Writing a Better (User) Story

One of the things I like about Scrum so much is the intentional shifting of language. Projects can be epics, and activities can be stories. We can sprint instead of just working. We groom the backlog rather than just culling the to-do list. We reflect on commitment not just progress. I know the language turns many people off – why create new terms for the most basic pieces of project management?

The last thing we need is more jargon, right? Except when that new language helps us to break common habits and consciously think about what we are doing in new ways.

Software developers create user stories in order to keep themselves focused on the user’s needs and motivations while they work. A basic version of the user story format is

As a <type of person>, I want <to do/be/have something> so that I <can meet some goal>.

Throughout Agile Faculty, I talk about articulating your projects as epics with component stories and tasks. In chapter 6, I talk about using epics and stories to create personal goals in the mentoring process, and in chapter 7, I show readers how to (re)design a course using epics and stories directly connected to student learning goals. I’ve also been writing about the connection between user stories and student learning outcomes as well as identity. So I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the different uses for user stories, especially as goals setting tools.

In this post though, I want to talk about writing a good story. A good story hones in on identity, desire, and motivation. It is broad enough to have multiple possible ways of being resolved but narrow enough to ultimately be actionable in a realistic amount of time. Good stories also have measurable criteria for success, ways you will know you have completed the story effectively. These stories, then, are too broad:

  • As a writer, I want to write a good academic book on Scrum so that I can become a thought leader.
  • As a professor who cares about her students, I want to teach design thinking so that they can be better creative professionals.
  • As an academic entrepreneur, I want to create space for academics to find their vitality so that they can thrive.

These seem like good goals, but in reality, how would you actually accomplish these? Or ever really know if you’ve accomplished them? Could you pinpoint when you’ve become a “thought leader”? What does that even mean to you? Can you ever know if you students are “better” creative professionals in the future? You can see where I’m going here. These might be long-term goals, but in the shorter term, goals like this ultimately become too aspirational (and vague) to be actionable or measurable.

In my new year post about using stories to plan your year, I shared three big stories I had written for myself. Here’s one of those:

  • As a leader and faculty member in our Professional Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) program, I want to create a solid foundation for the new major in terms of marketing, recruiting, and prioritizing PWR so that I/we can realize our dream of a strong and vital PWR presence on campus and in students’ education.

This is an epic, part of my five-year plan; there are multiple stories within it that I can break out and down into more specific stories and actions I can take over time to reach the broader goal of a thriving new major. For example, I can create stories like these:

  • As a PWR leader and former marketing writer, I want to design marketing materials for students, parents, Admissions officers, and colleagues that distinguish our program as the liberal arts alternative to Communications and attract inquiries from at least 40 students in the first year.

I could further break this down by audience and then create tasks related to market research, strategy, messaging, products. I can judge success based on how many students reach out to PWR faculty for information or declare the major and if/when they encountered the marketing materials.

  • As a PWR faculty member with teaching and service responsibilities outside of the program, I want to devote six hours per week on reading disciplinary literature, working on my Cs grant project, and contributing to joint PWR writing projects so that I can recommit to the program and its success.

I could then break this epic down further down by reading, working, and contributing to develop actionable steps for each. Each could be assessed by number of productive hours spent, developing an ongoing lit review of new research I read, successfully publishing on my grant project, and successfully publish co-authored articles and textbook resources with my PWR colleague.

While often hard to zoom in on the level of clarity necessary for a good story – it’s so easy to add compound elements that can overcomplicate the story (I struggle with this myself as you can see) – even just acknowledging the goal might not be actionable or achievable and working to break that down further is a good starting point for writing useful goals in the user story format.

How do you set useful goals? Does the story format seem like something that might work for you as a new way of articulating meaningful goals?

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