Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Use Case vs. User Story

Use Cases are too big to fit into a sprint/iteration! User Stories are so fine grained there’s too many too keep track of! Where’s the big picture? How to we define releases? Argh!!! I don’t know which to use!

Personally I tend to use both. I don’t think there’s any conflict between Use Cases and User Stories, in fact they’re rather complementary. Here’s how and why….

A few years ago I delivered a presentation at an agile software development conference entitled “Do requirements still matter?”. The short answer was “yes”. Most descriptions of agile iteration start with having a backlog, prioritising etc. etc. But where does the backlog come from? My answer: the Backlog Fairy; obviously.

The Backlog Fairy

Of course requirements still matter, they’re how we get a common understanding between customers and development teams of what we need to do. They’re the units by which we can incrementally build systems. In the rush to adopt agile processes a lot of teams have forgotten that they still need to start up with some lightweight analysis of scope and risk.

One of the things Use Cases are great at is capturing the big picture, showing a simple diagram of stick people and blobs that people who’ve never heard of UML can happily discuss in terms of what big bits of functionality are in and out of the system and who’s going to do them. The humble Use Case diagram. Not so easy to do that with a massive list of small stories.

However Use Cases can often be a bit too big to fit into a single development cycle but since they’re made up of a lot of different scenarios they’re easy to slice up into smaller bits. This is where I often use stories.

The advantage of Use Cases defining the scope is they’re nice chunky things to estimate and prioritise in a first pass. Of course as we get going we’ll estimate and prioritise stories for sprints/iterations but Use Cases help us prioritise requirements into Releases.

So I use a Use Case diagram to describe the high level scope of the thing to be developed. This normally takes about 5minutes to sketch. Then I use the Use Cases identified by the diagram (not documents, just the ovals on the diagram) to focus discussion on deriving stories (or use case slices) for development and testing within a sprint/iteration.

Sometimes stories turn up that don’t really fit into the early Use Case model, this is a rather good thing as it lets us challenge the understanding of scope. Does the story not fit in because it’s not really in line with the customers priorities and needs, it’s a cross-cutting or architectural concern or because we’ve missed some important part of the scope? All are important things to understand.

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2 responses to “Use Case vs. User Story

  1. Tony Ludwig March 22, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Mike,
    Great little explanation the synergy that Use Cases and User Stories can bring to the requirements circle and to the Agile community as a whole. I have always over stated and oversimplified that User Stories are for conversation and Use Cases are for documentation. It would behoove us to add your explanation above to our training material – thanks (& good stuff!)

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