Alistair Cockburn is a well-renowned expert on agile development and use cases; his book Writing Effective Use Cases is a “must read” for all product managers. There are professional books that you read, then put aside and sometimes you might refer to them. Other books become part of your core reference library, never far from your reach, dog-eared from frequent reading, and filled with highlights and underlines – this is one of those books.
For someone who has never written a use case, this is an excellent starting point, covering all you need to know about use cases to be successful. For those that have written use cases, I am confident that you will find many new valuable nuggets of information that will help you in your job. The book is manageable in length (270 pages including appendices and index) and very practical with many examples of uses cases throughout (including examples of bad ones). The most valuable aspect to the book is Cockburn’s professional advice and tidbits that he sprinkles throughout the book. Anyone who is familiar with Alistair Cockburn’s work knows that he has a great deal of experience, and it shows in this book. This book is short in theory and long in real-world examples.
Cockburn refers to use cases as “scaffolding” that connects various pieces of the project, which is very true. Use cases are crossed linked to requirements, user interface designs and test plans, creating a traceability matrix throughout the lifecycle of the project. Cockburn dedicates a chapter to how use cases fit in the overall process. Managing the entire body of use cases is just as important as writing them.
A big part of any product manager’s job is time management, and Cockburn addresses this in the book. It is not feasible to write detailed use cases right from the start, and it certainly cannot be done for all of the potential uses cases. Cockburn stresses the importance of “warming up” with use case briefs or narratives, and then working towards more detailed, fully dressed use cases.
I like how Cockburn distinguishes between requirements and use cases – this is an important concept for product managers to understand. In short, use cases really are requirements. Properly written, use cases describe the behavioral requirements. However, with that said, use cases do not deal with all requirements such as the non-functional ones (external interfaces, performance criteria, documentation standards, etc.).
For those product managers that already have their own format or preferred method for use cases, Cockburn provides many examples of different use case styles. He is quite flexible in this regard, understanding that use cases are, “fundamentally an exercise in writing prose essays, with all the difficulties in articulating good that comes with prose writing in general”. What Cockburn is very insistent about is that the use cases must be easy to read, short and clear for all stakeholders to understand.
There are other excellent books on use cases (Use Case Modeling by Bittner and Spence is one I would also recommend), however, at the end of the day, a product manager needs to adopt one standard and run with it. Cockburn’s book fits this bill and more. I would highly recommend this book for new or experienced product managers.