A member of the SMILE team planning out work using post-it notes

User Stories are powerful for marketing departments, and here’s how to write them

User stories can feel like a dark art talked about by developers and agile-evangelists. Learn how to harness their power for marketing.

User Stories put users at the centre of your conversation. Aligning with the needs of your users, you inevitably create better user experiences. User-centric thinking benefits your business and increases conversion. There are ISO Standards dedicated to this practice, and research papers that prove user-centric thinking will increase conversion. In this article, you’ll learn how to harness the power of User Stories for your next project.

But in reality, mapping out anything complicated is really hard to get right. And it probably can’t be completed in one session. Besides, do you really need to map out the entire journey? What about when it changes?

Are you reaching for the headache pills yet?

Most people come away from these sessions inspired but exhausted. You wrap up the session by taking a photo on your phone of the beautiful array of post-its on the wall.

Only, you never look at that photo again.

And the work that you did is relegated to a blurred memory of anecdotes about your users. You never update the thinking, and you never refer back to the work that you did.

Writing User Stories is a quick and easy alternative.

What is a User Story?

A User Story is a simple sentence that describes a type of user, a need, and a purpose. This one sentence describes how the user derives value from your output. It is a user-centred approach to building valuable experiences.

Here’s an example:

As a prospective student, I want to view course information, so that I can identify the grades required to be accepted.

How do I write User Stories?

The format of User Stories is a reusable framework of just three points:

  1. As a
    Who is this for? If you’ve got personas, this is even more powerful because you can identify a shorthand for a category of similar people.
  2. I want to
    What are they trying to achieve? Don’t get swept up in describing how it should look here. If you do, you’re doing it wrong.
  3. So that
    What value are they personally getting as a result? What problem are they solving?

Write as many of these as you can. Each one takes seconds to do. Heck put em on a post-it note if you have to. You’ll soon spot patterns, and groupings. Once you’re able to categorise them, you’ll notice that those groups represent common needs. You’ll see where your audiences/personas cross-over. And from this, you’ll know what you need to make.

This process should be easy enough to do solo, but if you have other people to collaborate with, it’s even easier.

What do I do with my User Stories?

If you’ve grouped your User Stories, it means you’ve got a lot… Nice work! You’re a User Story pro now! Try to identify a story from each group that speaks for the majority from that group.

You should be left with a handful. 10 at max is my rule of thumb. Any more and it’s hard to reference in the future.

For each of these User Stories, add some context, with a description. It only needs to be a short sentence or two. This whole process falls apart if it’s too laborious.

And finally, identify the acceptance criteria for your user story. This should stay away from talking about design or layout. For example, if you’re talking about the need to click on a button, you’re not considering the user. Remember: Always put the user at the centre of your conversation.

Here’s an example from one of our projects:

User story: “As a high-achieving student, I would like to understand the likelihood of being accepted onto my chosen course, so that I can decide whether to make it my firm choice or not.”

Context: Whilst this student may achieve good grades, they’re aware that it’s not just their grades that will score them a place on a university course that receives a high volume of applications.

Acceptance criteria:

  • The student is able to articulate what the entry requirements for their chosen course are
  • The student is able to identify their chances of being accepted onto their chosen course

We use this technique to build award-winning Flagship Websites, and now you can too.

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Nathan Monk

I'm proud to work for some of the world’s most influential brands that shape cities and define lives: Universities and colleges.

I provide advice to forward-thinking senior leaders on how to exceed their organisational targets by creating user-focused, digital-first strategies.