New and Improved User Story Lifeycle Diagram — Free Creative Commons PDF download!

I had a designer friend update my User Story Lifecycle diagram, and she did a fantastic job!  You can download the PDF here:

New and Improved Diagram:


The Older Diagram(also still available at the above link):


Other Good User Story Links

A Visual Diagram of the User Story Life Cycle

This blog post is now deprecated.  Please see the new updated blog post:


My Preferred Agile, Scrum, and XP Resources

If you’re printing this post, it can be found online at:

A friend recently asked me this question:

What would you recommend in terms of the best book(s) to learn about Agile (Scrum) with XP practices? That is, if you had a team of developers who were newbies to Agile, Scrum, and XP, what books/articles would you give them to bring them up to speed on what they should be doing and how they should be doing it?

This question from my friend is a very tricky one, in that it is very broad and generic, and my friend gave me no extra team or organizational context to go on, so about all I can do is give a generic answer, and that is what I’ve done below. If you’re looking to combine Scrum with XP practices, be sure and see Kniberg’s book under “Scrum” below.

Don’t have time to read all of these? Well then, read the first couple from each category, and then continue working your way down each list.

My Preferred Resources

All are in order of my personal preference in each category.


  1. The Scrum Guide (Must read for all)
  2. Deemer, et al. “The Scrum Primer”
  3. Cohn’s _Agile Estimating and Planning_ (Must read for Scrum Masters)
  4. Pichler’s _Agile Product Management…_ (Must read for Product Owners)
  5. Cohn’s _Succeeding With Agile…_ (Must read for Scrum Masters once they have a few Sprints under their belts)
  6. Kniberg’s _Scrum and XP From the Trenches_ (Note that there is a free PDF download of this book if you register with InfoQ – something I recommend anyway)
  7. Derby/Larsen’s _Agile Retrospectives_

XP (Extreme Programming)

  1. Jeffries’ “What is Extreme Programming?”
  2. Jeffries’ _Extreme Programming Installed_
  3. Koskela’s _Test Driven…_
  4. Martin’s _Clean Code_
  5. Feathers’ _Working Effectively With Legacy Code_
  6. “The Rules of Extreme Programming”
  7. Wiki entry on XP Practices

Agile/XP Testing

  1. Summary of Lisa Crispin’s Presentation to Agile Denver on Test Automation
  2. Cripin’s “Using the Agile Testing Quadrants”
  3. Crispin/Gregory’s _Agile Testing_
  4. Crispin/House’s _Testing Extreme Programming_
  5. Cohn’s “The Forgotten Layer of the Test Automation Pyramid”
  6. Osherove’s _The Art of Unit Testing_

User Stories (which originated in XP)

  1. My “User Story Basics” article and all of the links at the bottom of that article
  2. Cohn’s _User Stories Applied_
  3. Cohn’s _Agile Estimating and Planning…_ (Chapter 12: Splitting User Stories)
  4. Lawrence’s “Patterns for Splitting User Stories”

Special Agile Topics (if applicable)

  1. Deemer’s “The Distributed Scrum Primer” (If some of all your team is remotely distributed)
  2. My article entitled “The Role of Managers In Scrum” and all of the links at the bottom of that article
  3. Larman/Vodde’s _Scaling Lean Agile…_ (If your Agile transformation involves a very large organization)

User Story Basics – What is a User Story?

What is a User Story? I’m glad you asked!

First of all, it’s important to say that User Stories are not a part of Scrum as defined in the required practices in the Scrum Guide. User Stories are but one way to represent Product Backlog Items in Scrum, and while it is the most popular method used, it is not the only method. Still, though, I would like to remind you that the User Stories practice is totally independent of Scrum, and thus it is not defined by Scrum. As such, everything else in this post is about the User Story practice and not Scrum itself.

Beware the common misconception!

There is a common misconception in the industry that a User Story is a sentence like:

  • As a <user> I want <some functionality> so that <some benefit is realized>.

THIS IS NOT A USER STORY!!! This is the biggest User Story trap in existence! See Trap#1 and #8 of my article on User Story Traps.

What is a User Story?

A user story describes functionality of a system that will be valuable to a Non Development Team(NDT) stakeholder of a system or software. User stories are composed of three aspects:

  • a written description or short title of the story used as a token for planning and as a reminder to have conversations
  • conversations about the story that serve to flesh out the details of the story
  • acceptance tests that convey and document details and that can be used to determine when a story is complete


What do they mean by Acceptance Tests?

Typically, in the context of a User Story definition, we mean tests that are represented by conversations, textual descriptions, tables, diagrams, automated tests, and so forth. When these Acceptance Tests are applied to the completed, implemented User Story, all of the tests should pass, and will thus prove that the story has been implemented correctly. If some functionality was not covered in a User Story acceptance test, then it wasn’t a requirement for that particular User Story.

Technically, in the context of a User Story definition, an acceptance test need not be automated or implemented. At the minimum, it should be described conceptually. The test should then be executed in order to prove the story and get acceptance, whether that be a manual or automated process. If your conceptual acceptance tests are described by one or more automated tests, then that is generally a much better practice, but not absolutely required.

Acceptance Tests should be automatable about 90+% of the time, though again, it is not required that they be automated. Having said all of that, when teams strive for development speed and quality, very few get far along that road without automating a large portion of their acceptance tests.

Acceptance Tests, in the context of User Stories, are also sometimes called Story Tests, Acceptance Criteria, Conditions of Satisfaction, and Test Confirmations.

Ron Jeffries, one of the co-inventors of User Stories and Extreme Programming (where the User Story practice comes from), has a good article that also describes User Stories in a basic way.

When do these Conversations and Acceptance Tests get created?

Typically, this happens in weekly Product Backlog grooming(also known as a Story Writing Workshop, Story Grooming, etc) sessions, but can also happen informally. The most effective backlog grooming includes some stakeholder/user representatives, the entire development team, and a Product Owner (Scrum) or Customer(XP). These sessions happen weekly and usually last 1-2 hours each. The goal of the sessions is to get stories that are “ready”, meaning the team has a shared understanding of the Acceptance Tests, and has the vast majority of the information they need to implement(code) the feature. See What does Product Backlog Grooming Look Like? for more on that topic. Keep in mind that sometimes a single User Story will be discussed in 2-3 grooming sessions before it is “ready”, especially if there are open questions or complex logic involved.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I use a User Story to represent bugs/defects in a system?
The short answer is “it depends.” If it is a legacy or deferred bug, then yes, and it should end up on the Product Backlog(story points assigned). If it is a bug that was introduced since Scrum/Agile was put in place, then no, and it should end up on the Sprint Backlog(no story points assigned). See One way to handle Bugs and Production Support in Scrum for the longer answer.

Where do I get more info?

Story Testing Patterns – My Recent Presentation at Mile High Agile

You can now find my recent presentation(along with all the handouts, etc), “Story Testing Patterns” on my website here:

Feel free to add any comments here on my blog.


Scrum Guide 2011 – Backlog Grooming as a Required Practice


In my previous article, I give an overview of some of the interesting changes incorporated into the 2011 Scrum Guide. One of the most interesting changes in my view is the inclusion of Backlog Grooming as a required practice. In my Scrum coaching experiences, the one practice that seems to help beginner Scrum teams the most is backlog grooming. In some cases, the practice itself makes many PO related obstacles highly transparent, but transparency is what we want!


Backlog Grooming: The Red Headed Step-Practice.

I think that many beginner Scrum teams have trouble deciding on how best to transition to Scrum. They focus so much on the major practices (Product Backlog, Planning, Review, Retrospective), that they don’t realize that backlog grooming can ease some serious Sprint pain. This idea that the Sprint Planning Meeting is the first time we hear about all new backlog items is absolute nonsense, but that’s how the pre 2011 Scrum Guide read to a lot of people. Will there be late breaking backlog items that might be presented for the first time at the planning meeting? Yes, but it should be rare to very rare.


Third Time’s the charm…

I’ve found that most teams seem to have the highest productivity on implementing a backlog item when they’ve had a chance to discuss the item 3 times, with the 3rd time usually being the Sprint Planning Meeting for the Sprint in which it will be implemented. Each time a backlog item is discussed(with the whole Scrum team present), it is decomposed a little further and open questions and risks are identified. In between these three discussions, people should take action items to answer these questions and mitigate the risks. These action items are ones that often take days in duration to answer, for whatever reason (answers from stakeholders, technical deep thought and investigation, etc), but don’t take a lot of effort for each action item. Throwing all of these action items into a 2-4 week sprint means you’re putting these long duration tasks onto the critical path, and that’s just not productive.


My Coaching Style for New Teams

When I coach a team that is just beginning Scrum, I actually start with backlog grooming first. I usually pick a point on the horizon 2-3 weeks out and say: “Sprint 1 will start on date X, and between now and then, I want you to continue working how you have been working, except that we’ll have a few training sessions between now and Sprint 1 so that we can hit the ground running(or “Sprinting,” if you prefer). Much of the time in those training sessions is focused on good backlog grooming techniques (and usually User Stories and Story Testing). It all starts with requirements!


Experienced Scrum Teams are Not Immune

Other non beginner Scrum teams also never seem to get to the point where they do backlog grooming well. I think many Scrum teams plateau when it comes to implementing Scrum, and this is really unfortunate. As Jeff Sutherland suggests in the Enhanced Nokia Test (aka “The ScrumBut Test”), the huge productivity gains for Scrum teams are in the last mile of implementing Scrum. If a team never gets to that last mile, then the high productivity promised by Scrum is never achieved. If your team wants to get highly productive, then your team needs to get really good at backlog grooming.


In My Ideal World…

In my ideal world, a team will first see a backlog item at a high level in a Release or other high level planning meeting. They will then dive deep into the item during a backlog grooming session near the beginning of the Sprint before its most likely implementation, identifying requirement and technical risks, logic questions, and other things that get in the way of fully decomposing the item into acceptance (or story) tests. Then, the item might be lightly touched on outside the grooming when unknowns become known, or maybe again in a grooming session a few days before the next Sprint. Then, at the Sprint Planning meeting, there are only very minor unknowns about the item, and the team is well versed on what is trying to be accomplished by the item. Knowing what work will need to be done for the item means the team can better plan their work for the Sprint. They can front load risks, parallelize efforts (automating the acceptance tests is a good parallel effort), and visualize the critical path for this and other items.


Where to Find Out More

I’ve written a series of articles on Backlog Grooming. <shameless plug> I haven’t updated them for the 2011 Scrum Guide yet, but nothing much about the 2011 Scrum Guide changed the practice itself, so probably 97+% of the material is still applicable.


For my articles on Backlog Grooming, see:

Tips for Effective Backlog Grooming – Part 3

Tip #8: Assign action items for any big risks or unknowns

For big requirements issues, this probably means assigning the issue to the PO. For big technology risks or unknowns, this means assigning a dev team member to research the issue at hand. The person assigned should be ready to report on the action item at or before the next grooming meeting or definitely before or at the Sprint Planning Meeting. This will usually involve re-estimating the item based on the new information — and that’s perfectly acceptable.

Tip #9: Remember that backlog items (and/or User Stories) are a collaboration between the PO and the team

The final responsibility for making sure the PBI’s are adequately detailed for the development team’s use falls on the Product Owner. However, don’t take that to mean it’s the PO’s job to do all that work. The items should be the results of a collaboration between the PO and the team(and also probably between the PO and the customers or end users). It is perfectly acceptable, and in fact encouraged, that the PO meet with 1, 2, or all members of the team to help detail a PBI, prior to a grooming session (what I call “informal backlog grooming”). Schedule meetings or have spontaneous collaborations as necessary, with the end goal being a well thought out, well detailed PBI when it is presented at a backlog grooming session. It is very atypical for a PBI to be one that is new to every single developer at a backlog grooming session. If this happens, consider it a bad smell and try to get developers involved earlier.

Tip #10: Remind the dev team to review the PBI’s to be discussed about 24 hours prior to the grooming session.

If your PBI’s are documented in any way before a backlog grooming session (such as on a wiki or on index cards), send a reminder to the dev team to review them so they are prepared to speak intelligently about them.

If the PO is making lots of last minute edits right up until the grooming session, much of the information will be seen for the first time in the meeting, which can make the meeting last longer. Ideally, the PO should target their editing efforts at being ready 24 hours prior to the backlog grooming session.

Tip #11: Feel free to split PBI’s during this meeting.

If anyone on the Scrum team feels the need to split items, during a grooming session is a perfect time to do it. You’ll probably want to re-estimate them too, and that’s fine. I hope it also goes without saying that if you split an 8 point PBI there should be no emphasis on making sure that the split out PBI’s all up to do 8 points. Just re-estimate them as if they were new, independent, PBI’s.

Tip #12: Optimize your time in the meeting.

For PBI’s that are well defined, just discuss and quickly estimate. For PBI’s that have already been discussed in a previous grooming session, you only really need to revisit them if there is new information about them. For PBI’s where there is new information, just discuss the new information enough to be able to give a new estimate.

Tip #13: Don’t be afraid to discuss a couple of items that are farther down the backlog

Sometimes there will be a need to discuss a backlog item that is further down the backlog in priority. Here are some reasons for doing that:

  • The PO needs to gauge the rough size of a PBI
  • The dev team needs to identify external dependencies that will need to be started on ASAP while waiting for the rest of the item’s details to be flushed out.

There can be many other reasons, too. While we don’t want to get into a habit of doing BRUF(Big Requirements Up Front) or BDUF(Big Design UP Front), thare are rare situations where looking at a backlog item that is farther down the road is advantageous to the team and the organization as a whole. Don’t be afraid to do it, but be wary of slipping back into BRUF and BDUF.

Tip #14: Strongly consider doing some informal backlog grooming before the full team backlog grooming.

  • Informal Product Backlog Grooming
    • The Product Owner will work with zero or more dev team members or stakeholders to refine stories and their priorities. Said another way, this is a lighter more informal way to groom the items in much the same way the grooming is done in the Weekly Team Backlog Grooming. This kind of informal grooming should be a daily, if not hourly, occurrence for the Product Owner.
      • When the PO gets together with development team members(early collaborators), she should strongly consider making sure that the three amigosare there.
        • Also feel free to bring stakeholders in to discuss.
      • Development team members should feel free to discuss relative sizes with the PO, but I encourage teams to wait to record any estimate until the entire team has estimated the item first. Said another way, the early collaborators should try not to skew the entire team’s estimates.

Tip #15: Don’t be afraid to introduce late breaking PBI’s. Try to minimize them, but embrace them when they happen.

Remain Agile! Some of the major goals around doing backlog grooming are to reduce unknowns and risks, but not all risks are easily identifiable before hand. Backlog grooming is not meant to eliminate risks, only to minimize them. Late breaking PBI’s will probably still happen(hopefully rarely), and they should generally be welcomed by the team. On the other hand, if it seems like most of your backlog items are late breaking, that is generally a bad smell.

Tip #16: Meeting Attendees: The entire Scrum Team + rare appearances by other key people

The meeting attendees should be, at the minimum, the entire Scrum Team. On rare occasions, you will need other key people, but prefer keeping non Scrum Team members(aka chickens) out of the meeting as a general rule. From time time to time, it will be useful to have a non Scrum Team member appear, but even those appearances should be limited. Try to limit the “other key people” to only attending while the relevant backlog items are being discussed.


If backlog grooming is done well, you can skip the entire “What” part of the Sprint Planning meeting and go straight to tasking out PBI’s in the “How?” part of the meeting. How’s that for a short planning meeting? Most teams will find that having regular product backlog grooming increases overall team knowledge and eventually increases productivity, usually by a large factor.

Link to Full Article:

Tips For Effective Backlog Grooming

What your backlog grooming tips?  Post them in the comments.

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