Agile project management: why User Stories make for faster, more efficient web development

As its name suggests, Agile is the project management methodology that allows a web development team to break the process into small, easy-to-manage chunks that have shorter timescales and tightly-focused, user-orientated objectives.  And at its heart is the concept of User Stories.

But first, let’s remind ourselves how a traditional ‘waterfall’ software development workflow – still in use by many digital agencies – is structured.

A Waterfall project seeks to define the product in detail before the build starts. This assumes that every step of the build will proceed in a linear, orderly manner – and that what’s built will exactly match the precisely drafted, technically-orientated specification.

The problem is, of course, that it’s virtually impossible to know everything about how a product will work at the outset, and the requirements for the project might only be known to a handful of people – sometimes only one. This means there can be a huge investment of time before the build begins and, if the project stops half way through, no code has been written!

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Agile starts with the end-user

With an Agile project, the formalised, highly-defined overall Waterfall specification is replaced by a highly flexible, team-based approach with minimal documentation.

Verbal communication is favoured over written, and everyone in the team can share the responsibility of capturing the projects’ key requirements as User Stories; and share the responsibility of delivering too.

Stories can be created quickly and added to the ‘product backlog’ at the highest ‘epic’ level to get things started. They can then be refined and re-prioritised frequently if necessary, when they’re planned into ‘sprints’ of work lasting a few weeks at a time.

In this way, changes to the technical specification, or to the business requirements – which typically evolve over the life of a project – are much more easily accommodated.

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But it’s at the granular, User Stories level that the real difference is made. Because the requirements are captured from a user point of view, not from a systems, technology or developer perspective.

In short, User Stories define the question, not the technological answer. It’s all about small, specific goals.

Drafting a viable User Story

To be effective and actionable, a User Story has three key components:

  1. As a…

We clearly identify who the end-user will be.

  1. I want…

We define their requirements precisely in everyday language.

  1. So that…

We clearly understand the reason for the requirement. (This is not dissimilar to the ‘benefit’ you might see in an advertising or marketing brief.)

Tightly drafted, each User Story identifies a very specific need, outlines a feature that can address the need, and is an entity unto itself – a ‘closed story’.

Here’s what a well-drafted User Story for a retail site might look like:

 

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Alongside each User Story, precisely defined acceptance criteria are drafted. These create a shared understanding of expectations that software must live up to in order to be released into production. Only when these are achieved can the story be classed as ‘Done’.

User Stories in action

We believe that the benefits an Agile approach can bring to our clients are highly tangible.  Most importantly, perhaps, an Agile workflow can substantially reduce the timeframe within which your site can launch.

By basing the build around small, discrete chunks, your MVP (‘Minimum Viable Product’) time can be cut to a minimum, allowing a basic iteration of your site to go live whilst other User Stories continue to be developed and incorporated over time.

Our recent Proof of Concept project on Stocks & Shares ISAs for Lloyds Bank exemplifies how useful User Stories can be in focusing website development to closely reflect customer needs and concerns.

Having conducted in-depth customer research we were able to draft a series of User Stories that perfectly matched their mindsets. For example: “As a customer, I want to understand the differences between Cash and Investment ISAs, so I can see the potential upside and risks of putting my money into an Investment ISA.”

You can find out more about this by reading the case study. 

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