Stories act as a ‘pidgin language,’ where both sides (users and developers) can agree enough to work together effectively.
—Bill Wake, co-inventor of Extreme Programming
Stories are short descriptions of a small piece of desired functionality written from the user’s perspective.
Stories are short descriptions of a small piece of desired functionality written from the user’s perspective.Agile Teams implement stories as small, vertical slices of system functionality that can be completed in a few days or less.
Stories are the primary artifact used to define system behavior in Agile. They are short, simple descriptions of functionality told from the user’s perspective and written in their language. Each implements a small, vertical slice of system behavior.
Stories provide just enough information for business and technical people to understand the intent. Details are deferred until the story is ready to be implemented. Through acceptance criteria and acceptance tests, stories get more specific, helping to ensure system quality.
User stories deliver functionality directly to the end user. Enabler stories bring visibility to the work items needed to support exploration, architecture, infrastructure, and compliance.
SAFe describes a four-tier hierarchy of artifacts that outline functional system behavior: Epic, Capability, Feature, and Story. Collectively, these artifacts are used to describe the solution’s intended behavior. The detailed implementation work is expressed through stories, which comprise the Team Backlog. Some stories emerge from business and enabler features in the ART Backlog, while others come from the team’s local context.
Each story is a small, independent behavior that can be implemented incrementally and provides some value to the user or the Solution. It’s a vertical slice of functionality to ensure that every Iteration delivers new value. Stories are small and must be completed in a single iteration (see the splitting stories section).
Often, stories are first written on an index card or sticky note. The physical nature of the card creates a tangible relationship between the team, the story, and the user: it helps engage the entire team in story writing. Sticky notes also offer other benefits: they help visualize work and can be readily placed on a wall or table, rearranged in sequence, and even passed off when necessary. Stories allow an improved understanding of the scope and progress:
- “Wow, look at all these stories we are about to sign up for” (scope)
- “Look at all the stories we accomplished in this iteration” (progress)
While anyone can write stories, approving them into the team backlog and accepting them into the system baseline are the Product Owner’s responsibility. Of course, stickies don’t scale well across the Enterprise, so stories often move quickly into Agile Lifecycle Management (ALM) tooling.
There are two types of stories in SAFe, user stories and enabler stories, as described below.
Sources of Stories
Stories are typically driven by splitting business and enabler features, as Figure 1 illustrates.
User stories are the primary means of expressing needed functionality. They essentially replace the traditional requirements specification. In some cases, however, they serve as a means to explain and develop system behavior later recorded in specifications supporting compliance, suppliers, traceability, or other needs.
Because they focus on the user as the subject of interest and not the system, user stories are value and customer-centric. To support this, the recommended form of expression is the ‘user-voice form,’ as follows:
As a (user role), I want to (activity) so that (business value)
By using this format, the teams are guided to understand who is using the system, what they are doing with it, and why they are doing it. Applying the ‘user voice’ format routinely tends to increase the team’s domain competence; they come to better understand the real business needs of their user. Figure 2 provides an example.
As described in Design Thinking, personas describe specific characteristics of representative users that help teams better understand their end user. Example personas for the rider in Figure 2 could be a thrill-seeker ‘Jane’ and a timid rider ‘Bob.’ Stories descriptions can then reference these personas (As Jane I want…).
While the user story voice is typical, not every system interacts with an end user. Sometimes the ‘user’ is a device (for example, printer) or a system (for example, transaction server). In these cases, the story can take on the form illustrated in Figure 3.
Teams also develop the new architecture and infrastructure needed to implement new user stories. In this case, the story may not directly touch any end user. Teams use ‘enabler stories’ to support exploration, architecture, or infrastructure. Enabler stories can be expressed in technical rather than user-centric language, as Figure 4 illustrates.
There are many other types of Enabler stories, including:
- Refactoring and Spikes (as traditionally defined in XP)
- Building or improving development/deployment infrastructure
- Running jobs that require human interaction (for example, indexing 1 million web pages)
- Creating the required product or component configurations for different purposes
- Verification of system qualities (for example, performance and vulnerability testing)
Enabler stories are demonstrated just like user stories, typically by showing the knowledge gained, artifacts produced, or the user interface, stub, or mock-up.
Writing Good Stories
Good stories require multiple perspectives. In Agile, the entire team creates a shared understanding of what to build to reduce rework and increase throughput. Teams collaborate using Behavior-Driven Development (BDD) to define detailed acceptance tests that definitively describe each story.
Collaborative story writing ensures all perspectives are addressed, and everyone agrees on the story’s behavior with the results represented in the story’s description, acceptance criteria, and acceptance tests. The acceptance tests are written using the system’s domain language using BDD. BDD tests are then automated and run continuously to maintain Built-In Quality. The BDD tests are written against system requirements (stories) and, therefore, can be used as the definitive statement for the system’s behavior, replacing document-based specifications.
The 3Cs: Card, Conversation, Confirmation
Ron Jeffries, one of the inventors of XP, is credited with describing the 3Cs of a story:
- Card – Captures the user story’s statement of intent using an index card, sticky note, or tool. Index cards provide a physical relationship between the team and the story. The card size physically limits story length and premature suggestions for the specificity of system behavior. Cards also help the team ‘feel’ upcoming scope, as there is something materially different about holding ten cards in one’s hand versus looking at ten lines on a spreadsheet.
- Conversation – Represents a “promise for a conversation” about the story between the team, customer (or the customer’s proxy), the PO (who may be representing the customer), and other stakeholders. The discussion is necessary to determine the more detailed behavior required to implement the intent. The conversation may spawn additional specificity in the form of acceptance criteria (the confirmation below) or attachments to the user story. The conversation spans all steps in the story’s life cycle:
- Backlog refinement
These just-in-time discussions create a shared understanding of the scope that formal documentation cannot provide. Specification by example replaces detailed documentation. Conversations also help uncover gaps in user scenarios and NFRs.
- Confirmation – The acceptance criteria provide the information needed to ensure that the story is implemented correctly and covers the relevant functional and NFRs. Figure 5 provides an example. Some teams often use the confirmation section of the story card to write down what they will demo.
Agile Teams automate acceptance tests wherever possible, often in business-readable, domain-specific language. Automation creates an executable specification to validate and verify the solution. Automation also provides the ability to quickly regression-test the system, enhancing Continuous Integration, refactoring, and maintenance.
Investing in Good Stories
Agile teams spend significant time discovering, elaborating, and understanding user stories and writing acceptance tests. This is as it should be, because it represents the fact that:
Writing the code for an understood objective is not necessarily the most challenging part of software development.
Instead, it is understanding the real objective of the code. Therefore, investing in good user stories, albeit at the last responsible moment, is a worthy effort for the team. Bill Wake coined the acronym INVEST  to describe the attributes of a good user story.
- I – Independent (among other stories)
- N – Negotiable (a flexible statement of intent, not a contract)
- V – Valuable (providing a valuable vertical slice to the customer)
- E – Estimable (small and negotiable)
- S – Small (fits within an iteration)
- T – Testable (understood enough to know how to test it)
Splitting Good Stories
Smaller stories allow faster, more reliable implementation since small items flow through any system faster, with less variability and reduced risk. Therefore, splitting bigger stories into smaller ones is a mandatory skill for every Agile team. It’s both the art and the science of incremental development. Agile Software Requirements describes ten ways to split stories . A summary of these techniques follows:
- Workflow steps
- Business rule variations
- Major effort
- Variations in data
- Data entry methods
- Deferred system qualities
- Operations (ex., Create, Read, Update, Delete [CRUD])
- Use-case scenarios
- Break-out spike
Figure 6 illustrates an example of splitting by use-case scenarios.
Agile teams use story points and ‘estimating poker’ to value their work [1, 2]. A story point is a singular number that represents a combination of qualities:
- Volume – How much is there?
- Complexity – How hard is it?
- Knowledge – What’s known?
- Uncertainty – What’s unknown?
Story points are relative, without a connection to any specific unit of measure. Each story’s size (effort) is estimated relative to the smallest story, which is assigned a size of ‘one.’ A modified Fibonacci sequence (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 20, 40, 100)  is applied that reflects the inherent uncertainty in estimating, especially large numbers (for example, 20, 40, 100).
Agile teams often use ‘estimating poker,’ which combines expert opinion, analogy, and disaggregation to create quick but reliable estimates. Disaggregation refers to splitting a story or feature into smaller, easier-to-estimate pieces.
(Note that there are several other methods used as well.) The rules of estimating poker are:
- Participants include all team members
- Each estimator is given a deck of cards containing the modified Fibonacci sequence
- The PO participates but does not estimate
- The Scrum Master/Team Coach participates but does not estimate unless they are doing actual development work
- For each backlog item to be estimated, the PO reads the story’s description
- Questions are asked and answered
- Each estimator privately selects an estimating card representing their estimate
- All cards are turned over at the same time to avoid bias and to make all estimates visible
- High and low estimators explain their estimates
- After a discussion, each estimator re-estimates by selecting a card
- The estimates will likely converge; if not, the process is repeated
Some amount of preliminary design discussion is appropriate. However, spending too much time on design discussions is often a wasted effort. The real value of estimating poker is agreeing on a story’s scope. It’s also fun!
The team’s velocity for an iteration is equal to the sum of the points for all the completed stories that met their definition of done (DoD). As the team works together over time, their average velocity (completed story points per iteration) becomes reliable and predictable. Predictable velocity assists with planning and helps limit Work in Process (WIP), as teams don’t take on more stories than their historical velocity would allow. This measure also estimates how long it takes to deliver epics, features, capabilities, and enablers, which are also forecasted using story points.
Capacity is the portion of the team’s velocity that is available for any given iteration. Vacations, training, and other events can make team members unavailable to contribute to an iteration’s goals for some portion of the iteration. This decreases the maximum potential velocity for that team for that iteration. For example, a team that averages 40 points delivered per iteration would adjust their maximum velocity down to 36 if a team member is on vacation for one week. Knowing this in advance, the team only commits to a maximum of 36 story points during iteration planning. This also helps during PI Planning to forecast the actual available capacity for each iteration in the PI, so the team doesn’t over-commit when building their PI Objectives.
Starting Baseline for Estimation
In standard Scrum, each team’s story point estimating—and the resulting velocity—is a local and independent concern. At scale, it becomes difficult to predict the story point size for larger epics and features when team velocities vary wildly. To overcome this, SAFe teams initially calibrate a starting story point baseline where one story point is defined roughly the same across all teams. There is no need to recalibrate team estimation or velocity. Calibration is performed one time when launching new Agile Release Trains.
Normalized story points provide a method for getting to an agreed starting baseline for stories and velocity as follows:
- Give every developer-tester on the team eight points for a two-week iteration (one point for each ideal workday, subtracting two days for general overhead).
- Subtract one point for every team member’s vacation day and holiday.
- Find a small story that would take about a half-day to code and a half-day to test and validate. Call it a ‘one.’
- Estimate every other story relative to that ‘one.’
Example: Assuming a six-person team composed of three developers, two testers, and one PO, with no vacations or holidays, then the estimated initial velocity = 5 × 8 points = 40 points/iteration. (Note: Adjusting slightly lower may be necessary if one of the developers and testers is also the Scrum Master/Team Coach.)
In this way, story points are somewhat comparable across teams. Management can better understand the cost for a story point and more accurately determine the cost of an upcoming feature or epic.
While teams will tend to increase their velocity over time—and that’s a good thing— in reality, the number tends to remain stable. A team’s velocity is far more affected by changing team size and technical context than by productivity variations.
Note: SAFe Team Kanban teams typically spend less time estimating stories than scrum teams do. In the Kanban flow-based model, work items or stories are typically split and sized so that the team can generally deliver a story within a few days. In the context of SAFe where teams need to participate in iteration planning and assign stories to future iterations, some notion of sizing is required.
SAFe Kanban teams may initially use estimating poker or a similar mechanism to size their stories. More likely, however, they develop a sense of breaking work into stories that are similar in size, as that assists flow in general and assures that no large story blocks other stories that also need to make their way through the Kanban system. As they understand their velocity, they are able to understand how many stories they can deliver in a unit of time, allowing them to place stories in iterations during PI Planning and to be able to make commitments to other teams as to when specific stories would be available.
For teams doing regular maintenance and support activities, estimating their normal backlog items often has less value. In many cases, these teams do not estimate this type of response work. However, all teams have retro items, potential improvements to their CD pipeline, and other significant tasks that require attention, scheduling, and estimating.
Learn More Leffingwell, Dean. Agile Software Requirements: Lean Requirements Practices for Teams, Programs, and the Enterprise. Addison-Wesley, 2011.  Cohn, Mike. User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development. Addison-Wesley, 2004.
Last update: 7 December 2022