What you're getting wrong about user stories

What you're getting wrong about user stories

Welcome to my monthly newsletter. I'm an experienced software engineer, a tech mentor to product managers, and the founder of Skiplevel. Every month I share:

  • technical skills and knowledge you should know
  • tips for working with and collaborating with dev teams
  • tips for non-engineers struggling with confidence in technology
  • tips for managers looking to build a more technically literate team

Ask me anything (yep, anything) and I'll cover it in an upcoming newsletter issue!

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Q: I've never been taught how to write user stories. How do I approach them? What do engineers want to see from my user stories?

Asked by Senior Product Manager @ Series B startup
Ask me anything and I'll cover it in an upcoming issue!

While product managers focus on the customer problem and solution (the what, the why, and what the customer experience should be), the core focus of engineering is the technical implementation details. These are two completely different perspectives. Bridging this gap is essential but it can be a messy process and the how is not often talked about.

One of the tools used to bridge this gap is the user story. A user story is a short, simple description of a feature told from the perspective of the person who desires the new capability.

User stories are designed to shift the focus from writing about features to discussing them, which is especially important if we’re talking about bridging the PM and engineering perspectives.

Tools used to bridge PM-Dev

Note: I’m not going over the basics of a user story in this essay because it’s been written to death and I’d prefer to focus on how to write user stories to bridge the PM-dev gap. So if you need to go over the basics, I suggest checking out Atlassian’s short and sweet article on user stories.

Product managers are approaching user stories all wrong.

In my experience working with product managers, PMs tend to overly focus on the customer perspective when writing user stories and forget that the ultimate goal of user stories is to foster collaboration between cross-functional teams, especially between PM and dev teams. When writing user stories, you should be thinking about how can I better write user stories to help engineers to think through technical implementation details.

The purpose of user stories is to convey the customer experience in a way that helps engineers better understand the customer and the product solution in order to get a sense of the technical implementation.

This is a big perspective shift and the key to a better PM-dev working relationship.

User Stories should be both broad and specific

One of the main confusions about user stories is how broad or specific they should be. The answer is both.

To achieve this, create broad epic user stories first and then break them down into more specific functional user stories. Epic user stories help teams think of creative solutions to a customer problem while functional user stories are more specific to help engineers think through technical implementation.

Here’s an example of an epic and functional user story:

The top user story is the epic user story and the one underneath is a broken down functional user story.


Got a question? Ask me anything & I'll cover it in an upcoming issue!

This month's Tech Term You Should Know:

Token / Tokenization
Tokens is an industry-standard way of securing sensitive data on the internet. A token is a unique identification symbol that replaces a piece of sensitive data. Tokenization is the process of creating a token that maps to the original sensitive piece of data via an authorization server.

Tokens are used in many use cases: to store sensitive data (i.e. address, personal identification), authentication (i.e. access into accounts), authorization (i.e. API access), crypto/blockchain, etc.

Example: Retrieving your bank account number via tokens

Click graphic to see infographic (PDF)

Learn more about tokens:
Brendan Owen (YouTube): What is tokenization?
Forbes: What is tokenization and why is it important?

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Missed the mid-month PM Roles and Tech Tips Newsletter?

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As always, connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter and follow Skiplevel on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.