Why You Should Define Reference User Stories

If your organization is new to Agile one of the things you might struggle is the shift from traditional to agile estimation. I have seen a lot of inexperienced agile teams struggling with the nature of story points and relative sizing. Often a lack of trust in their own estimates, which led to poor planning, was the consequence. A simple tool, called reference user stories, helped each of these teams to overcome these difficulties.

If you haven’t defined reference stories with your team yet, consider well-defined, well-sized, not too domain specific user story from your past sprint(s) as candidates. Ideally you want to have reference stories of different size (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and 13 story points). Alternatively you can define artificial user stories that will serve as your references. Create a table of your reference stories, like the one below, and use it in your backlog refinement meetings. Feel free to add or exchange reference stories later if you feel the need later.

Size User Story
1 Story A: As a user I want to see my user name on the page so that I know that I am logged in with the right user.
2 Story B: As a user I want to write a comment to a topic so that I can express my opinion to the author.
3 Story C: As an administrator I want to block users for the forum so that I can prevent them from spamming.
5 Story D: As a user I want to register for the website so that I can use their premium services.
8 Story E: As a system administrator I want to migrate data from database A to database B via an automated script so that I can handle the amount of data.
13 Story F: As a user I want to purchase a product via the online shop so that the article is delivered to my home.

According to my experience reference user stories have the following main benefits for agile teams:

  • Supporting relative estimation: A user story (e.g. Story X) is relatively sized to the defined reference stories (e.g. Story A, B, C, D, E, F), which helps to focus on relative estimates (e.g. story X is bigger than story B, but smaller than story D) instead of absolute figures (e.g. story B will take 40 hours of work).
  • Increase accuracy of estimates: Relative estimates are more accurate, because our brain is naturally better at relative sizing then in absolute estimation. Defined reference stories also keep a stable reference and therefore reduce variability in the estimates.
  • Normalization of story points: Defining, sharing and using reference stories among multiple teams, normalizes their view on story points. With normalized story points we can calculate velocities for multi-team projects by just summing up the team velocities. (WARNING: Never abuse normalized velocities for team performance measures!)