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User stories for solo development

February 13, 2014 Leave a comment

It’s pretty well established these days that writing User Stories to capture the requirements of your project is “a good thing”.  You’d be fairly hard pressed to find a small to mid size group with a giant tome of requirements handed down on high.  You’re slightly more likely to see a team getting by with nothing or perhaps a haphazard whiteboard of semi crossed off todo items.  Most however, will have some degree of a user story style system.  Writing good stories is hard, estimating them is even harder, but the benefits in increased communication and process transparency far outweigh these costs.  But what about a situation where there is no communication between developers?  What if you are a solo developer and your customer (if you have one that’s not you), isn’t the type who is ever going to engage with an issue tracking system?  What benefit then does writing user stories hold over the aforementioned whiteboard, or perhaps a Google doc?

Software development is still software development.  Even if you have no need to communicate to another person, you still need to clarify the intent of your work to yourself (and let’s be honest, 2 weeks from now, you are another person and “sound when collected” as a task probably won’t mean jack to you).  This is a situation where the format of a user story helps out.  Let’s take a look at an example requirement from my primary domain, game development.

mario-hit-goombaEnemies kill the player when they collide.

Seems simple enough.  Now most everyone knows how Super Mario Bros. works and would be able to implement this feature correctly.  But what if the developer didn’t know what was supposed to happen?  What if they have never played Super Mario Bros.?  I would imagine, that an initial implementation might lead to this.

smb-goomba-killTouching the goomba kills the player, just like the story said.  Now you’re probably shaking your head and saying “of course they would know jumping on the goomba kills the goomba and not the player!” and for the implementation of a game that you can look at and play, this is true.  We’re generally not interested in reimplementing old games, we are interested in creating our own new ones.  If we were creating SMB initially and we wrote out the requirement as a user story, it might look something more like this:

As the player I should be able to see my character die when I touch an enemy.

Some user story advocates would say you really need the “so that…” section on there, which in some cases does seems applicable but in this case “so that the game is challenging” appears fairly redundant to me.  I could see a case for “so that I understand what things can kill me” as an addendum as it gets to the reason behind seeing your character pop up and flap his arms and fall but let’s leave it off for this discussion.  By phrasing it from the perspective of the player and being specific about when, in this case the “touch an enemy” writing this story has hopefully made clear that there are other ways the player can collide with the enemy, maybe collision from the side is not the same as collision from the top?  Again when implementing SMB this isn’t really an issue, but when you’re trying to figure out what the app should do in the first place, this is the kind of thing I find handy to at least bring up to myself.  Even if it’s crystal clear ahead of time that yes the enemy should die when Mario arrives from above this at least prompts me to go add that story so I don’t go forgetting bits of functionality.

Jira for SSS

My Kanban board for my current game project

The second major benefit of user stories to me is that they allow you to take off your project manager hat and put on your heads down programmer hat.  When I have filled up my backlog with stories, picked the ones I want to be working on next and plopped them over into the “planned” column I can just grab and go.  When that story is done I bump it over to “ready to test” and grab the next one.  Sometimes while working on a story a new detail comes up, maybe some additional complexity that wasn’t apparent or that I simply overlooked.  In that situation I have to put the old PM hat back on and decide what that does to my prioritization.  Thankfully this is usually resolved very quickly and I can get back to development.  I find that being able to transition between roles on the project and to be able to focus on one exclusively for periods of time (from a few hours to several days) is very liberating.  This part could be accomplished with tasks written any which way you want and any sort of system such as Trello or Jira, but I find the fairly precise wording of a user story to lower the barrier to Getting Things Done more than potentially haphazardly written tasks lists.

So what system do you use?  Have you found your own personal development project management nirvana is another set of tools or practices?  Please share them in the comments below.

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