User stories: a beginner’s guide to acceptance criteria

By courtney in Agile on September 22, 2010

Discussing acceptance criteria

Acceptance criteria define what must be done to complete an Agile user story. They specify the boundaries of the story and are used to confirm when it is working as intended. Here’s an introductory guide to writing and using acceptance criteria.

Last week I described the bones of the user story in the first post of our introductory series on user stories. Briefly, a user story is a description of an objective a person should be able to achieve when using your website/application/software. These stories are often written in this format: As an [actor] I want [action] so that [achievement].

For example: As a Flickr member I want to be able to assign different privacy levels to my photos so I can control who I share which photos with.

This post adds some flesh to the idea of user stories, in the shape of acceptance criteria.

Where are the details?

At first glance, it can seem like user stories don’t provide enough information to get a team moving from an idea to a product. That’s where acceptance criteria come in. But before we get to acceptance criteria, here’s some background. In 2001, Ron Jeffries wrote about the Three C’s of the user story:

In a project following an Agile process, the development team discuss user stories in meetings with the Product Owner. (The Product Owner is the person who represents the customer for the thing you’re developing, and who writes the user stories). First the Product Owner presents the user story, then the conversation begins.

For example: As a conference attendee, I want to be able to register online, so I can register quickly and cut down on paperwork.

In this case, questions for the Product Owner might include:

You capture the issues and ideas raised in this Q and A session in the story’s acceptance criteria.

Example acceptance criteria

Acceptance criteria define the boundaries of a user story, and are used to confirm when a story is completed and working as intended.

So for the above example, the acceptance criteria could include:

So as you can see, you write acceptance criteria in simple language, just like the user story. When the development team has finished working on the user story they demonstrate the functionality to the Product Owner. While doing this they show how they have satisfied each one of the criteria.

Benefits of using acceptance criteria

Including acceptance criteria as part of your user stories has several benefits. They:


Introduction to user stories – blog series

Want to know more? Learn about:


Further reading

For more examples of how acceptance criteria work, I really recommend this post by Sandy Mamoli. (Sandy is a Wellington Agile coach and scrum master, who we work with on Digital New Zealand). After that, you might like to check out this presentation on effective user stories by Mike Cohn.

Starting a new project? Check out our Agile Project Kick-off Kit to learn about user story mapping and prioritising user stories during project discovery.