A user story about user stories

Post Syndicated from esr original http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=8720

The way I learned to use the term “user story”, back in the late 1990s at the beginnings of what is now called “agile programming”, was to describe a kind of roleplaying exercise in which you imagine a person and the person’s use case as a way of getting an outside perspective on the design, the documentation, and especially the UI of something you’re writing.

For example:

Meet Joe. He works for Randomcorp, who has a nasty huge old Subversion repository they want him to convert to Git. Joe is a recent grad who got thrown at the problem because he’s new on the job and his manager figures this is a good performance test in a place where the damage will be easily contained if he screws up. Joe himself doesn’t know this, but his teammates have figured it out.

Joe is smart and ambitious but has little experience with large projects yet. He knows there’s an open-source culture out there, but isn’t part of it – he’s thought about running Linux at home because the more senior geeks around him all seem to do that, but hasn’t found a good specific reason to jump yet. In truth most of what he does with his home machine is play games. He likes “Elite: Dangerous” and the Bioshock series.

Joe knows Git pretty well, mainly through the Tortoise GUI under Windows; he learned it in school. He has only used Subversion just enough to know basic commands. He found reposurgeon by doing web searches. Joe is fairly sure reposurgeon can do the job he needs and has told his boss this, but he has no idea where to start.

What does Joe’s discovery process looks like? Read the first two chapters of “Repository Editing with Reposurgeon” using Joe’s eyes. Is he going to hit this wall of text and bounce? If so, what could be done to make it more accessible? Is there some way to write a FAQ that would help him? If so, can we start listing the questions in the FAQ?

Joe has used gdb a little as part of a class assignment but has not otherwise seen programs with a CLI resembling reposurgeon’s. When he runs it, what is he likely to try to do first to get oriented? Is that going to help him feel like he knows what’s going on, or confuse him?

“Repository Editing…” says he ought to use repotool to set up a Makefile and stub scripts for the standard conversion workflow. What will Joe’s eyes tell him when he looks at the generated Makefile? What parts are likeliest to confuse him? What could be done to fix that?

Joe, my fictional character, is about as little like me as as is plausible at a programming shop in 2020, and that’s the point. If I ask abstractly “What can I do to improve reposurgeon’s UI?”, it is likely I will just end up spinning my wheels; if, instead, I ask “What does Joe see when he looks at this?” I am more likely to get a useful answer.

It works even better if, even having learned what you can from your imaginary Joe, you make up other characters that are different from you and as different from each other as possible. For example, meet Jane the system administrator, who got stuck with the conversion job because her boss thinks of version-control systems as an administrative detail and doesn’t want to spend programmer time on it. What do her eyes see?

In fact, the technique is so powerful that I got an idea while writing this example. Maybe in reposurgeon’s interactive mode it should issue a first like that says “Interactive help is available; type ‘help’ for a topic menu.”

However. If you search the web for “design by user story”, what you are likely to find doesn’t resemble my previous description at all. Mostly, now twenty years after the beginnings of “agile programming”, you’ll see formulaic stuff equating “user story” with a one-sentence soundbite of the form “As an X, I want to do Y”. This will be surrounded by a lot of talk about processes and scrum masters and scribbling things on index cards.

There is so much gone wrong with this it is hard to even know where to begin. Let’s start with the fact that one of the original agile slogans was “Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools”. That slogan could be read in a number of different ways, but under none of them at all does it make sense to abandon a method for extended insight into the reactions of your likely users for a one-sentence parody of the method that is surrounded and hemmed in by bureaucratic process-gabble.

This is embedded in a larger story about how “agile” went wrong. The composers of the Agile Manifesto intended it to be a liberating force, a more humane and effective way to organize software development work that would connect developers to their users to the benefit of both. A few of the ideas that came out of it were positive and important – besides design by user story, test-centric development and refactoring leap to mind,

Sad to say, though, the way “user stories” became trivialized in most versions of agile is all too representative of what it has often become under the influence of two corrupting forces. One is fad-chasers looking to make a buck on it, selling it like snake oil to managers forever perplexed by low productivity, high defect rates, and inability to make deadlines. Another is the managers’ own willingness to sacrifice productivity gains for the illusion of process control.

It may be too late to save “agile” in general from becoming a deadening parody of what it was originally intended to be, but it’s not too late to save design by user story. To do this, we need to bear down on some points that its inventors and popularizers were never publicly clear about, possibly because they themselves didn’t entirely understand what they had found.

Point one is how and why it works. Design by user story is a trick you play on your social-monkey brain that uses its fondness for narrative and characters to get you to step out of your own shoes.

Yes, sure, there’s a philosophical argument that stepping out of your shoes in this sense is impossible; Joe, being your fiction, is limited by what you can imagine. Nevertheless, this brain hack actually works. Eppure, si muove; you can generate insights with it that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Point two is that design by user story works regardless of the rest of your methodology. You don’t have to buy any of the assumptions or jargon or processes that usually fly in formation with it to get use out of it.

Point three is that design by user story is not a technique for generating code, it’ s a technique for changing your mind. If you approach it in an overly narrow and instrumental way, you won’t imagine apparently irrelevant details like what kinds of video games Joe likes. But you should do that sort of thing; the brain hack works in exact proportion to how much imaginative life you give your characters.

(Which in particular, is why “As an X, I want to do Y” is such a sadly reductive parody. This formula is designed to stereotype the process, but stereotyping is the enemy of novelty, and novelty is exactly what you want to generate.)

A few of my readers might have the right kind of experience for this to sound familiar. The mental process is similar to what in theater and cinema is called “method acting.” The goal is also similar – to generate situational responses that are outside your normal habits.

Once again: you have to get past tools and practices to discover that the important part of software design – the most difficult and worthwhile part – is mindset. In this case, and temporarily, someone else’s.