User Stories: Bin, Thin, or Split?

Questions to keep you focused on user story value

Consider a user story…

How does your team approach slicing it up? By far the two most common approaches I see are:

  • Cutting stories up based on their size; how much effort it will take to deliver. People estimate story size with planning poker (or whatever) and then cut up stories that are “too big”.
  • Cutting stories up into the tasks needed to implement them. Some design work, some API building, some front end work, some testing, and so on.

The problem is that the people using our product don’t care if a story is 1 or 8 points. They don’t care about what you had to do to deliver it.

They care about the value it provides them.

Which is why I encourage teams to ask these three questions about stories instead…

1. Bin: Do we have to deliver this story now?

Is this story actually important/useful enough to do now?

Bin: Do we have to deliver this story now?

What’s our evidence? Can we defer it or not do it at all? Can we do something cheaper to find out for sure if we’re unsure? Etc.

2. Thin: Can we usefully deliver less of this story?

Can we put this story on a diet? Can we do less of it and still get the majority of the value? Is there core functionality we have evidence for and secondary functionality that we do not? Can we build something smaller with a tighter focus that helps us gain confidence? Etc.

Thin: Can we usefully deliver less of this story?

(thanks to Alistair Cockburn & Jeff Patton for introducing me to the term “thinning” back in 2006 on the venerable agile-usability mailing list.)

3. Split: Is the story really two or more stories?

Is this story actually hiding multiple ways to deliver value to the customer?

Split: Is the story really two or more stories?

Is the “search” story really composed of a “default search” story and an “advanced search story? Is the “login” story really composed of a “register” story, the “login” story, and the “password recovery” story? Etc.

Ask these questions when user story mapping

These are also great questions to ask if you’re doing user story mapping:

  • Binned stories aren’t giving us immediate value, and will tend to get pushed down the user story map to a later release.
  • Thinned user stories are generally providing more value for less effort, or more essential value, and will tend to get pushed up the user story map to earlier releases.
  • Split stories allow us to talk about value at more granular level. You see some horizontal spread across the customer journey as you break down what was previously a monolithic step. The more valuable stories get pushed up. The less valuable ones get pushed down.

Moving the conversation from size & effort to value

When thinning or splitting produces new stories ask “Bin? Thin? Split?” again. Repeatedly asking these questions keeps the conversation focused on value. Keeping the conversation focused on value generates very different stories from a conversation focused on story size and implementation tasks.

Notice how none of these questions are about how much effort it takes to deliver the story or how we intend to do the work.

Asking these questions often has the side effect of producing smaller and easier to deliver stories — but the conversation they drive is all about value.

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