Understanding your Client’s User Stories

My thesis so far: You have a greater opportunity to increase customer Value by delivering more Benefit than by lowering customer Investment. If customer Value = Benefit – Investment (my original theory), then it is easy to see that lowering Investment (cost control) can have a noticeable impact on Value when the initial Investment is large. But you can also see that the opportunity for Value improvement through cost control diminishes as the Investment shrinks.

I’ve also discussed the usefulness of Lean tools for cost control, especially identifying and eliminating Waste in your legal workflows (I even made a handy poster). But I cautioned that eliminating Waste for the sake of your own efficiency is a poor long-term strategy for improving Value: First you must understand what Benefit your work is adding for your customer, then you can scrutinize any activities that are not extrinsically beneficial.

So how can you better understand your customer’s desired Benefits?

My current favorite tool comes from the world of Agile Project Management.

A brief primer: Agile is a project management philosophy sparked in 2001 by seventeen software developers who were frustrated with the lengthy development periods and rigid structures of sequential (waterfall) project design. They drafted the Agile Manifesto to emphasize “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools, Working software over comprehensive documentation, Customer collaboration over contract negotiation, [and] Responding to change over following a plan.”

Agile encourages manageable, incremental improvements to products and processes rather than long development cycles for big-bang releases. If you’ve ever wondered why some apps on your phone always seem to have a new update available, Agile development is the likely reason.

So how are Agile teams able to be so, well, agile? One key reason is that Agile rejects requirement lists and functionality requests in favor of presenting problems to be solved in the context of a User Story. The User Story, consistent with the Agile Manifesto, encourages collaboration between the product developers and their customers (or the customer’s proxy, the business owner), so that all members of the team can creatively approach the problem to be solved instead of being told to implement a particular solution.

A User Story, in a nutshell, is a nutshell—It is a compact statement of a customer’s specific need, with just enough context for the product (or service) developer to understand the basis for that need. Sometimes they are accompanied by acceptance criteria or other clarification, but the User Story itself is often limited in detail by the sticky notes or 3×5 cards they are written on.

Although there are variations, most User Stories roughly follow this Mad-lib-style format:

As a   <customer role>  , I need to be able to   <goal / desire>  , so that I can   <benefit>  .

Take a moment to appreciate the simple elegance of that approach.

If you can articulate this single sentence, you’re in a strong position to start delivering greater Benefit to your customer, thereby improving the Value of your overall offering.

Now notice that the first blank is a placeholder for “customer role,” not just “customer.” Once you recognize that your customers wear many hats, and that each customer role has multiple goals/desires—each with its own set of Benefits—you can start to build an impressive library of customer needs and desires for you to consider.

My case for User Stories therefore goes like this:

  1. Value = Benefit – Investment.
  2. Reducing Investment has a finite and diminishing impact on increasing Value.
  3. Improving Benefit has infinite potential to increase Value (so long as the incremental Benefit is greater than the additional Investment required to deliver it).
  4. Understanding your customer’s User Stories allows you to understand exactly what Benefit you can deliver to that customer.
  5. ∴ User Stories are a key for unlocking customer Value.

Once you start thinking about your customer’s needs in terms of User Stories, you may never stop. Of course you won’t be in a position to deliver every Benefit for every goal, for every role, your customer has. But even when you can’t directly deliver a particular Benefit, you ignore it at your peril.

Let’s look at a hypothetical divorce client. The basic User Story is simple, something like “As a person whose marriage no longer works, I need to be able to untangle my relationship with my spouse so that I can get on with my life.” Most divorce lawyers are good at understanding the legal steps necessary to address this particular customer need.

But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that this same divorce client can have many other User Stories to consider:

“As a newly single parent, I need to be able to balance the needs of myself, my job, and my children while going through the stress of a divorce, so that I can protect my kids and provide for my family.”

“As a person going through an emotionally difficult time, I need to be able to know when this period will be over, so that I can muster the strength to get through it.”

You get the idea. Many of these needs aren’t necessarily legal ones, but just because you are a lawyer doesn’t mean you’re limited to addressing legal problems. You can add all sorts of Benefit if you develop a mix of generic user stories that will cover a broad swath of your client base, take time to understand the individual stories of each of your clients, and pay attention to how the stories change over the course of your relationship.

Once you’ve collected your User Stories, the next steps are to prioritize them and develop an action plan to address them. Those steps will have to wait for a future article, but think about how some good user stories would illuminate new possibilities for adding Benefit for that hypothetical divorce client: Maybe you could keep a list of dependable babysitters for your clients to use. Maybe you could make a deal with a local spa to give your clients a discount. Maybe you could give your client regular status reports, even if nothing major is happening with the case. The possibilities are vast.

For now, let me kick you off with a near-universal User Story for legal clients:

As a person experiencing uncertainty due to a legal issue, I need a lawyer who is able to understand my situation, so that I can feel like my needs are being addressed and can put my mind at ease.

Now what can you do to deliver Benefit against this customer need?

Drafting a few more User Stories would be a solid start.

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