Agile workflow

7 min read

Use Cases vs. User Stories: How They Differ and When to Use Them

Tue Jun 08 2021
Sean Blake
Written by Sean Blake, Head of Marketing

The notable quote from Alistair Cockburn, co-author of the Agile Manifesto, reads, “A user story is to a use case as a gazelle is to a gazebo.” This sheds light on the immense differences between use cases vs. user stories for agile teams. They may sound similar in name, but they are very different and often used in completely different industries.

While both use cases and user stories help teams plan work and determine what’s needed to complete work, the format for how they are used is quite different. User stories are simple, short descriptions from the customer’s perspective. They are the beginning of a larger process that describes a customer's actions as they use or interact with your product. Use cases contain much more context. Creating detailed use cases is a much more in-depth process that’s designed to help teams understand how a user or customer interacts with a system. We’ll dig deeper into both of these processes below.

If you’re in agile software development, chances are you’re more familiar with utilizing user stories. In this post, we’ll dig deeper into use cases vs. user stories differences, including why today’s development teams have migrated towards user stories and why there’s still valid reason for utilizing use cases in the development process.

What’s the difference between use cases vs. user stories?

Use cases vs. user stories: What’s the difference, and how do you decide what’s best for your team and development process?

Use case vs. user story: Past and present

Use cases were the standard for many years, and they were often used in business analysis, systems analysis, software requirements, and iterative development. With the rise of agile, software projects began to favor user stories in place of use cases because they allowed for improved incremental thinking and agility.

What is a use case?

A use case is a description of each of the ways a user may want to interact with a system, a device, or a piece of equipment. They describe how the system design will respond to requests from its end-user, commonly known as an actor. These actors could be human beings or other systems.

Take an online shopping site and a food delivery service, for example. A customer placing an order or checking if a restaurant is open are two different use cases. Or, on the less technical side, consider a toaster. Say someone (the actor) only wants their bagel toasted on one side. Choosing the “bagel” toaster setting is a use case.

Use cases help teams structure all of the different functional requirements and determine the scope of the project — which means they’re full of details.

These details include:

  • The goal of the use case
  • Whether the actor is a human or another system
  • Preconditions, or the state the system has to be in for the use case to occur
  • The regular series of steps the system will take
  • Alternative paths the system could take
  • Postconditions — actions the system takes at the end of the use case or the various states the system could be in after the use case concludes

Take the “bagel” setting on a toaster.

  • Use case title/goal: Bagel setting
  • Actor/user: This is someone who likes their bagel only toasted on one side.
  • Preconditions: There needs to be a “bagel” function/button.
  • Regular steps/standard path: The actor cuts their bagel in half and places each half in the toaster. They push the lever down to toast the bagel. Then, they press the button titled “BAGEL” and wait for their bagel to be toasted the way they like.
  • Alternative paths: The actor may forget to activate the “bagel” setting, resulting in a poor user experience.
  • Postconditions: The toaster returns to its usual state (bagel setting not set).

What is a user story?

A user story is the who, what, and why of a goal or outcome that the user or customer wants to achieve. It’s the smallest piece of work that can give value back to the customer. It’s written from the point of view of the end user, often on an index card.

Here’s an example of how a user story is typically written: “As a [persona type], I want to [action] so that [benefit].”

A user story is designed to be as simple as possible, sparing the team as well as stakeholders from having to decode a lot of technical lingo. But, that doesn’t mean the process for creating a user story is easy. A lot of information is condensed into a single sentence. And before writing a user story, the team first has to identify and create their user persona and assemble all of the product requirements

Easy Agile co-founder Nick Muldoon describes user story mapping as “a facilitated, curated conversation that brings everyone along for the journey.”

A project or product developed in an agile environment will involve a lot of user stories that are each added to the product backlog. There, they can be arranged and prioritized on a user story map according to the scheduled release or sprint.

Use cases vs. user stories: The case for use cases

While use cases are far less common in agile development, they do have some advantages to consider. After all, the true spirit of agile means questioning your assumptions and trying new methods.

1. Use cases provide a summary and planning skeleton

Use cases provide anyone involved, such as managers, leadership, product owners, developers, or stakeholders, with a summary of what the system will offer. What will the system contribute to the users and the overall business? They provide a planning skeleton to help teams prioritize, estimate timing, and execute actions.

2. Use cases provide context for each requirement

The use case provides enough detail and context to ensure everyone is on the same page. It’s an agreement between team members about what the system will and won’t do.

3. Use cases provide a look ahead at what could slow work

The alternative paths portion of use cases provides an advanced look at what could go wrong. Small bottlenecks can take up a huge amount of time and money, so the sooner you can recognize and address these issues, the better.

4. Use cases provide answers for specific issues and scenarios

Use cases answer the specific questions developers or programmers could have along the way. The use case process ensures all questions about issues or possible scenarios are answered at the outset before these questions begin to bog down work or slow down a team’s progress.

5. Use cases provide a model to think through all aspects completely

The use case model ensures developers have fully thought through all aspects of development. Use cases dig into the details of user needs, system goals, possible issues, and various business variants.

Use cases vs. user stories: Bottom line

So, use cases vs. user stories? How do you decide which is better for your team? If you have a lot of experience with agile projects and working on agile teams, you know the undeniable value of user stories. They convey what the user or customer wants to achieve so that teams are always considering the needs of the user.

That said, even though use cases are a bit dated, they can provide much-needed context surrounding how a system is used. They describe how a user interacts with a system, answering many questions in advance to help manage complicated processes. Plus, it wouldn’t be very agile to discount a solution simply because you haven’t tried it before. 😉

Using Easy Agile TeamRhythm

We’re passionate about building tools that help agile teams work better together. Easy Agile TeamRhythm is designed to help product owners and development teams bring value to customers fast and frequently. Supporting user story mapping, backlog refinement, sprint planning, and team retrospectives, you can plan and manage your work right from the user story map, then come together as a team to share actionable insights that will help you work better together each time.

TeamRhythm integrates seamlessly with your agile boards in Jira for both Scrum and Kanban methodologies. Try it yourself in our sandbox demonstration; no need for a login or installation.

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