories that deliver value to your users and keep your product development on track. 


Common Problems with User Stories

Even with the best intentions, teams can run into issues when using user stories. Let’s explore some of the most common problems and how they can impact your value stream.

Overly Complex User Stories

One of the most common issues is the creation of user stories that are too complex. These “epic” stories can be difficult to understand and implement, leading to confusion and delays. Remember, a user story should be simple and concise. If it’s becoming too complex, it might be a sign that it needs to be broken down into smaller, more manageable stories.

Lack of User Perspective

Sometimes, teams can get so caught up in the technical details that they lose sight of the user perspective. User stories are meant to represent the needs and desires of the user, not the technical requirements of the system. Always keep the user in mind when writing and discussing user stories.

Vague or Incomplete Acceptance Criteria

Acceptance criteria are crucial for understanding when a user story is done. If these criteria are vague or incomplete, it can lead to misunderstandings and incomplete features. Make sure your acceptance criteria are clear, specific, and agreed upon by everyone involved.

Neglecting Non-Functional Requirements

User stories often focus on functional requirements, like what a system should do. But it’s also important to consider non-functional requirements, like performance, security, and usability. These aspects are crucial for delivering a product that not only works but works well.

These common issues lead to delays, reduced quality, and ultimately, a product that doesn’t meet the needs of the user. 


Think Holistically About the User Journey

Here’s another common issue: The product discovery team creates a user story map. They show it to a product team trained in Agile User Stories. This product team turns around and rewrites the stories to fit their training. The result? A disconnect between discovery and delivery that creates friction and slows down progress.

Sometimes the teams try to address this problem by adding more steps. But more mechanics just creates more complexity and pulls the teams further apart. Instead of working together, they end up working in silos.

Instead, the team needs to work together with the entire user journey in mind. Build overlapping skills with User Story Mapping as a tool for collaboration. It provides a visual representation of the user’s journey, helping both discovery and delivery teams understand the user’s needs and how each story fits into the overall product. 


User Story Mapping: A Game-Changer

User Story Mapping is a visual tool that helps teams understand users and their experiences. It shows how each user story fits into the overall product. It improves communication, focuses on user needs, and encourages teams to see the bigger picture.


Meet Cardboard

Cardboard is a tool designed for User Story Mapping. It’s an intuitive platform where teams can create, edit, and visualize user story maps. Organize your user stories, add details, and rearrange them as needed. Plus, it’s perfect for real-time collaboration, whether your team is in the office or remote.

Cardboard isn’t just for creating user story maps. It fosters holistic thinking. By visualizing the user’s journey, you can see how each user story fits into the broader context. This helps teams avoid getting stuck in the details of individual stories and focus on delivering real value to the user.


Putting It All Into Practice

You’ve learned about the power of User Story Mapping and the benefits of thinking holistically. You’ve discovered how Cardboard can simplify the process and foster collaboration. Now, it’s time to put that knowledge into action.

Whether you’re a Scrum Master, an Agile coach, or a member of a product team, applying these concepts can transform the way you approach user stories. It can help you avoid common pitfalls, streamline your process, and deliver products that truly meet user needs.

So why wait? Give Cardboard a try. Use it to create your own user story maps, foster collaboration within your team, and keep your focus on the user. See for yourself how this holistic approach can enhance your Agile practices.

And remember, we’re always here to support you on this journey. We’d love to hear about your experiences with User Story Mapping and Cardboard. Your feedback helps us continue to improve and provide resources that are truly beneficial to you.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is a user story in Scrum?

In Scrum, a user story is a simple, concise description of a feature told from the perspective of the person who desires the new capability, usually a user or customer of the system. It typically follows the format: “As a [type of user], I want [an action] so that [a benefit or value].” User stories are a part of the Product Backlog and provide a way for the Scrum Team to break down complex projects into manageable units of work.

How detailed should a user story be?

A user story should be detailed enough to enable the team to understand what the user wants and why, but not so detailed that it leaves no room for discussion. The goal is to encourage conversation and collaboration, not to create a detailed specification.

How do I know if my user story is too large?

A user story might be too large if it cannot be completed within one sprint, or if it’s difficult to describe the acceptance criteria concisely. In such cases, consider breaking it down into smaller, more manageable stories.

Can a user story be changed once it’s been written?

Yes, user stories can and often do change. Agile embraces change as a way to ensure the product meets the user’s needs. If new information suggests that a user story should be changed, the Product Owner can adjust it accordingly.

How does User Story Mapping fit into the Scrum framework?

User Story Mapping is a tool that can be used within the Scrum framework to visualize the user’s journey and see how individual user stories fit into the larger product narrative. It can be particularly useful during Backlog Refinement and Sprint Planning sessions.

How can Cardboard help my team with User Story Mapping?

Cardboard provides an intuitive, collaborative platform for creating and visualizing user story maps. It allows your team to organize user stories, add details, and rearrange them as needed, fostering a shared understanding of the user’s journey and the product goals.