Story Format

Well, it had to happen sooner or later: a card that bothers me quite a bit. Mike Cohn's book Agile Estimating and Planning, a book I recommend for just about anyone working on an agile project, popularized this story card format.

"As an actor, I want to accomplish some goal, for some reason"--very similar to what we did with use cases in the early 90s. And back then, we spilled time bickering over format and wording, so I give credit to whoever came up with a template to help sidestep those wasteful arguments.

The problem is that the story card ain't the thing, it's a placeholder and "promise for more communication," per Ron Jeffries. The card could have one word on it, and that would be sufficient. Bob Koss often told a story about a story for the U.S. Navy regarding how to adjust large gun firing based on sonic feedback. The story card said simply "boom splash!" That was enough to initiate talking about it, and no one forgot who the story was for, what it meant, or why it existed over the course of the iteration.

I realize I'm railing against a potentially useful flash card. As a tool, the format template can help us considerably in improving our collections of stories. Some same lessons from use cases apply: Thinking about the actors involved (the "as a" people) can help trigger the introduction of important stories that might be missed. The phrase "I want to" reinforces that stories are goals for customers the system, and not just technical pipe dreams. And "so that," well, as we write out dozens of stories in release planning, we'll want to remind ourselves of the rationale behind certain stories (but not all of them!). And sometimes this "why" can trigger other useful considerations.

To be fair to Cohn, he says many similar things in his book. But you know how people are. I've already encountered spreadsheets and other software tools that rigidly insist on this format. Never mind that the actor is the same for every last story, or that the reasons are pretty obvious for most stories, or that typing all that stuff is just redundant crud that we would stamp out if it were in our code.

Remember: The cards we present as part of the Agile In a Flash project are tools, not gospel. They're here to help prod you if you get stuck, to give you ideas, and to give you guidance. In most cases, you should follow them unless you have darn good reasons--and even then, you should follow them until you know why the rules exist, and only then should you consider taking your own path.


  1. At a recent conference, a workshop leader suggested that this is good, but that it would be better to re-arrange the 3 items so that the most important ones come first. He suggested:
    "In order to (achieve value), the (actor) does (action)"

    p.s. Just found your site, looks like a cool idea.

  2. Thanks Steve! That reversal is known as "Feature Injection."


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