SCRUM User Stories, Part 2: User value over business value?

My last post about User Stories and putting the value for the user first in any product decision generated some great discussion on Twitter. As with anything there are some varying views on the topic, and as one example I was pointed to Liz Keogh’s post on user stories.

Liz argues that User Stories should be better named “Stakeholder stories”, as the things you build are addressing the needs of varying groups of stakeholders, only some of which are the end user.

In the creation of any product there are of course many stakeholders who need to be satisfied: the CEO, shareholders, investors, marketing people, the legal department, and so on. In the design of the business, of course the internal stakeholders have the most important requirements. What sort of market are we going into? What segment will we serve? What problem or user need do we attempt to address with this product?

But when you start designing the product that the user will have in their hands, then the user needs to be at the heart of that design solution. Here, the user needs have to come first.

But what about all the stuff that you have to build into products that users don’t want, or even hate? Stuff like CAPTCHAs during registration processes, or advertisements? If the user’s needs come first, why does this stuff exist? To answer this, let’s take a step back and look at where user stories come from.

User Stories are not immaculate conceptions: they don’t just appear out of the blue, but they are thoughtfully created to address needs of the product and the business. On other words, they are derived out of the product vision and the surrounding business model.

If your business model involves monetisation through advertising, then you have a problem to solve: “how can I enable advertising in my product?” It’s clear that the user is not at the heart of the decision to enable advertising, but business models are complex and have to satisfy many stakeholders and solve many problems. At the business strategy level, the end-user is only one of multiple players, and the user doesn’t always come first.

So you have this problem: you have to enable advertising. How do you solve it? Do you slap a full-screen takeover banner for some random personal hygiene product on your start screen? Probably not. Do you enable Google AdWords to show advertisements relevant to the content in a meaningful way? Getting warmer. Do you study the user’s interaction on the page to determine where the advertisements should be placed and how they should be visually displayed to ensure that users understand what is a sponsored link and what is your own content, to avoid frustration and confusion from the end user and maximise the meaning and value they get when they interact with the advertising? Better still.

What is at the heart of each of these decisions? The user. This is where the user comes first – in the design of the solution to the problem. In the User Story.

User-centric design doesn’t absolve you (regrettably) of the need to be aware of the business context or the constraints of your business or industry: it merely proposes that the user is at the heart of how you solve your product problems and how you work with the constraints. Keeping the user at the centre of your user stories by insisting they start with “As a User…” helps you stay focussed on the people who will be interacting with the stuff you’re building.

SCRUM User Stories: As a User, NOT As a Manager

The success or failure of a piece of software, or any product for that matter, is how well its users are satisfied, and how well it solves their needs. In the world of web software, adding functionality is rarely the differentiating factor that will lead to the winning product. More likely the winner is the product that solves the user’s problem in the simplest, easiest and most delightful way.

In other words, product design is all about the user: solving their needs the best way possible. Every single line of code you write should help the user solve their needs better and easier…

… which is why I am often confused when I see user stories like “As a product owner, I want…” or “As a manager, I want…” Or worse still: “As a data centre, I want…”

Who ever asked a data centre what it wants?

User stories start with “As a user…” for a reason: the process of writing a clear sentence that starts with “As a user” forces you, with each product decision you make, to consider and understand how what you are about to do allows you to solve the user’s needs in a better, more efficient way. If you can’t do that, then you have to question why you are adding this user story at all.

Avoid stories that start with anything other than “As a user”. That’s why they’re called User stories. If you can’t work out what a user gets out of the deal, it probably isn’t worth it.

Move fast

The world moves fast. Your competitors move fast with it.

Users move fast, too. Users are more fickle than ever before. This month’s UK WIRED magazine rated Twitter as “tired”. This for a service that’s only five years old with a still-growing userbase. Ouch!

In the world of web products, building and releasing beautiful and delightful products and user experiences is only half of the battle. The other half is winning (and keeping) your userbase. Your product could have a net promoter score of +80, but if it still only has 10 users, is it really successful? If you build it, they won’t necessarily come.

Users want stability and reliability. Once they have settled in to a product that solves a particular need, it’s that much harder to get their attention to yours. At the same time, and perhaps contradictorily (who said human beings were simple?), users also crave the new. New updates, new versions, new features. News, blogs and social channels thrive on the new.

The web has sped up business dramatically and continues to speed up software product innovation. It’s a race to the bottom – at some point we won’t be able to go much quicker – but we’re not at the end of that race just yet. The strategy to compete in this space, I think, has two major components:

1. Work fast. Build fast, iterate fast: improve fast.
2. Be ready for when we hit the bottom. When we can’t go faster, on what track will the next race be run? Which race can you win?

Important note: fast doesn’t mean chaotic and unplanned.

Classic product management wisdom from one of the fathers of industrial design

In 1955 Henry Dreyfuss, one of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, in his book “Designing for People” wrote the following :

“The successful performer in this new field is a man of many hats. He does more than merely design things. He is a businessman as well as a person who makes drawings and models. He is a keen observer of public taste and he has painstakingly cultivated his own taste. He has an understanding of merchandising, how things are made, packed, distributed, and displayed. He accepts the responsibility of his position as liaison linking management, engineering, and the consumer and co-operates with all three.”

Clearly this sentiment is as relevant for designers today as it was 55 years ago when it was written. It’s also interesting how the description rings true for product managers. In fact, I couldn’t have come up with a better description of the modern-day product manager if I tried.

Product management is more than schedules, roadmaps and powerpoints. Product management is about identifying a need and building a solution. It’s about understanding people (users) and understanding “how things are made”.

Designing for People - Henry Dreyfuss - Many hats sketch“From the book Designing for People – Dreyfuss’s sketch of the multi-skilled designer.

The most important career skill for this century: fixing what’s broken

Companies are a complicated beasts. Reporting lines, structures, process, heirarchy, politics… finding your way through the corporate maze and working out how to get things done and ship meaningful work can be tough.

If you look around in any company, I’m sure you’ll see things that don’t make sense. You’ll see ineffective managers and inefficient processes. You’ll see failures and you’ll see waste.

When you look attentively and deliberately at the world around you, you will see so many things that are broken or could be improved. The more you look, the better you will become at seeing. You’ll undoubtedly see more things than you’ll ever have the time to work on.

Your first responsibility is to look. Your second responsibility is to act. If you see something broken, try to fix it – even if it’s not your job. Avoid ignoring the problem or building a complex workaround – try to fix the problem at it’s root.

If you really can’t fix the problem, then accept it as a constraint and move on. Leverage the constraint; use it to help you ship meaningful work.

In a world where software continues to automate generic factory-like work the most valuable skill becomes the ability to solve new and evolving problems… So if you have a choice between staring at your email inbox and fixing something that’s broken, what do you do?

Driving innovation with agile: a short case study

A prototype of the first mouse

We all know the story – but it’s still remarkably easy to forget that some of the most influential innovations in the field of personal computing, including the mouse, the laser printer, computer generated bitmap graphics and the graphical user interface, were not invented by Microsoft or Apple, but by a small research centre in the Valley called the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Of course, part of the reason we all forget is that PARC are equally famous for fumbling the future, as was written in 1988, and not managing to capitalise on these innovations. For the next 20 years PARC was largely ridiculed and mostly forgotten.

Flash forward to today, and PARC, now spun off as an independent subsidiary of Xerox, is back in the big leagues and delivering a huge amount of innovations to tech startups, corporations and even the U.S. Government. Harvard Business Review have posted an interesting article on the HBR Blog about the secret to their reinventing themselves. One point stood out to me like a beacon:

Part of the magic lies in the current business model which, as Lawrence Lee, director of strategy, explained to us, relies on partnering closely with customers, inventing a minimally viable product, and collaboratively iterating from there, based on market feedback.

This is what agile, and continuous delivery, is all about: get your innovations into the hands of the customer as soon as possible, and iterate based on real feedback. It’s about “inventing a minimally viable product”, and using real feedback, real customers, real interactions, to make the next decisions that impact what your product ends up like and in what direction it goes.

Interestingly, the other ingredients to their success were People, Collaboration and Communication.

Now consider the Agile Manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

The basic principles that helped PARC reinvent themselves once again into a successful innovation house are the same principles that drive agile software projects. Even if they didn’t use the word ‘agile’, the engineers at PARC are living the Agile Manifesto every day.