How to Decompose Atomic Requirements into Better User Stories

“How long will it take to do this ticket?”

If you use the Agile methodology to develop software, you probably run estimation sessions to determine how long it will take to do each ticket. Now, whether you’re doing this in person or online via Teams, one of the thorny issues is relates to the scope of the requirement. Is it clear to everyone on the call what the ask is?

In Agile, you need to be very exact in terms of the user story and the acceptance criteria.

In other words, what do you want the developers to code, and what should be QA tested to ensure they’ve covered different use cases? For the most part, this has to be watertight.

However, wrinkles can creep into the sprint when edge cases and other findings arise during development that effect the scope of the ticket. What started out as 3 days of work inches up to 5, then 7, and so on.

One way to remedy this is to avoid rushing into the sprint for the sake of getting started and meeting ‘aggressive deadlines’ and instead spend more time mapping the requirements into user stories, which can then be translated into tickets on your Kanban board.

How to Decompose Atomic Requirements

When coaching product managers, I help them identify complex requirements and decompose them into atomic requirements. That is, requirements which cannot be decomposed any further. As it’s not unusual for newly minted product managers to blend multiple requirements into a single user story, I’ll prepare a checklist which they can refer to when drafting their requirements.

If you work in an Agile or Scrum environment, you might find the ‘flexible’ nature of the sprint/epic/releases can undermine your project estimates. If that’s the case, consider using the following guidelines to identify atomic requirements, which you can then convert into easier to estimate user stories.

Start with a clear user goal

What does the user want to achieve? Defining the specific user goal sets the direction for the project, ensuring development work is on the relevant tasks. This minimizes rework by ensuring deliverables align with the user’s expectations from the outset.

Additionally, a well-defined user goal aids in accurate estimation, leading to realistic deadlines and a better product.

Use precise language

Be super specific. Precise language reduces ambiguity, which in turn minimizes misunderstandings and the need for rework. It streamlines the estimation process by providing clear parameters for each requirement.

This clarity also helps in meeting deadlines as there’s less time wasted on deciphering unclear or ambiguous requirements.

Focus on a single testable concept

By focusing on one concept per requirement, testing becomes more straightforward and efficient. This approach reduces the likelihood of overlooked functionalities, decreasing the need for further rework, ensures accurate estimation, and delivers on schedule.

Write in the active voice

Active voice and the imperative mood promote clarity and assertiveness. It reduces the risk of misinterpretation and subsequent rework.

They also facilitate a quicker understanding of the requirement, aiding in meeting deadlines and delivering on schedule.

Avoid implementation details

Steering clear of implementation details allows for flexibility during the development phase, reducing the likelihood of unnecessary rework due to rigid or inaccurate specifications. It also promotes innovation and creativity among developers, potentially leading to more efficient solutions.

Include quantifiable criteria

Quantifiable criteria enable objective evaluation, streamlining testing processes and reducing rework resulting from subjective interpretations. They also provide clear benchmarks for meeting deadlines and delivering on user expectations.

Use consistent terminology

Consistent terminology and the avoidance of buzzwords and jargon foster a shared understanding among stakeholders. This reduces confusion and minimizes the need for clarification via further Teams calls or Slack comms. While this is a small detail, it ensures everyone is on the same page from the start.

Identify dependencies

Documenting dependencies and relationships helps developers, testers, and technical writers understand the interconnectedness of requirements.

This mitigates the risk of overlooking critical dependencies and reduces rework caused by unforeseen dependencies which could otherwise surface later in the project timeline.

Use unique identifiers

Use unique identifiers for traceability purposes and impact analysis. Traceability reduces the risk of missed requirements and ensures you can identify necessary changes, stay on track, and avoid rework.

Validate with stakeholders

Stakeholder validation ensures that requirements accurately reflect user needs and expectations. Getting this right reduces the likelihood of rework due to misunderstandings or overlooked requirements.

It also fosters collaboration and buy-in, facilitating better decision-making and adherence to project deadlines.

Maintain traceability

Establishing traceability ensures that changes are managed throughout the development lifecycle, reducing rework or patch releases caused by incomplete or outdated requirements. It also aids in impact analysis, enabling informed decision-making and timely adjustments to project schedules and deliverables.

The Finer Points

In Agile development, you’re working with continuous refinement. Remember, these are not static documents but living artifacts that evolve throughout the project lifecycle.

Nonetheless, by following the suggested guidelines, you can prepare well-defined, testable, and traceable atomic requirements. Once captured, you’ll have more realistic estimates and a better baseline for the release activities.

Finally, I’d like to share a quote from Peter Drucker that sums up the importance of ‘active listening’ when gathering requirements: “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.