Thursday 30 June 2016

Turning Technical Tasks Into User Stories

When working on a mature system it’s all to easy to fall into describing the work as a bunch of technical tasks. Those in the trenches that have been working on the system for years will no doubt know how to implement many of the features that come up and so what happens is that they get put on the backlog as technical stories.

Whilst in the end everything will no doubt end up as a technical task to be done by a member of the team anyway, you don’t want to get to that point too quickly. The problem with putting technical stories straight on the backlog is that it often locks the product owner out of the development process due to it’s solution oriented nature.

A common malaise in the software development industry is the weak excuse of “we’ve always done it this way”. Breaking features down into technical stories plays right into this way of thinking because there is a focus on trying to leverage the skills you already have without looking at the bigger picture first. Instead of just launching straight in you need to take a step back and survey the landscape to see if it’s changed since the last time you had a look around.


One of the things that can go out the window when you frame a story around the implementation is the ability of the product owner to prioritise. The developers, who know the ramifications of it not being done, can end up flannelling the product owner as they mistake the PO’s intent of discovering “when”, not “if” it will be done.

I remember a story at a company which basically described configuring a bunch of stuff. This was not an unusual task, the developers knew what needed doing, but the highly technical nature of the story description sat uneasily with me. So, along with the team, I tried to see if we could elevate it to a user focused story to try and eek out the essence of it.

I started by asking what would happen if this task wasn’t done. We had already identified plenty of waste elsewhere and I wanted to make sure this wasn’t also just waste. The conversation focused on the effects of the primary user (an advisor) but I eventually managed to get them to explain what it meant for the actual end user (i.e. the customer).

At this point the truth started to unfold. Firstly it became apparent that the behaviour enabled by this work might be invoked the day the feature when live, but that was highly unlikely because of the product (think warranty). Also, if it wasn’t done at go-live time the end user would still get a service, but you could consider it as a degraded level of service. There was probably even a manual way of mitigating the risk should the task not get completed before the feature went live and the unlikely scenario materialise.

At this point the light-bulb went on and the developers could now see that this work, whilst probably required in the longer term, was not essential now. What we had done by turning the technical task into a user story was unlock the product owner so that they could now evaluate the work in the context of the overall business plan and prioritise it appropriately, along with understanding the risk of later delivery.

This is a common problem when teams adopt a more agile approach. They assume that the same amount of work needs to be done, which may well be true, but at the very least the order in which it needs to be done could be radically different. Traditionally you get the product when it’s ready – all the value comes at the end – but an agile approach looks to unlock value sooner. To achieve that you need to elevate your thinking and look at the problem from the customer’s point-of-view. Essentially you need to be able to help the product owner weigh up the alternatives (“I Know the Cost but Not the Value”).

Problem Solving

The second issue I’ve noticed around the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality is that you end up with tasks that assume there is only one solution [1]. Once again it may turn out to be the eventual solution, but you owe it to yourselves to at least consider whether this time things might be different. Perhaps there are other constraints or changes that mean it’s not applicable this time around; just because we know one way of solving the problem does not imply it’s the best, or most cost-effective.

One example I had of this was a user story I saw which involved coding some help text into a system. Once again I tried to get the development team to view user stories not as an absolute specification of what to build, but more generally as a problem that needs to be solved. In particular I wanted them to start thinking about whether there were any low-tech or even non-IT related options.

During the discussion it became apparent that the primary user (once again an advisor) only needed the text whilst they were learning about the new feature, once they knew it the text would be redundant. My first suggestion was to just print the text out on some paper and leave it on their desks or stick it on the side of the monitor. When they were confident they knew it they could bin it or put it in their drawer for safe keeping.

Sadly there were some bizarre rules in place about not being allowed stuff on their desk. So instead I suggested pasting the text into an HTML page that was accessed from their desktop when they needed it. This was discarded for other reasons, but what it did do was cause someone in the team itself to mention another help system that the users accessed which was easier to update. The existence of this other, newer system, along with a whole raft of other nuggets of information about the users and the environment they worked in were unearthed through that one conversation. Consequently the team began to understand that their job was not to simply “write code” but was in fact to solve people’s problems through whichever means best satisfied the constraints.

I don’t know which solution was eventually chosen, but once again the wider conversation allowed the product owner to make a better judgement call about if, and when, it needed doing.

Training Wheels

Like so many aspects of adopting an agile development process this is just a technique, not a hard-and-fast rule. What I detected was a “smell” in each of these stories and so I made the team work hard to get to the crux of what really needing delivering. Like the classic story format “as a user, I want…” it’s all about trying to discover who wants what and why. Once you start thinking that way more naturally you can ditch the training wheels and use whatever techniques work best for the team. If you feel confident cutting-to-the-chase sometimes then do it.

[1] “There's nothing more dangerous than an idea if its the only one you have.” -- Émile Chartier

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