Personas and User Stories in Action

My team is in the process of transitioning our development methodology. We have never had a formally documented development process. At best our practices have been most akin to waterfall and at worst haphazard. We have succeeded in developing this way because we have been in a perpetual maintenance mode, tested relentlessly, and new development has largely been completed by small groups of developers. Over the course of the last year we have been slowly transitioning to agile practices while incorporating the interaction design philosophies espoused by Alan Cooper. As we are beginning a major redevelopment effort we felt we were finally ready to take the next evolutionary step, adopting an agile methodology, Extreme Programming (XP) and more fully utilizing Cooper’s personas.

In Extreme Programming and Inmates I argue that the use of personas can assist XP teams in generating user stories. What I do not explain is that on the morning I set that post to publish my team was gathering to do exactly that. We spent all of last Thursday in a conference room. Our meeting began at 8:30 AM with a roughly outlined agenda.

In the weeks prior to the meeting we had worked to create a cast of characters representing our identified user personas. These personas were based on the demographics and unique goals of our intended user base. At the meetings outset our intent was to identify those personas which were positive and negative. After some deliberation we identified three positive personas and nine negative personas. Of the three positive personas one was clearly primary.

Having culled our cast of characters we began a traditional brainstorming session. This brainstorming session was not like others that we have had as our discussion and ideas were focused. Knowing who we were talking about allowed us to quickly generate a valuable mind map. After a morning in a conference room we decided to take a break for lunch.

Even after the successful morning I was nervous to return from lunch. While my team had responded well to the use of personas for brainstorming I feared their unfamiliarity with user stories and some lingering tentativeness toward personas would hamper our productivity. I had visions of us sitting around a table just staring at each other.

To my great pleasure I discovered that my fears were unfounded. The team adapted to creating user stories quite readily. We had the same experience that we had had in the morning in that the personas focused our discussion and allowed us to zero in on who a particular story was for. We turned on music and laughed our way through the remainder of the afternoon.

At our meetings conclusion we found that we had generated over a hundred user stories. Many more than we can complete in several iterations. I am happy to report that using personas in conjunction with story cards has thus far been a resounding success.


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