Bringing user stories to life

Just over a year ago I started work at Allegro Networks.

This was an amazing opportunity for me to work on an entirely greenfield project. Whilst I waited for the other two developers to start, I began the process of figuring out What We Were Supposed To Do.

I asked questions. I sat and listened. I learned about the domain. I learned about the problem we were trying to solve. I learned about all the different people who would use our product.

I tried to record my learnings for a couple of reasons:

  1. I wanted to regurgitate my understandings to have them validated
  2. I wanted to convey them to my new colleagues, who weren’t there during the initial conversations.

Coming from, and from all the conferences and meetups I had been to, I looked to my (and other’s) experience. I’ve never been a Business Analyst, we had positions for those at a big company like LateRooms, I was a developer. I took cards from the board, looked in our online backlog system for mock ups created by our design team and coded it up. That was doing agile. If you write the card as a user story, that makes it agile. That’s how you start to talk about BEHAVIOUR (something I’m a massive fan of).

When doing a piece of work I like to know why, not what. I like to understand what the problem is, who has the problem and WHY it’s a problem ,in order for me to come up with a solution. User stories are pretty good for this as they set the scene by identifying your users and understanding their motivation before you go onto the scenario.

Going with what I knew I started off by writing some user stories

As a …

I want …

So that …

I put them up in confluence for all to see. To be honest, they were a bit dry and boring. I found myself feeling really bored trying to come up with all the scenarios to build a backlog for us to work on. I’d been reading The Lean Startup just before I joined and my head was ablaze with the ideas from there, my personal experiences, all my years of reading blog posts and listening to talks on agile practices… Something wasn’t right. I felt like I was performing some ritual. This felt like cargo culture.  I needed something better to share with Iain and Ben.

So I took a step back and decided to look at this in a new way. I tried to forget everything I thought I was supposed to do and start afresh.

I managed to get down a concept. We’re very lucky to have Andy Davidson as our CTO. He’s bursting with enthusiasm, very tech savvy, lives and breathes The Internet and had a very strong and clear concept of what he wanted. I really didn’t know anything about the current products our company offered, our industry, our customers and our competitors. Andy had a great was of explaining everything to me as a story:

Customer A is at a networking event, chatting to another service provider, Customer B. They think it would be a great idea to connect. Customer B has the Allegro app on their iPhone, they convince Customer A to download the app to her tablet. They both have a connection at a data centre into our network. They check their port size, Customer A has about 8Gb free, Customer B has 1Gb free. Customer B requests a 2Gb connection to Customer A, the system warns him he’ll be over his limit, would he like to buy more capacity. He says yes and confirms his request to connect to Customer A. Customer A gets a pop up on her tablet asking if she wants to connect with Customer B. She accepts and the deal is done.

All this customer A and B malarky got a bit confusing, so I gave them names and companies. They started to become characters in my story.

I remembered back to a time just after uni, where one of my friend, Phil Robinson, started to make some funny online comics. One day I had a go, to depict my battle with the pigeons whilst working for BAE (a great tale I might divulge sometime). So I thought I’d have a go at turning this story, that Andy had painted so vividly in my mind, into a comic. I did a quick google and found BitStrips (this was last May, so way before it became a trend on facebook). It’s awesome. It’s really easy to play with your character’s faces and really bring them to life with expressions:


Andy's concept as a comic
Andy’s concept as a comic

My comics have been an absolute hit. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and that has certainly been the case. I have been able to digest a wall full of ideas into a single comic. We had some visitors from HMRC to see how we were innovating, researching and developing. I showed them these comics to explain our concept, and they loved them! Simple to understand, quick and easy to digest… Rather than writing endless reams of notes they took photocopies of my comics.

As we enhance our product with services such as SnapConnect, our lovely marketing team are even looking to promote and explain this to our customers using my comics!


6 thoughts on “Bringing user stories to life

  1. Connecting isn’t a real user task. Connecting needs to disappear. The user shouldn’t be doing it.

  2. Companies connecting their networks is what makes up the internet. It is a conscious decision between the parties involved.

    Allegro Networks are the first company to automate connectivity.

    Also, the subject of the post was more geared around a solution I’d discovered, and my journey there, as I thought using comics to convey ideas to a mass audience succinctly might be useful to others too. Connecting happened to be the example I used.

  3. Great minds think alike!

    Each comic takes me about 20 mins to create with bitstrips and is mega easy to change, or to modify the expressions of the characters ( :

    Like your technique – what do you use?

    Also great that you have the CTO admiring it!

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