Universal Product Language: User Stories

By: Sam Bobo

Depending on the organization, the definition of who a Product Manager is, what responsibilities are held by a Product Manager, and why Product Management exists will vary. Some organizations task Product Managers to own the end-to-end lifecycle of a product, from definition, design, and development to deployment in the market; other organizations scope their Product Manager roles to focus strictly on the day-to-day management of the product backlog and having a Product Owner take over strategy and operations. Either way, assuming the role of a Product Manager requires you to converse with a multitude of stakeholders: designers, engineers, marketers, salespeople, executives, and many more to achieve the ultimate goal: deliver value to customers.

Each stakeholder strives to deliver value to customers differently: A designer seeks to craft a compelling and intuitive user experience; a marketer seeks to build trust in the company’s brand; engineers seek to build robust and reliable programs, and so on. However, each stakeholder speaks a different “language” that she/he understands, and utilizes a different dictionary of terms that may differ in meaning to those used by another stakeholder. As a Product Manager, your goal is to help translate the value your product or service is delivering into these respective “languages,” and to translate between stakeholders to ensure smooth collaboration. This may be a daunting task at first, but Product Managers have an essential tool at their disposal: the User Story.

Stories are one of the oldest forms of conveying meaning. Humans have relied on stories to impart knowledge, conjure emotions, and simplify complex ideas that are passed from person to person through narration. Stories contain a central character, a plotline, and an overall takeaway that follows a structured arc from beginning to end. User stories follow a similar approach. In user stories, our central character is our persona (the “who”), the plot line is our capability (the “what”), the takeaway is our value gained (the “why”), and our arc is the product life cycle.

For a refresher, my colleague, Sue-Mun Huang, describes the history of user stories and best practices in her post Writing Technical User Stories. As a point of emphasis, user stories should be written in everyday language to abstract jargon, motivate conversation, and encourage creativity in approach.

To illustrate how user stories act as the universal language inside of a business, let’s view a user story from the viewpoint of each of our stakeholders: a Seller, a Marketer, and an Executive (as compared to the more common perspective of designers, engineers, and QA).

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Sales

Sellers may be allocated to selling a single product or a portfolio of products for an organization. Regardless, their goal remains the same: deduce problems the prospective client is experiencing, determine the best product(s) and services that will solve said problems, and convince the key decision-makers of the proposed solution, highlighting the fact that it will deliver higher value compared to competitors.

While key decision-makers are not the target of a user story, the “persona” centered inside of the user story aids a seller in identifying the target user(s) the client is looking to provide a solution for. Sellers can then build empathy for that end-user into the sales conversation and can place a sense of urgency to buy in order to implement a solution quickly. Sellers must employ another tactic during a sales call, assembling a solution to fit their client’s needs in real-time. In order to perform this operation, sellers rely on the capabilities of a product, as described in user stories, to filter and sort the products they are responsible for and dynamically package a solution, demonstrating that they understand the client’s problems. Value statements also arm a seller with material to build an argument that justifies the price and business model of the product they are selling. Finally, the value statement can convey the return on investment the buyer would expect after making their purchase.

For Product Managers who are responsible for the financial success of their product, equipping sellers with the highest quality material will catalyze sales and accelerate revenue realization. Furthermore, the addition of new users will allow the Product Manager to glean insights from usage metrics and facilitate feedback loops to gather new requirements and enhancements to prioritize in their backlog for future iterations.

Marketing

Product Marketers assist a Product Manager in positioning the product in specific market segments with detailed messaging, determining the various routes to market, and building value for the overall brand. Marketers first take a look at the total addressable market (TAM) and the types of customers they could reach, often performing cluster and segmentation analyses to create specific target subsets of the TAM.

Writing stories that identify with a specific persona(s), augmented with context from the full persona definition, assists the marketing team in building specific segments of the market. Next, marketers must craft language that resonates with that audience. One word might stand out for audience A but its synonym could resonate better with audience B. Clearly defining the “what” in a user story allows marketers to translate the product’s capabilities into a series of descriptions and phrases that map directly to the segment they are targeting. This practice will increase the probability of resonance. Finally, a product you are building ties directly into the overall brand and company vision. In press releases, blogs, social media posts, and other channels of communication, marketers can craft holistic messages that position the value your product — articulated through your “why” statements — in line with the company’s vision; ultimately, unifying the underlying message the market receives with the strategic intention of the communication.

For Product Managers, user stories provide marketing teams with the core language needed to be broadcasted regarding the product. As a result, marketing can focus on crafting diction, designing creatives, and optimizing impressions to make your product a success.

Executives

Executives are the most skeptical of the purpose of user stories and take a relatively different approach when reading them. As a Product Manager, you will often need to convince executives, management, and other leadership that Agile is the most appropriate way to build modern software. Afterall, executives are the ones who pay for you, the engineers, designers, and other stakeholders, and pay for a product to continue under development and through its lifecycle. It is therefore only appropriate they have buy-in on the process.

User stories inherently describe the cross-functional nature and harmony between business, engineering, and design. In user-centric design, designers build empathy for personas and craft experiences that maximize the value gained from the solution we are providing. The capabilities Product Managers describe are interpreted by engineers who implement them in the most efficient way possible. Finally, the value statement helps the business validate that building the planned capability is worth the investment and will increase the value customers gain from using it. Collaboration among these various members in a product team will help the organization be efficient with scarce resources (time and money) which executives are most sensitive to.

For Product Managers, user stories help represent the product to management, provide a window into the work in progress, and will help executives hold the team’s work in the highest regard.

In Conclusion

Translating is a core skill of a Product Manager. Luckily for us, we have user stories as a universal translation tool (and right at our fingertips) that help us communicate effectively among the various stakeholders we interact with. Plus, they ensure the value we are providing through our products does not get “lost in translation” during product development and through the overall product lifecycle. I encourage you to take your user stories to the next level and use them as a collaboration tool with your stakeholders.

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About the author

Sam is passionate about empowering people to innovate, understand, and transform the world utilizing ground-breaking technology. Over the course of his career, he has consulted CEOs and CTOs from product design through implementation to revenue maximization. He seamlessly melds business acumen, technological know-how, and creative vision to identify, prioritize, and resolve his client’s most daunting problems to ensure their competitive edge in the marketplace. At TribalScale, Sam teaches Product Management to clients via one-to-one mentorship in the Transformation practice.

TribalScale is a global innovation firm that helps enterprises adapt and thrive in the digital era. We transform teams and processes, build best-in-class digital products, and create disruptive startups. Learn more about us on our website. Connect with us on Twitter, LinkedIn & Facebook!

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