This is a transcript of episode 143 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Squirrel is gobsmacked by user stories that appear to be about aliens, who want “intuitive interfaces” and “modern technology”, where customers from Earth want “fun with my kids” or “relief from boredom”. Jeffrey reminds us that such stories can lead to conversations that tease out the emotions and the human stories behind the words. Both agree that once we revise our stories to create empathy, we also allow the team to discover amazing new ways to solve problems.

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Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So I’ve discovered customers from Pluto and I’m really upset about them really.

Jeffrey: Really? That sounds like really anti Plutonian. What do you have against customers from Pluto?

Squirrel: Well, nothing. But none of the people that my customers and my clients and the people I talked to serve are on Pluto. So I think they should go to consultants on Pluto and they shouldn’t come to me and we should make sure that we don’t write user stories that are designed for customers from Pluto. So that’s what I discovered this week.

Jeffrey: Oh, I see. So Pluto is outside of the target market who you’re working with?

Squirrel: Yeah. Unfortunately, shipping costs are too high.

Jeffrey: What do you mean by customers from Pluto? Who are these people and how did you come across them?

Squirrel: Well, let me give you a user story. And I feel terrible because the poor person who wrote this, I don’t want to give them a hard time, i’ve anonymized it. And if they happen to listen to this podcast, I’m not in any sense saying that this person is bad for writing this user story. This is so common and so painful that I just wanted to use an example.

Squirrel: So here’s a user story I encountered this week ‘as a user, when accessing my service, I want to be displayed an intuitive environment that clearly houses all the information I need.’

Squirrel: And I have never met a customer who talks that way. If I walk up to a hundred or a thousand or a million people on Earth, I don’t think any of them will be interested in accessing their service, displaying an intuitive environment or housing information.

Jeffrey: Now, I see what you’re saying, that the key thing sounds like you’re honing in here is that people don’t talk this way.

Squirrel: And that it doesn’t capture how people feel and what they actually want from their service. It’s getting dangerously close to ‘as a database I want to constrain and normalise my data’ or something like that.

Jeffrey: We did talk about that problem with user stories back in July, we did a session on user stories gone wrong,

Squirrel: I remember that.

Jeffrey: We’ll talk about that. So you’re saying this is in a sense getting close to people have a solution in mind and the same way there we talked about how people might have technical tasks they want to do, and so they make it OK to do them because they go and write, quote unquote, technical user stories. And here’s someone it sounds like you think they have maybe a solution in mind and therefore they’ve invented these customers from Pluto who who want that thing. Is that what’s happening?

Squirrel: Possibly. But, you know, it’s actually really hard to tell in this case. So one of the things that you reminded me about is that Alistair Cockburn I’m not sure if he invented user stories, but he said one of the smart things about them, which is ‘a user story or a card, is an invitation to a conversation.’ It’s a promise to have a conversation. And this one certainly invites a conversation, and there’s no question about that. So a conversation is very helpful. But the problem is that I can’t tell you where to start that conversation because I don’t know what problem this is solving. I don’t know this user I can’t empathise with. I can’t understand it. So in the actual situation, the person is is indeed in this kind of feature factory environment where there’s a long list of things that someone hands to this project manager.

Squirrel: And by the way, it was all the product managers in their team who were who are doing it this way. I’ve just picked on this one because it was so clear that there’s people who in ‘the business’ who hand over a list. I’m sure our listeners are very familiar with this kind of situation. And the product manager goes, OK, great, let me write a story for each item in the list. So there is an element there is an element of that kind of retrofitting. But when I had a conversation with this person, I found out something really interesting, that this person really had somebody in mind when she wrote this story. In fact, she had herself in mind.

Squirrel: So she was thinking that she herself had this problem, whatever problem it was that she was trying to get to. And once we managed to talk about who she was, a busy mother, lots of things to do and what problems she had, which was and the specific problem that she came up with, which was really, really helpful, was that she had bought a new car and she wanted to update car information on this website has something to do with cars. I’m not going to go into the details. And that was really helpful because I could immediately empathise. Busy mother, OK, I’m not a mother, but I’m pretty busy and I know lots of busy mothers they’re from Earth, right? They’re not from Pluto. So I understand them. And I bought a new car recently and I had to update a bunch of stuff and that was a pain. And so I can really empathise with that problem. And so I could also imagine the emotions. This week I got her to to talk about what the emotions were that went into this. And she said, ‘well, I’m frazzled and I’m nervous that maybe what I want to do with my car won’t work. I’ll turn up and it’ll be embarrassing because people expect the old car and will be the new car. And I’m going to be really happy and I’m going to have a sense of ease if I can go in and update the car information, and it’ll be simpler for me.’

Squirrel: And I could immediately empathise, I knew what she was talking about. I have had experiences where I was frazzled and upset and embarrassed that something hadn’t worked. And I’ve had experiences where something was easy and simple. And I had joy in the experience of updating something because it was so simple. So that was really helpful to get to that and have the conversation.

Jeffrey: So it is interesting here because the conversation worked, so I guess in one sense we could say no harm, no foul. You know, if we looked at this as simply a placeholder for a conversation and we’re going to have a stack of cards and, you know, go through them together, you know, great. Now we’ve had that conversation. But it’s still I can see that you’ve honed in on something here. First of all, we both have seen these kind of stories that, as I said, it looked like they had a solution in mind and were retrofitted. And I think part of the problem here, it can be very easy for people to skip the conversation and just take the cards as ‘Yes, we put them in user story but we’re not really using the user stories. We’re not really trying to develop empathy.’ And someone’s going to read that and they go, ‘OK, I see you want all the information together in an intuitive user interface. I’ll just go do that. We don’t need to have the conversation.’

Emotive User Stories

Listen to this section at 06:32

Squirrel: And in fact, somebody outside this person’s team had gone through their backlog and gotten through all the information. This was one of many reasons that they brought me in and why we were talking, because this person had gone through and said, I don’t understand any of this. I have no idea why we’re wasting our money on any of this stuff. And I’m confident if this person had read a busy mother, frazzled wants to update her car registration, that person was said, hallelujah. Hey, why haven’t we built that already? Why haven’t we made that simple and easy for that person to update their car wreck?

Jeffrey: Ok, I really like where this is going now, in part because we can come back here to sort of the symptoms here, because I think getting that story is going to generate very different reactions, different dynamics in different teams. And I would say maybe you have a team where where people say, ‘look, I don’t know, let’s have a conversation. And they have that conversation and they go, OK, I get it now.’ When things are when when the team is functioning well, this kind of shorthand in the user stories might be benign.

Squirrel: Oh, absolutely.

Jeffrey: The problem is you may not have those dynamics happening already and the story format is supposed to help encourage those conversations. In this case, it sounds like it’s not really doing. I had a couple of thoughts that come to mind about it, because one element you mentioned was it sounds like as a user starting here, we could have given a little bit more depth to that user. When we were first hearing about this, I actually thought, oh, well, this is why we use persona’s because the persona of that, you know, busy, harried, frazzled, nervous person, you know, could say, ‘oh, well, you know, here we have we have Nick our harried frazzled, nervous user’. And when Nick goes, to use the site, he’s nervous about what’s going to happen. And so therefore, we need a calming, reassuring interface for him. One of the reasons for personas is to carry some of that emotional context so that you can actually imagine someone more clearly identify that story with some human needs. I guess the shorter version was simply you could have said was ‘as a nervous user’ what made sense to you. There’s a key element here, which was the emotional context.

Squirrel: Exactly. And it actually turned out that what I was strongly encouraging this group of product managers to do was to identify actual people. They don’t have personas. And they were noticing, some of them who worked in other places with the same job role said, ‘yeah, we used to have these personas at the other place and we don’t seem to have them here’. I said ‘that seems useful but let’s take a shortcut. Let’s talk about actual people’. Because they’re in the lucky circumstance where they’re selling to people who are like themselves. So this particular person could say, ‘well, I’m a busy mother and I would really like to update my car registration.’ She could have empathy herself. Some of us work in situations where our customers are very distant from us, maybe not Pluto, but they are certainly people who don’t think like us or it’s harder for us to identify with them. And personas are useful in both cases because there’s always some differences and it’s useful to have common language. But for these guys, I could take a shortcut and say, ‘all right, so instead of saying as a user, you’re going to say as this person, it has to be a real person. I have to be able to go and find them and say, hey, you do you want to display an intuitive environment that houses information or do you want to update your car registration?’ And that will help me and them to create the empathy.

Jeffrey: I think you described as a shortcut. I think it is a good starting point for people to make sure that they have at least one human that wants that. There is a danger with that, which is that they start to stop seeing the differences between themselves and others, which I think is actually kind of relevant here, because part of what happened in creating that card, that story was in a sense, the person who wrote it, you know, almost certainly felt like it was already completely clear and completely intuitive. You could just read it because they weren’t reading the text on the card. They were- we’ve talked before that when people are speaking, they don’t actually hear the words they say, they are actually aware of their intent, what their emotional inner life is. And the words are a partial expression of that. And so I think and this is one of the challenges in writing any sort of document, which is that we are reading our own words with the context in our head. We read our intent along with the words on the page, and that in this kind of story, design can lead to problems where a team is designing for real people, just not the people who they’re hoping to sell to. So there’s a bit of a danger in there. You called it a shortcut. I think it’s very fine as a sort of starting point, but it has its own set of pitfalls in going that route.

Squirrel: Absolutely. And in this case, what I’m just trying to do is get this group of product managers to think very differently. And they’re in a culture which is not encouraging that, they’re in a feature factory culture which wants to change. So the organisation has me in to help them to change. And I’m sure that we will. So that shortcut helps me tactically. But you’re right, it could have a longer term effect if that was the only thing they did. They would just build software that worked for them and that would probably not help. You’re also exactly right that that’s how this person was thinking. She said, ‘yeah, it’s obvious. I know all kinds of people are like this.’ I said, ‘can you name one?’ She said, ‘well, me’.

Squirrel: And then we had a whole conversation. So she clearly was thinking, well, I have this problem. Everybody else must know about this problem. These words must encode that problem. And it didn’t quite work. But the thing I’d expect and the benefit one of the reasons I was going to this length and one of the reasons I was on fire to talk about this today is that not only does this unlock understanding for the person and for people within the team and for people outside the team to say, ‘yes, I understand why you’re building that’. But also, it opens you up to new and different solutions, so as we talked about this problem, once we understood it was about car registration and updating and having a new car and really understanding the emotions of nervousness and frazzledness and ease and joy, if you could get it right. We thought of different solutions.

Squirrel: So, for example, it could be that there’s some kind of feed that could tell you that people have bought a new car or maybe there’s some other route by which you could discover that someone has bought a new car. So what if she got a text message that said, hey, we noticed you bought a new car? Click here to update to use your new car. Have you kept your old car? You want to have two? And if she got that, then it would be even more ease and joy, right? She could do that without even logging on to the application, without doing anything. And it would lead to a completely different solution to the one that she had in her mind as she wrote the story, having been fed something to do and having the kind of intuitive sense that she knew what needed to be done.

Jeffrey: Oh that’s brilliant. And I love how we’ve come full circle. I hadn’t known about that. You told me you had the problem of customers from Pluto, but you hadn’t told me where that had gone. And I think that’s fantastic because it does show that the point here of the user stories is to have the conversation. And you run into problems when you assume that you already know the answer when you’re just using them as tasks. ‘Yep, we’ve been told to do this thing. I need it. I’m going to write this user story. But really it’s not a placeholder for a conversation. It’s just to say, ‘yeah, do that thing that we were told to do.’ It’s not not very generative. You’re not really engaging the brain and being creative. And when we go ahead and say, ‘look, our customers, we don’t want the ones from Pluto and we don’t want to be limited to the ones around the table, we need somehow customers that are a middle distance away like they’re outside of the building, but they’re still on the planet.’ And then start thinking about their scenario and what happens when you started talking about not the feature you’re going to implement, but what that person needed, what their human needs were, what the scenario was, what they were trying to avoid, what their aspirations were. Now you became creative. You’re in a much more creative, interesting space than simply a task list checklist. Have you taken the task and convert it into user stories so that we can put it into our backlog?

Testing Your User Stories

Listen to this section at 15:01

Squirrel: Yep. So it could suggest a couple of tests that you can apply to your user stories. So first of all, are there any humans who think this way? You could read it to some random humans who aren’t in the building and see if any of them recognise the language and recognise and empathise with the problem. And then you can also check to see does it lead to some creative thoughts? Is there only one solution that could possibly fit for your user story or are there many? I don’t know whether this team is actually going to build something. I don’t even know if it’s possible to get the text message that says you just bought a new car. But it certainly is open to that possibility, which the first one is not. And so those are a couple of tests that maybe listeners could try.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I really like that. And I think your first test, would anyone talk this way? And certainly just wordsmithing. So it sounds like normal human language seems like a really good first step towards building empathy. And this also goes back to this idea of the feature factory and what the problem is of the feature factory people’s alienation from their work, which is they don’t they don’t feel connected to what people are doing. Are we having exciting conversations about humans, what they need and what they want? And if not, then you’re probably falling a bit short.

Squirrel: There we go. Well, if listeners apply those tests to their stories and come up short or don’t agree with our tests or think that they do have customers on Pluto, we’d certainly like to hear from them, maybe even from Pluto. You can find us on and email and Twitter and pretty much everything else you can think of is up there. And of course, we also like it when you come back and listen to us again. We’re here pretty much every Wednesday. You can click the subscribe button and whatever you’re using and you’ll get to hear us again.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.