Category Archives: Product Management

Why user stories make sense?

User story is a popular mechanism used by most agile methodologies to communicate user requirements. Actually, this is only partially true. User stories are meant to be a placeholder to initiate an early conversation between the product owner and the team on key hypotheses so that a quick validation of them could be done to refine/confirm/reject our understanding of what the customer really wants. To that end, user stories are not anything like the requirements of yesterday – they are not even remotely meant to be complete/comprehensive and so on. 

The reason user stories (and not ‘well-formed’ requirements, if that is ever possible) makes sense is because we human beings are not experts in following the written word, and are likely to misinterpret requirements even when they are explicitly written down, especially when the communication is a one-time event and not an ongoing process. (if you don’t believe this, just visit this interesting site http://www.cakewrecks.com/ that celebrates real-life examples of how something as simple as icing on the cake can go horribly wrong despite really simple and absolutely clear instructions!). And we are talking about building complex mission-critical systems that must operate 24/7 with top speed and efficiency. If only the written word could be consistently understood by the receiver as intended by its author… 

On the other hand, if there is a continuous two-way dialog between the product owner and the agile team, such purposeful brevity leads to curiosity which then leads to a constantly improving and better shared understanding that refines as the product gets developed incrementally and gets periodic user feedback. 

User stories reflect the reality that we might not have 100% clarity about the requirements on day one, but with constant dialog, we might be able to improve our shared understanding of customer's wants and needs.

User stories reflect the reality that we might not have 100% clarity about the requirements on day one, but with constant dialog, we might be able to improve our shared understanding of customer’s wants and needs.

The key benefit of user stories is that instead of waiting for weeks (even months!) to get a fully-bloated and rather unprioritized PRD which is supposed to have fully-baked requirements while the development team sits idle all this time, is that identifying highest priority user stories and using them  to develop a prioritized product backlog allows the teams to get started much earlier and start developing features which could then be put out in front of customers to get real feedback (as opposed to individual ‘opinions’ that might/not best guide us in an uncertain environment). This is especially important because in the past, when the world was little less complex and much more underserved. I purposefully use this term ‘underserved’ because it is not that people have suddenly become much more demanding about what they like or not, but were just told there were exactly three carmakers to choose from, or just two operating systems to choose from, and so on. However, with rapid advancement of computing paradigms and constantly lowering cost of ubiquitous communication devices, they suddenly have the opportunity to demand what they want, and hence classical ‘forecast’ models of requirements elicitation, design or production (at least in the manufacturing sense) don’t work so effectively as much as the newer ‘feedback’ driven models that allow for developing key hypotheses (and not hard requirements carved in stone) which could then be quickly and cheaply delivered as ‘done’ features so that customers could tell us if they like them or not. Based on such valuable customer feedback, the team could iterate to either refine the feature, or to pivot, as the case might be. In the past, this might take the entire product gestation cycle, by which time, many, if not most, things might have undergone significant changes, and the entire development costs being sunk by that time, not to mention complete loss of any window of opportunity.

As Facebook says – Done is better than perfect. User stories allows developing a small slice of the product without really perfecting the entire product, but facilitates the process of validated learning that eventually helps develop a product with much higher chances of meeting customer needs.

In today’s world, you probably might not have the luxury of having investors wait multiple years for an exit, or customer waiting several quarters for a perfect product when the competition is willing to serve them faster (even letting them lay their hands on an earlier version and give feedback thus making customers a co-creator of the product), or employees working month after month without getting any meaningful feedback from customers. And we know that absence of any feedback eventually leads to erosion of trust. Incremental product development could help you bridge such trust deficit by delivering highest value to customers early and periodically, and user stories might help you get your project a quickstart.

Seeking submissions on New Product Development and Product Management in Agile world for #AgileIndia2012

Agile Alliance has announced Agile India 2012 in Bangalore, India in Feb 2012. First of all, Naresh deserves kudos for all his untiring efforts last several years bringing up and building a robust multi-city agile software community in India, and deserves all congratulations bringing the flagship Agile conference to India. As the Chair for Agile India 2012, we couldn’t have had anyone better than Naresh to lead this.

AgileIndia2012 comes to Bangalore, India in Feb 2012
AgileIndia2012 comes to Bangalore, India in Feb 2012

I had proposed the stage on Agile for New Product Development (NPD). Annu Augustine (@annua) proposed a stage on Product Management in Agile world. The organizing team proposed merging these two and we all agreed that was a great idea to create a stage on “New Product Development and Product Management in Agile world”. I believe the time is ripe to elevate agile thought process outside the software development team and apply it to the big picture – the end to end product development. We often see significant ‘productivity’ claims from software teams adopting agile practices. However, there are several other key functions involved in product development – product management, user design, marketing, sales, technical documentation, beta programs, manufacturing (at least for systems companies), and so on. If software team optimizes its software process, it is good. However, it is necessary but not sufficient to achieve end-to-end agility. If rest of the organization doesn’t change its thought process, we just end up moving the ‘constraint’ from software development to something else, and the true gains of agility might not get realized at the organization level.

In this stage, we are now seeking perspectives, experiences, insights and groundbreaking ideas from practitioners and thinkers on how they have applied the spirit of agility to create new products that have led to unprecedented and extraordinary market success compared to their previous conventional practices. Specifically, we are looking for proofpoints from the marketplace to demonstrate how software team’s agility was directly visible in business results. We want to know what you learnt from your experiences applying agility at every step of the new product development to create customer delight experiences. We want to know how did you manage to crash your time to market to deliver innovative solutions that delighted your customers, or made significant impact to their topline.

We are still working on setting up the infrastructure for submitting the ideas, but in true agile letter and spirit, we want to evolve this stage as we go. Write back to Annu or me to share your views and ideas so that we can co-evolve this stage. We want to dogfood the spirit of this session by incorporating your feedback to make this stage more useful to everyone. You can find more details on Agile India 2012 here.

Interest to submit a proposal? Click here.

Let’s get going…