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How User-Centered Design Can Put User Stories in Proper Context : Page 3

User stories are a lightweight mechanism for gathering and verifying user requirements on Agile projects. Unfortunately, it is easy to lose the context of stories. Find out how techniques from user-centered design (UCD) can help avoid this problem.


Distilled User Research: Scenarios and Personas

UCD has a raft of tools and techniques for conducting user research. While the different research methods themselves are important to user-experience professionals, the key to integrating Agile and UCD is to ensure that the outputs of user research can be understood and communicated effectively within an Agile team. It is not necessary to communicate reams of research output, just the core essence.

Stephen P. Anderson summed up the essentials of experience design nicely on his poster from IA Summit 2009 (see Figure 2): "It's all about People, their Activities, and the Context of those activities."

Figure 2. Extract from Stephen P. Anderson's Poster from IA Summit 2009: This extract from the poster shows the core considerations when considering experience design.

This article focuses on two classic information radiators from UCD (scenarios and personas) that help to effectively communicate people, their activities, and the context of those activities.

Embracing scenarios and personas can help Agile teams achieve a deeper understanding of their problem domain, which will improve the quality of user stories as well as the team's ability to implement them.

Communicating People's Usage Using Personas

The use of personas as a technique was popularized by Alan Cooper in his 1999 book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. They are a very effective way of succinctly communicating research about the people who use your software. A persona typically includes a name and a picture. It often includes poignant quotes from user research as well as basic demographic information. Personas communicate common attitudes, frustrations, behaviors, and pain-points for a particular user group, all in an easily digestible and instantly accessible one-page poster. A persona is perfect for communicating a particular user archetype.

The main advantage of personas over more traditional methods of communicating about users is that they allow the team to develop real empathy with the user group. The picture and name help to put a human face to what could otherwise be treated as a list of demographic requirements (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Example Persona: The main advantage of personas is that they allow the team to develop real empathy with the user group.

Communicating Context and Activities Using Scenarios

Scenarios are a way of helping to develop a detailed understanding of context and activities. They provide a framework for validating solutions against product requirements by bringing a "real world" activity-level description of the motivation and events that trigger tasks, as well as the users' flow as they move to achieve their goal. They can be documented as comics or concise narrative descriptions (see Figure 4), but they are best communicated verbally through role-play! Like personas, scenarios are created by aggregating and distilling insights from user research and analysis.

Scenarios focus on revealing the activities, blocks, touch points, mitigating circumstances, and interactions for a persona attempting to achieve a goal. They are an instantiation of a typical way that external forces might impact a user. The scenario storyline provides detailed context, which teams can use as a framework for exploring and experiencing the world from the user's perspective. The storyline serves to focus their thinking and challenge their preconceived notions.

Figure 4. Example Scenario Comic: Scenarios can be documented as comics or concise narrative descriptions.

Walking through or role-playing a scenario for a persona helps develop an understanding of when, where, and under what circumstances a user might need assistance in achieving a goal. Scenarios help to clarify the interplay between the persona and other systems, people, or organizational areas when the persona seeks this assistance. This helps teams keep focused on being effective within the context of the problem.

Building Solutions in Context

It is easy to recognize the benefits of user stories that follow I.N.V.E.S.T. Small and independent user stories encourage parallelism and maximize development throughput. However, without a shared understanding of the people involved, their activities, and the contexts of use, software development runs the risk of delivering value in a piecemeal fashion.

Supplementing user stories with distilled user research communicated through personas and scenarios will help Agile teams design software solutions that address the overarching experience as well as the specific user story.

Jon Dickinson is the principal consultant at Accolade Consulting. He focuses on helping organizations improve the software they deliver through agile development techniques.
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