An open book, representing the user story.
The User Story: What It Is and How It’s Used
An open book, representing the user story.

The User Story: What It Is and How It’s Used

Once upon a time, a potential customer was trying to make sense of a new tool. But the features were explained in such a strange way, and the content about them was so poorly organized that they had no idea what they were supposed to do. This probably happened because the team working on this new tool didn’t have a good grasp on the concept of a user story.

When you haven’t spent the time trying to figure this out, you’re working in the dark. Read on to shine some light on what a user story is, along with a few examples you’ll recognize.

A quick user story definition

A user story is what you get when you take a complicated customer experience and distill it into a simpler version. In its simplest form, the user story is a single statement that looks like this:

As a [type of user], I want to [action] so that [benefit].

That’s the basics. It starts with figuring out who your potential user is, what they want to do, and what they’ll get out of it. That last part is especially important. It’s easy to get caught up in what you want users to get out of your product, but the user story forces you to focus back on what they expect to get out of the transaction.

Of course, a user story will rarely stay this basic for long. Often, insights from user interviews and customer feedback may get added to it. But at its core, it’s about identifying a user’s who, what, and why.

User stories are the building blocks on which agile teams draft their product roadmap and plan out initiatives. Everything from new features to prioritizing bug fixes can benefit from a well-crafted story.

User story examples and how to write one

Now that you know what a user story is, it’s important to know what it’s like in the wild. While it will vary greatly depending on the industry you’re in, it will generally follow a similar template. That said, there are six key things to keep in mind when actually writing a user story, so that it serves as an effective launchpad for your organization’s initiatives. A great user story follows the acronym INVEST:

  • Independent: No duplicates.
  • Negotiable: A user story shouldn’t be so rigid that there’s only one way to deal with it.
  • Valuable (or vertical): Does the story bring value to your organization?
  • Estimable: You need to be able to estimate how much work will go into it.
  • Small: User stories shouldn’t encapsulate so much work that they take multiple sprints to get done.
  • Testable: You have to be able to test a user story. If it’s too broad or abstract, it’s impossible to confirm that it’s appropriate to your product.

Keeping these six elements in mind will help you craft a killer user story every time. Now what’s a good user story example? Here are a few for some brands you might have heard of:

  • Airbnb: As a condo-owner, I want to rent out my spare-room so that I can make some extra cash.
  • Onedrive: As an average computer user, I want a simple way to back up my files so I don’t lose anything if my computer crashes.
  • Hellofresh: As an environmentally-conscious person, I want my meal-kit to be locally-sourced so I can stop worrying about how my diet is affecting the environment.
  • Unito: As a project manager, I want an easy way to keep up on what different collaborators are working on so I don’t have to keep switching tools.
  • Slack: As a manager, I want the ability to organize my team’s communications so I can quickly get updates on different projects.

Some of these user stories are broader than others, but see how they all follow the same general template? No matter your product or service, a good user story can give you a deeper understanding of the people who might want to use your product — and how they’ll use it.

What is user story mapping?

User story mapping is what happens when you level up your user stories. Instead of sticking with bite-sized statements that cover a user’s perspective, you’re creating a whole journey. User story mapping involves asking yourself how a potential user becomes aware of your product or service, what marketing they’re exposed to, and how they’re interacting with your offering. That last step often includes a hard focus on any free trial period you might offer but also accounts for how users take advantage of your offering after they buy.

Taking time to map out a user’s journey helps you direct your efforts. You can map a particular marketing campaign or a new product feature to a customer journey. This helps you answer questions like “how do we introduce this,” “how does this help a particular user,” and so on.

Here’s an example of how Unito might turn a user story into a journey. Remember the one above: “As a project manager, I want an easy way to keep up on what different collaborators are working on so I don’t have to keep switching tools.” Now here are the steps of that same user’s journey:

  1. Finding the tool: The project manager comes across Unito through a Facebook ad.
  2. Making the decision: The project manager reads blog content, watches videos, and consults the Help Center.
  3. Starting their trial: The project manager builds their first workflow. They consult the Help Center and are exposed to pop-ups instructing them on Unito’s use.
  4. Conversion: The project manager consults Unito’s plans and makes a purchase decision.
  5. Ongoing use: The project manager might integrate new tools, create additional flows, and invite more users to their workspace as Unito spreads throughout their organization.

This is a very simplified journey, but you can already see how initiatives across all teams can be mapped to each step. That’s the power of a user story. It not only gives you a better understanding of your user’s perspective, it’s also a starting point to audit and improve everything you work on.

Once upon a time…

All your efforts begin and end with your users. You need to know what they think about your tool, what problem they’re trying to solve, and how they think it needs to happen. The user story is the best way to encapsulate all that information in a way that’s communicable and iterable. Try coming up with your own user stories; you’ll be surprised by how much you’ll learn.