Features, stories, and epics are all different elements of the agile process that go into creating a final product. There are a lot of terms you need to familiarize yourself with when working in product management, so it’s not surprising that even the most seasoned of PMs get confused and start using terms interchangeably. Epics, features, and user stories are perfect examples of terms that are often confused.
You need to structure your workflow to build a product with maximum value to the customer. This is one of the reasons we place so much importance on prioritization.
When structuring your work, you need to be able to see the largest objectives and how they break down into manageable pieces of work. You need to be able to respond to last-second changes, report your progress, and also stick to the game plan.
Epics, stories, and features are the perfect tools to use to do this.
Before we understand the differences between each tool, we first need to understand what each represents.
A feature is a service or function of the product that fulfills the customer’s needs and provides value to the business. Features are broken down into several user stories to ensure each requirement can be delivered with maximum value.
You can define features as key characteristics of your product. For example, a search function would be classed as a feature. Features can also separate one product version from the next when teams build iterative updates for long-term products.
A story (also referred to as a user story) is an informal explanation of feature requirements. Stories aren’t technical specifications, they’re a way of putting the customer at the center of every conversation. It gives context to the team’s actions, letting them know what they’re building, why they’re building it, and how it will create value. Within agile frameworks, a user story is the smallest unit of work.
User stories are usually found in the product backlog. They need to be clear and concise so that whoever reads them can easily identify who they’re building for and how they will offer value to the user.
User stories are most commonly written like this:
As a [role], I want [objective], So I [benefit]
User stories are not specifications, they’re simply a way to open up a conversation. It tasks the team with thinking about user pain points and how they can maximize value. Stories are broken down into tasks to ensure each aspect of the user story is covered before delivering the feature.
Epics are the overarching body of work from which we take features and stories. They are a great way to organize your workload and create a hierarchy. Epics often encompass multiple teams on multiple projects and can even be tracked using multiple boards.
Epics are typically found on the product roadmap or discovery board before they are added to the backlog. From there, the team will work on breaking down the epic into features and user stories.
We break epics down into smaller parts and deliver them over a set of sprints. This ensures the team dedicates the appropriate amount of time and resources to each task, feature, or story contained in the epic. It also helps prevent burnout by managing the amount of work the team needs to do in one sprint.
Features and stories are taken from epics, but they represent substantially different things. Features are distinct elements of functionality that offer value to the business and user.
Stories are small parts of a feature that allow teams to put context to their actions. Each completed user story iteratively builds the feature. Only when all of the user stories have been completed can you consider a feature deliverable.
Agile teams often use epics and stories to refer to requirements that deliver value to the user. While that’s an accurate description, the two terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably.
User stories specifically refer to small requirements from a user perspective, while epics are much larger.
While you can technically call an epic a large user story, keeping the two terms separate is best to avoid confusion, especially with teams that are new to agile.
Breaking down product development into a more granular process helps teams perform better and reduces the risk of burnout. Heading into your working day knowing you have 1 or 2 tasks to do is much better for morale than heading into another day of slugging away at an epic.
Tasks feed into user stories, user stories feed into features and features feed into epics. Before you know it, you have a deliverable product that users will love. This iterative process is extremely helpful for agile teams because it leaves space for last-minute changes and ensures each part of the product offers maximum value to the user.
Using these terms interchangeably can confuse newcomers and make it harder to understand what each term really means. If teams can’t get on the same page, they’re more likely to face problems during development.
To help distinguish each, let’s think of a project as a book.
The entire story would be classed as an epic as it’s the completed product and is what the user will interact with.
The chapters would be the features. Large portions of the overall product come together to form the final deliverable.
Each paragraph would be a user story, smaller parts of the story that build chapters.
Each word would be a task, the essential parts that the book literally could not exist without.
The epic can’t be completed until each feature, user story, and task has been delivered.
Writing features, stories, and epics is easier than you might think. If you’re struggling, try breaking the process into bite-sized steps.
Define benefit hypothesis - The first step of writing a feature is to define your benefit hypothesis or the added value your new feature will bring to users. Your benefit hypothesis represents why you’re making this feature.
Determine the business value - Decide what value your business will receive from pursuing the new feature. This should also include information on any added costs the feature may incur.
Write a description of the feature’s context - Explain how users will interact with the feature and what problems it will address. This will ideally contain information that is important from the PM’s perspective.
Set out acceptance criteria - Don’t forget to include a definition of done and milestones. These help your team keep working and track how far they’ve progressed.
Name the epic - Naming your epic is one of the easiest ways to align your team with the end goal. Make it clear and concise to reduce confusion and avoid miscommunication.
Write a short description explaining the epic - Creating a short description will help the team understand what they need to do and what the end result should be. This narrative should include who is responsible for the epic, what the epic should achieve, and why the epic is worth pursuing.
Establish the scope - Narrow down the activities your team will perform.
Define completion criteria - How will the team know they’ve achieved the goal? Include milestones to help them track their progress.
Break the epic down into stories - Epics are big pieces of work. Breaking the epic into user stories will help make the journey easier and ensure you instill maximum value into each piece of work.
Define the end user - This is your target audience. Use this information for research and marketing.
Figure out what they want - Identify any pain points or needs the user needs to have addressed.
Describe the benefits they'll gain from using your product - Can you solve their issue? Can you add value to the overall product with this user story? Explain how here.
Choose acceptance criteria - How will you know the user story is complete? Again, you can include progress milestones so the team knows where they’re at.