Use Case vs. User Story
November 12, 2020

Use Case vs. User Story

by Brian de Haaff

Scrum. Kanban. Points. From the manifesto to the frameworks, agile can be like learning a new language. Especially if you are a new product manager or developer working on an agile team for the first time. It is even trickier to grasp these concepts behind the lingo when the purposes overlap in some way. Take use cases and user stories.

Each one helps you understand what customers are trying to accomplish so you can deliver a solution they love — but in different ways.

Use cases differ from user stories. But beyond that, the details of exactly what they mean within an agile context are fuzzy. Some older definitions say that use case refers to diagrams or flowcharts that capture the steps a person (or sometimes, another system) would take — a list of all the potential interactions between a user and a product.

From my experience, this step-by-step use case rarely comes up in conversations anymore. Now the term has a more general, broader meaning. It is often used to refer to a situation in which a product or service could potentially solve a problem. It is a high-level description for the solution you are providing and how it might benefit people. And the concept is more widely used by marketing teams than product teams these days.

Compare that with a user story, which is a description of discrete functionality written from the perspective of the person engaging with the technology. Think of a user story as a specific step in the user journey — it expresses one specific need and the benefit of newly proposed functionality.

Both concepts are important, so it is helpful to understand how they are used. You are sure to hear them mentioned often in most technology companies. Working through use cases and user stories can be a valuable exercise. It starts with knowing the differences, so here is an overview:

Purpose of use cases and user stories

The purpose of a use case is to capture how your product will solve a specific scenario for a distinct market segment. It explains what a technology or service is ideally used for and how that particular type of customer will benefit.

The purpose of a user story is to define one act that users need to perform and why. Defining functionality this way helps the development team understand exactly what they are building and why it matters to end-users.

What are use cases and user stories?

A use case is a word, phrase, or statement that summarizes the value that a product or service provides. One product will likely have several use cases. For instance, when we were planning Aha! Ideas, we identified product innovation, employee engagement, and customer empathy as the main use cases for our idea management software. One product, three use cases.

A user story is narrow. It is a one- or two-sentence description of what the person using a product wants to accomplish. As I wrote earlier, these are discrete areas of functionality. So a user story includes who the user is, what they want to do, and why they want to do it. It should be simple and concise — no technical jargon. This is why most product teams use the following formula:

As a [type of user], I want to [action] so that [benefit].

For example: As a registered user, I want to be able to reset my password if I forget it so that I can log back in to my account.

Who manages use cases and user stories?

Use cases might be written out by product managers, product marketers, and business analysts. But no matter who writes them, the entire team needs to understand the use case and how the product will deliver on this promise for a large group of people who likely have similar needs.

User stories are handled by the product manager or product owner. But developers, QA testers, and even members of the UX team can contribute to writing them. On agile teams, the product owner is typically responsible for communicating user stories to the developers.

Timelines for use cases and user stories

Use cases are created in the early stage of a new product or while thinking about expanding an existing offering. But use cases can evolve as customers find new ways to engage with your product — in a manner that is different from what you may have anticipated. So it is worth paying attention to what people are saying about their own usage of your product, especially if you want to grow new customer segments.

User stories are continuously written throughout the process of building a product, just like features. Most agile teams keep user stories in a product backlog until they are developed during sprints, but user stories can be created or updated at any time.

Use cases and user stories both have an important place in high-growth companies that are agile or are inspired to become so.

You may also consider that, for teams that depend on user stories, user story mapping is a great approach as well. It helps you thoughtfully map features according to each phase of the customer journey. Regardless of how detailed you go or how you choose to represent your product plans, what matters is that you think deeply about what your customers need and how you can best serve them. This is how you deliver value to your customers — no matter what you call it.

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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