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Use Case vs. User Story: The Final Showdown

What are the differences between a use case and a user story? And how exactly can they impact your Agile sprints?

Eyal Katz
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7 mins read

When it comes to Agile Product Management, navigating all the terms and ideas can feel like a minefield. Underneath all the keywords and buzzwords are powerful tools that can shape the form that your product ends up taking. These tools can also help determine the speed and quality of your product development flow by giving your teams clarity and understanding.

Use cases and user stories are two such tools.

But why are they important? What are the differences between a use case and a user story? And how exactly can they impact your Agile sprints?

Use Case vs. User Story

What is a use case?

You can look at a use case as the “big picture” of your application or project’s hopes to achieve. It is a series of processes that describe how your users interact with your app, system, or product.

There are two parts to a use case:

  • Preconditions are the factors that are necessary for the use case to be triggered. For example, the user must first abandon the cart for a cart follow-up email to be sent. The precondition use case “cart abandoned” triggers the follow-up email use case
  • Stakeholders  are everyone impacted by the outcome of the use case. It’s not always limited to users and can include other people in your organization. Going back to our follow-up email use case, the stakeholders can also be marketing teams responsible for the copy and additional promotions that may go into the email to convert the customer into making a purchase.

A use case documents what a typical user needs to do to achieve an end goal. The perspective of a use case is written from the system’s flow. The user of the System is often known as the Actor. The user and how they interact with the system trigger the user down a specific set of motions towards an end goal. 

Use cases are not absolute in their flows. There is often a main branch or basic flow that users’ walk through’ in the system and alternative paths or error handling when things go wrong.

use case methodology
(Source: https://searchsoftwarequality.techtarget.com/definition/use-case)

This end goal may be to convert the customer through a sale, email sign up, generate a report, or provide them with what your app aims to achieve. Use cases are helpful as developers tend to utilize them as a roadmap for implementing and sequencing features and functionality.

What is a user story?

In contrast to a user case, a user story takes each stakeholder and maps out their direct experience with the system. It is written from the perspective of the end-user. A user story defines the user’s motivation and what result they hope to achieve. A user story contains three components often follows this format:

  • User + Action + Expected outcome
dilbert user stories

A user is a specific stakeholder such as the customer, the marketer, or the analyst. The action is what they do with the system to trigger the expected outcome. The desired outcome is the end goal and motivation that led them to act.

Here is an example of what a user story looks like:

As a customer, I can add items to a wish list so that I can refer back to it and add things to the cart later.

An action can also have multiple expected outcomes. For example:

As a customer, I can add items to a wish list so that I can use it to compare prices between different brands and products.

The end goal of a user story is to capture how and why a user may interact with the system, app, or service.

What are the similarities between user stories and use cases?

A user story can be viewed as a subset of a use case. Features such as user roles, goals, preconditions, and expected outcomes tend to overlap through similarities. However, the major difference between these overlaps is the perspective in which they are being presented.

A use case is presented from the viewpoint of the business and its systems. It has an inside-out thinking flow with external triggers. In contrast, a user story takes the perspective of the targeted user and works inward to achieve a specific goal. The user becomes the trigger to the system based on wants and needs.

What are the differences between user stories and use cases?

The most significant difference between user stories and use cases is the type of details involved in constructing each.  User stories can also be viewed as a subset of use cases, leading to shorter scenarios that capture specific events and triggers caused by the user. A collection of user stories supplements the use case and gives a use case more depth and justification for particular features and flows.

Here are the key differences between user stories and use cases.

Use cases often include detailed descriptions and user flows, involve in-depth guidance with clear feature and system requirements, and can contain technical details for internal usage.

User stories are short, focused on the who and why. They act as general guidance and high-level overview with no technical detail. User stories are often used to represent different ways and why a user may use the system, app, or service.

When should you create a use case?

Writing a use case is best done when you want to define how your feature works and the reason for its existence. The how portion of a use case helps explain the processes involved to achieve a specific goal.

The reason for a feature’s existence also helps your business establish the expected outcomes. A use case can also help align the development process with your business goals and strategies.

When should you create a user story?

A use case is often viewed as ‘monolithic’ due to its scope and complex nature. It breaks down a use case into modular parts. Doing so allows teams to prioritize tasks for rapid implementation.

User stories are best written and focused on during sprints and when features are being implemented. This will give your developers and team members insight into the user’s perspective, which can contribute positively and in a focused manner to the design, development, and deployment cycles.

Here is a quick comparison of features between a use case and a user story.

Use CaseUser Story
Detailed and well documented. Includes descriptions of interactions between the System and the Actor.Short and succinct in length.
Contains extensive coverage of the goal, the trigger(s), preconditions, and flow steps, alternative flow steps, and postconditions that can also act as triggers to another use case.Clear writing structure and often follows this format: a [user] can [action] to achieve [expected outcome]
Often used by developers to develop features based on the descriptions given.Covers a single scenario and can be placed on a story map for project context. Often used to help determine the priority of use cases and which feature flow to implement.
Used by the analyst to create a list of feature descriptions and functional requirements for a developer to implement.Used by the analyst to determine user needs in context and determine the priority of features based on business goals, strategies, and user feedback on the currently implemented features.
Often used in waterfall software development processes and can be adapted for agile by giving the project a blueprint of direction.Often used in agile software development projects for faster decision making and feature implementation prioritization.

Use cases and user stories are often used as business tools to define and prioritize features and functionality. How use cases and user stories are used is what differentiates them.

With Craft.io, you can document and share use cases and user stories effectively and efficiently. Rather than writing your use cases and user stories as static documents that can easily get lost and become outdated, our platform lets you connect your use cases with your user stories to help you achieve and implement your product development strategies. Our easy-to-use interface enables you to make visual connections, take your spec writing tasks to the next level, and centralize your documentation efforts throughout the product development process.

Eyal Katz