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Telling Stories and User Role Modeling

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Agile software development is based on "telling stories." In this sample chapter, you'll learn about user roles, role modeling, user role maps, and personas. You'll also find out how taking these initial steps leads to better stories and better software.
This chapter is from the book

On many projects, stories are written as though there is only one type of user. All stories are written from the perspective of that user type. This simplification is a fallacy and can lead a team to miss stories for users who do not fit the general mold of the system's primary user type. The disciplines of usage-centered design (Constantine and Lockwood 1999) and interaction design (Cooper 1999) teach us the benefits of identifying user roles and personas prior to writing stories. In this chapter we will look at user roles, role modeling, user role maps, and personas and show how taking these initial steps leads to better stories and better software.

User Roles1

Suppose we are building the BigMoneyJobs job posting and search site. This type of site will have many different types of users. When we talk about user stories, who is the user we're talking about? Are we talking about Ashish who has a job but always keeps an eye out for a better one? Are we talking about Laura, a new college graduate looking for her first professional job? Are we talking about Allan, who has decided he'll take any job that lets him move to Maui and windsurf every afternoon? Or are we talking about Scott, who doesn't hate his job but has realized it's time to move on? Perhaps we're talking about Kindra who was laid off six months ago and was looking for a great job but will now take anything in the northeastern United States.

Or should we think of the user as coming from one of the companies posting the jobs? Perhaps the user is Mario, who works in human resources and posts new job openings. Perhaps the user is Delaney, who also works in human resources but is responsible for reviewing resumes. Or perhaps the user is Savannah, who works as an independent recruiter and is looking for both good jobs and good people.

Clearly we cannot write stories from a single perspective and have those stories reflect the experiences, backgrounds and goals of each of these users. Ashish, an accountant, may look at the site once a month just to keep his options open. Allan, a waiter, may want to create a filter to notify him any time any job on Maui gets posted but he won't be able to do that unless we make it easy. Kindra may spend hours each day looking for a job, broadening her search as time goes by. If Mario and Delaney work for a large company with many positions to fill, they may spend four or more hours a day on the site.

While each user comes to your software with a different background and with different goals, it is still possible to aggregate individual users and think of them in terms of user roles. A user role is a collection of defining attributes that characterize a population of users and their intended interactions with the system. So, we could look at the users in the preceding example and group them into roles as shown in Table 3.1 into roles this way.

Table 3.1. One possible list of roles for the BigMoneyJobs project.



Job Seeker


First Timer


Layoff Victim


Geographic Searcher




Job Poster

Mario, Savannah

Resume Reader

Delaney, Savannah

Naturally, there will be some overlap between different user roles. The Job Seeker, First Timer, Layoff Victim, Geographic Searcher, and Monitor roles will all use the job search features of the site. They may use them in different ways and at different frequencies, but much of how they use the system will be similar. The Resume Reader and Job Poster roles will probably overlap as well since these roles are both pursuing the same goal of finding good candidates.

Table 3.1 does not show the only possible way to group users of BigMoneyJobs into roles. For example, we could choose to include roles like Part-Timer, Full-Timer and Contractor. In the rest of this chapter we'll look at how to come up with a list of roles and how to refine that list so that it is useful.

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