The Psychology of User Stories

The Psychology of User Stories

Though we share an office with a tech startup, sometimes it feels like the two companies here are ships passing in the night—separate schedules, separate teams, separate goals—as is expected. Still, fresh on the heels of City Dining Cards’ rebrand and app launch as Loupe, it’s hard to miss (and even harder to not stop by and participate in) the very specific excitement in the air at Loupe’s end of the office.

We’ve got some similar excitement brewing over here at Block Club. Last year, we launched an exciting new operational wing of the company called Block Club Labs. Labs functions as an in-house business incubator, launched to foster the entrepreneurial ideas sparked by our team, fostering and building them into their own companies as Block Club once did with Loupe back in 2010. As project manager of Labs, overseeing a nascent tech project (more to come soon!), it’s been a lot of fun to pick the brains of the Loupe team and delve into a topic that’s a personal favorite of mine—psychology.

One early step that allows designers to tap into user psychology and begin to build an intuitive tech product is that of user stories—short, simple descriptions of a potential platform feature as told through the perspective of the user:

“As a [type of user], I want [what] so that [successful outcome / benefit].”

Here’s an example for those of you familiar with the popular exercise app Strava, which does a great job of incorporating a social network of friends to challenge and encourage users in their exercise goals. In creating their platform, Strava’s developers would have considered, among many, a user story of, “As a user, I want to give and receive kudos from friends for my runs, so I feel rewarded and encouraged to continue.”

If a user story is too complex or covers too many ideas, keep asking yourself “why?” Why would a user want this feature, and what is the resulting benefit? Pull it apart to the smallest feature possible, because ultimately, these user stories will directly translate into product development. Each user story becomes a ticket, a single item in a long backlog of to-dos that the software developer will build out into the the actual platform.

User stories are particularly useful if your product will have more than one set of users; oftentimes, different types of users will approach your product with very different end goals in mind, and different ideas of what makes for a successful outcome. There’s something to be said for sitting down and writing in the first-person as each specific type of user, and I’ve found that it allows for a much more productive exercise in truly tapping into what the user wants from your product, and why.

While a very simple exercise, user stories help you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and tap into how a user will actually behave, rather than how you yourself want the user to behave. It’s all in the magic of the pronoun “I”—I want, I need, etc. After all, the Beatles figured this out a long time ago. They’re famous for creating a sense of personal identification in their songs, especially in their earliest days, singing as a first-person narrator to forge a sense of shared identity with the listener. While it’s formulaic, there’s a pretty simple reason for it—it works.

The Block Club team had a lot of fun at our recent retreat working on a user story exercise for our new Labs product, and we hit on some great things I hadn’t considered in the couple months I’ve already been working on this project—I realized that despite my best intentions otherwise, I’d occasionally been thinking of users in terms of what the platform wants out of them, rather than what the users will want out of the platform. (Although, note that as the platform owner, you’ll need your own set of user stories for what you ultimately desire out of the platform.)

While Block Club is using user stories for software development this time around, they can help you articulate user needs for any type of product or service, software or not. Try working through some user stories next time you’re creating a new website for a client, developing a marketing strategy, or just trying to spark ideas for a new product based on what might not be satisfied by what’s currently out there.