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User Stories are bad… M’Kay?

How do you go about setting the context for the feature or capability your product team is going to build? To put it simply, if User Stories are driving the creation of your product backlog items, there’s a very realistic chance you might be missing a lot of what’s important to the human beings you’re designing for.

Before we offer a potential solution to this problem, let us explain why User Stories could be your downfall. Or rather, let’s start by referring you to Alan Klement’s article on Medium, Replacing the User Story with the Job Story.

To summarise the article, User Stories often rely on assumptions. As many of us have likely come to experience, our assumptions are often wrong. This process of assuming a ‘persona’ wants a specific solution to achieve their outcome also devalues the integral work of User Experience Design (UXD) teams (more detail on this later).

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Image credit: Alan Klement

Also, User Stories are missing a key ingredient — something that is critical to understanding the motivation that drives our decisions to hire or fire products and services: causality.

At this point, it makes sense to introduce you to, or remind you of, Jobs to be Done — a framework for understanding circumstances that arise in people’s lives. Jobs to be Done is perhaps the simplest and most compelling mechanism we know for understanding human motivation and making use of that understanding within a product design context. In our opinion, Clayton Christensen’s explanation below is as good as it gets.

Having been introduced to the Jobs to be Done Framework a number of years ago, and naturally becoming big fans, we were ecstatic when we first learned about Intercom’s use of the framework (and yes, there’s even a book). This was our introduction to Job Stories.

Rather than User Stories, Job Stories are our teams’ frame of reference when defining product backlog items. We do this for two reasons:

  1. We believe a strong User Experience Design process can lead to the deepest and most meaningful understanding of your prospects and customers. We therefore focus on identifying the Jobs to be Done prior to defining ‘requirements’ and investing time in engineering effort; and
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Image credit: Alan Klement

Rather than working through an entire example (which you can find here), we’ll provide insights into parts of the process, and propose a new way to articulate high-level product backlog items, or ‘epics’. Through this, the value of Job Stories will be clearly captured, become comprehensible for multiple stakeholders and actionable for key members of a product team.

*The example provided is high-level, and would require further task breakdown prior to being prioritised, estimated and fed into a Scrum Sprint or Kanban work stream.

To set the context for our example, Bianca and I both suffer from Gluten and Lactose Intolerance. Because of this, we are extremely cautious about what we eat, and often choose to remain at home within a controlled environment. Our personal experience was the frame of reference and initial insight that led to us exploring this problem.

After researching the current state of the market, we determined that 2.4 billion meals are eaten out of home every year by food allergen suffers in the UK alone. User research was then conducted with a cohort of food allergen suffers, and family members of food allergens sufferers, to learn about their experiences, motivations and frustrations.

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From this, we learned that many jobs and many situations were negatively impacted by food allergens.

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It became clear there was a problem, and that many situational triggers might come into play. But was this a problem worth solving? As in, do people care enough about the impact this has on their lives to change their behaviour?

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As this process was undertaken, various iterations of potential solutions were designed and tested. We started with paper wireframes. Some clear insights emerged from user testing. This led us to static digital wireframes designed in Sketch. We then tested these and learned again. Eventually, we designed a few interactive prototypes enabled by InVision. Each iteration cycle was limited to about four hours, helping us optimise our learning velocity.

This serves to highlight the value of a strong User Experience Design process. It is also exactly why reliance on User Stories undervalues good UX Design. Why? Because assumptions, leading to the creation of User Stories, do not take full advantage of insights surfaced throughout the UX Design process.

We’ve come to learn that a core part of User Experience Design is surfacing the Job to be Done. We’ve also observed that focusing on the Job to be Done, rather than fictional personas, is an opportunity to gain greater business value from your UX team.

So, once we’ve determined there is a problem worth solving, how might we communicate this with key stakeholders?

Below is a pre-filled example of the template we use to ensure the insights from user research and our Lean UXD Process inform ongoing feature prioritisation, and ultimately, solve the problem in market effectively.

Backlog item title: Build My Allergen Profile

Goals

  1. Enable a new user to navigate from our website, to the app store, and to the completion of their Allergen Profile in less than three minutes

Key metrics

  1. Time to Value — for a new user, defined by the time it takes to sign up, create an allergen profile, find and book a suitable restaurant that can cater

Job Stories

  1. When I’m on the tube coming home from work, I want to know where I can pick up food that meets my requirements on the walk home so I don’t have to spend any longer away from my wife and three kids

Context: I’m fairly short on time and really just need something safe to eat for myself, my family and my colleagues so that I can get back to the thing I really care about.

Anxiety: Almost every time I eat out, something bad happens. I just don’t trust restaurants. I’m not sure they understand me… But, I literally don’t have time right now to do anything else. I need to eat.

Motivation: I’m really tired of feeling like I can’t do the things I want to do. Eating out and being taken care of is awesome, even if it’s only for a short period of time. Also, that last trip to hospital was terrible. I cannot afford for that to happen again.

Current solution i.e competitors

  • Staying at home

Common jobs (if relevant)

  • A person I’ve asked out on a date, and really like, has told me they are on a FODMAP Diet. How do I find somewhere I can take them where I know they won’t get sick? I really want to impress them…

Considerations

Technical and Legal Feasibility

  • Are there any food allergen taxonomies, based on a widely accepted open standard we could take advantage of?

Commercial Viability

  • Are the unit economics viable?

Human Desirability

  • When key situational triggers occur, how do we surface our capability to ensure we are front of mind?

Acceptance Criteria

Must have

  • 29 most common food allergen types

Should have

  • Ability to share profile with friends, family and colleagues once it is created

Could have

  • Mechanism to capture feedback on diet types we may not have considered

Won’t have (for now)

  • Pull data directly from external sources such as Apple Health, mySymptoms etc.

User Experience Flow: See attached wireframes and InVision prototype here for guidance on UX and key interactions (no InVision link as this example serves illustrative purposes only). This is to be refined through our ongoing testing process and complemented by visual and interaction design.

Key Insights from User Experience Research: See synthesis of user research attached (nothing attached as this example serves illustrative purposes only).

The idea with the above template is really that it’s the minimum amount of content that can be clearly understood by different stakeholders groups, whilst effectively capturing the full situational context of the human beings you are designing products and services for.

To take this further, key members of the team will need to interpret, break down the larger piece of work into manageable chunks, and work with key stakeholders to prioritise, making the necessary tradeoffs we know all too much about, as effectively as is possible. These smaller chunks of work can then feed into a Kanban Work Stream, a Scrum Sprint, or whatever product development methodology you prefer.

We’re putting this out there in the hope that it has some value. We know it’s not perfect, so we’d love to hear about the tools, frameworks, approaches and processes you work with daily. What’s working for you and what isn’t?

Feel free to comment and ask us any questions you might have. We’ll get back to you as promptly as we can.

This article was co-written By Nathan and Bianca Kinch

Written by

A confluence of Happy Gilmore, Conor McGregor and the Dalai Lama.

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