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What’s the Right Level of Detail in an Agile User Story?

Questions frequently come up about “What’s the Right Level of Detail to Put in an Agile User Story?” – I want to share some thoughts with you on that subject. There is no absolute right/wrong answer about how much detail a story should contain – the best answer is “it depends”.

Level of Detail in an Agile User Story
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Level of Detail in an Agile User Story – What Factors Effect the Level of Detail?

The level of detail in the story depends on a number of factors including:

  • The complexity and nature of the story itself
  • The level of interaction available from the Product Owner to explain what is required
  • Where the story is in the overall lifecycle – there are at least three levels of detail required depending on how you plan projects, releases, and sprints:
Project-level PlanningLeast detailed, suitable for very high-level project planning
Release-level PlanningMedium detail, enough detail to do story point estimates
Sprint-level PlanningMost detail, suitable for actually starting development and planning development tasks

Level of Detail in an Agile User Story – Some Recommended Guidelines

Here’s what I recommend as some guidelines:

Err on the Side of Less Detail

It is always best to err on the side of less detail rather than more detail as a starting point – Agile has a concept of “Just Barely Good Enough” which means you put a sufficient level of effort into the task to accomplish what is needed and nothing more – anything more than that is waste

Use Top-down Functional Decomposition

Use a top-down, functional decomposition approach to start at the top-level to identify epics and story titles only. Once that is done and approved, write the actual stories, but only to the level of detail required progressively elaborate the level of detail in stories:

  • Rely on the developers and others on the team (QA) to tell you when the story is good enough:
    • A lot of collaboration and face-to-face communication is essential
    • We need to get away from the Waterfall approach where a BA writes detailed requirements (stories) and then hands those requirements off to developers

Overall Summary

Again, the key thing I want to emphasize is that there is no right/wrong answer about how much detail a story should contain.

  • Some general guidelines and models can be developed to guide the effort, but
  • The real test of whether a story is well-written or not is based on feedback from the people who have to use the information in the story for whatever purpose it is intended for (estimation or development)

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2 thoughts on “What’s the Right Level of Detail in an Agile User Story?”

  1. That’s right, we need “Just enough” and not more.

    Another factor that may determine the amount of detail is how distributed the team is. The more distributed, the more detail – but as always it’s just enough for the purposes of getting a shared understanding.

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