Writing user stories for web applications

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Writing user stories for web applications

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User stories are the substitute of formal requirements documents in an agile environment: they are short summaries of a functionality that leave space to expansion and refinement when it comes the time to implement it. Writing them it's not rocket science and it is definitely something a web developer should master.

Stories are not requirements, in the sense they are not required at all: the prioritization process will choose the most important stories to implement at a given time, basing on their cost and on their value. Instead of giving a list of requirements where 90% of the features are only nice to have, the customer gets to make an informed decision over which stories should be implemented first, and can handle new requirements by adding them to the global list of stories (backlog). The typical agile estimation process is not the subject of this article, but it looks like this:

  • asking questions to the customer generates a bunch of user stories, which go into the backlog where all the ideas about functionalities are kept.
  • Stories are estimated in relative points or ideal time, to give an idea of their size.
  • With the customer, the developers can choose which stories to pull from the backlog into a smaller plan (iteration or release based).
  • if new requirements come up or a user story changes too much to be considered the same, it is put in the backlog so that the next planning process can deal with it. If it's still a priority, it will be surely included in the next iteration.

How to write them

A major point of user stories is their focus on the value provided to the end user and not on the technical topics related to its implementation. Technical options will be chosen to satisfy the story and to estimate its cost during the subsequent planning.

User stories have usually the following overly famous form:

As a [role], I [feature] so that [reason]

For example, As a user, I can login into the application so that the it presents me my preferences.

What is a role while writing user stories? It is the analogue of the classic Uml use case diagram role: for example it can be the customer, a user of the application, an admin, developer which uses the library you're writing.

The so that part is often optional, but it should described the value provided by the feature the user story describes. The feature itself can change in development but it should conserve its original value. In our example, if we make the user login with OpenID the value is conserved even if we have thrown away our own authentication mechanism. In this sense, stories do not describe describe the how, only the what, and this particular what can change is this helps to achieve the same why (a little metaphysical definition).

Keep in mind that user stories have to be testable, because they are the definition of done b: you can drink champagne only when the acceptance tests for a story are passing: consider modifying your stories if it is difficult to write automated tests for them. For instance in an application which indexed files asynchronously (and it may take a lot after the user has been returned an Indexing started message) I actually addedd a dynamic page with the last additions to the index, that is updated as the last step of the pipeline of operations, to make the story more testable. Complex stories which are unclear to test are a symptom that a refinement is needed.

Where to write them

The general suggestion is to write every user story on a 3x5 card because this size choice keeps the stories short and to the point. Moreover, if you write on paper you can shuffle single cards around for planning pourposes.

I hate to write on paper something I may edit, so when working solo, I use txt files where a story is represented by a row. I'm currently looking for a low-footprint project management tool which does not complicate my process, but I can easily move around stories from the backlog to the release or iteration plan with vim by using dd to cut a story and P or p to paste it. This is nearly as low-tech as sheets of paper.

Why web applications?

Web applications adapt particularly well to iterative development and to a story-based approach. Usually a web application starts with a beta that implements the most important stories to provide basic functionalities.

If a story does not gather enough success online (poor response from the users), linked stories that expand it may be delayed (left in the backlog) or cancelled, to make room for other stories that have come up. There are no problems in the client side while updating the application, as all issues with upgrading are moved to the server side (such as changes to the database schema).

If the developers have access to the hosting service for the application, rolling out the result of an iteration is very easy and the users may not notice it until they start to use the new features. Compare this agility with the old MS Access applications used in the offices of half of the planet.

While web applications may take over the enterprise world, legacy managerial applications are widely spread and it is difficult to substitute them in one single shot. I tried with a formal waterfall approach, and failed as the requirements were too fine-grained, and impossible to prioritize: imagine a list of an hundred of queries that can be done over the database, and no idea of which are the most used. Imagine fifty different entities which represent an outdated domain model you have to replace. How do you know where to start? Even if you can implement all these requirements, how much will it cost?

An agile process is our only hope for replacing this kind of applications, and if you will someday see a PHP application generating invoices in your office, it will be in part thanks to user stories.


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