user stories

BDD - A team oriented activity

Probably one of the harder elements of Agile that teams struggle with is the art of collaboration. Our experiences over the years have taught us to treat functional groups such as BA's, Devs and QA as separate entities each with their own perspective and each distrustful of the others abilities to deliver.  How many times in QA do we hear the phrase 'Just toss it over to QA and let them deal with it'. 

We forget so easily that what we deliver for a customer is the sum total of our efforts, not just of individuals.  The Chicago Bulls were a good team with just Michael Jordan, but only when they were able to blend ALL of the skills of the team were they able to win championships.  Scrum is about team.
Getting your Scrum team to actually work as a team is one of the key efforts that everyone needs to make and BDD is a way that can help teams  work collaboratively to  build what I call contextually rich user stories.
You can't rely on just one or two people to write user stories and acceptance criteria as there is a limit to the context of what any one person can know.  With ever growing complexity in business and technology the more people who can collaborate the more context that is captured in the story.
Does it sound like heavy overhead?  It shouldn't.  I'm sure you have all spent hours pouring over Business or Product Development documents trying to glean enough information to build a design that will work for the next 6 months (which we know doesn't happen on any planet in this solar system).  We've always spent time trying to understand what is being asked for but in Agile we spend smaller increments of time on writing details that matter.
The most successful teams I've worked with have adopted this type of approach for building out BDD acceptance criteria:
  • Start of Sprint -
  1. During the first two days of the Sprint the QA lead and Product Owner work together to develop (and or complete) BDD acceptance criteria for the next upcoming sprint.
  2. By day three the development team should start delivering stories to QA for testing.  Additionally QA can begin their automation efforts via BDD examples with tools such as Cucumber, Fitnesse, Capybara....
  3. The engineering team needs to plan to complete all of the story development so that the last two days are open for them to  review the acceptance criteria and make changes/suggestions to the PO.  The team is also completing their designs for the upcoming sprint during the last two days and fixing any bugs that are discovered in testing.
BDD Planning Cycle v1.00
The key to this process is that before the team commits to the sprint they must all review and agree to the scope of the BDD acceptance test examples.  Without this discipline, the scope of the story and sprint will not be as precise.
As I've told my teams in the past, moving to writing BDD acceptance criteria is a mind shift in how you view both requirements and testing.  Both Development and QA can consume them for their individual efforts, but in the end, if they work against what is defined in the BDD they will both be on the same page functionally.
BDD takes the guess work out of what is being developed and that's a good thing.  For Sprints to go quickly and with high quality,  teams have to understand exactly what they are doing.  To steal from one of my favorite phrases from Bull Durham 'Don't think, it only hurts the ball club'.
BDD provides clarity for the entire team and makes demos go smoothly.
Ensuring that the team provides input, review and commitment to BDD acceptance criteria keeps everyone focused on doing just what is needed.

Contextually Rich User Stories - The Importance of Details in Small Increments

Every software product that we build begins with a set of requirements. Teams or organizations who have utilized traditional requirements documentation efforts such as Product or Business requirements documents (PRD's or BRD's) typically have issues with translating their requirements process into user stories.  Instead of writing long passages of descriptive requirements that are heavy on the use of 'the user shall' we move to a smaller specification document that convey details to a specific individual feature.

What teams fail to realize is that their old requirements documents weren't all that good at conveying the necessary details that allow teams to delivery their product quickly and with quality.  You see evidence of this lack of clarity with the large number of change requests that are raised during waterfall projects.  In my pre-Agile years it was not uncommon for a typical 6 month project that I led to have over 100 change requests generated to convey the changing nature of the requirements (business, technical and UX).  The Agile manifesto addresses this reality by saying we accept change, why?  Because it's there it will happen, to deny it would be to deny the reality of product development, as we learn more we need to change our approach.

User stories, though small in format, need to have a specific level of detail if a team is to have the ability to accurately estimate and delivery the feature.

The basic User Story:

  • Story
  • Conversation
  • Acceptance Criteria

Can be deceptively simple to those who are just starting

In one organization I worked with as we moved into an Agile process the team looked at the User Story statement  as THE requirement.  It took awhile to get them to learn that successful teams use the User Story format as a specification and not a loose statement with no context associated with it.

An example of a solid User Story specification would look like this:

Story Format

Another important thing to note with this format is that the team is also collaboratively building Story acceptance criteria by using Behavior Driven Development (BDD) which directly feeds the test automation frameworks that most Agile teams utilize (Cucumber, Fitnesse, to name a few).

There are other efforts/processes that feed into getting the right amount of detail into the story such as Discovery and Pre-Planning and if these are missed you will not obtain the benefits of this format.

Over the past 5 years, teams I have engaged with, who have used this specific format for developing their User Stories have had a much greater success with both delivering on time and more importantly with higher quality.

At my last organization I asked a Scrum team to utilize this process during the Pre-Planning phase of their project.  After the project I learned that the Product Owner had been very worried about the team using precious 'development' time to talk through the work and build out the context of the user stories. After the project was completed he could state without reservation that taking the time to build out contextually rich user stories with the team had produced two key results:

  1. The team delivered on time and with more features than he had originally promised the client.
  2. When he delivered the demo to the client he had high confidence in the product as it met all of the context that had been build out and there were only 2 minor UI issues that were identified during the 3 iteration project.

Take away - Don't run before you are ready and get the context right before developing.

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