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Jira story vs. epic: What's the difference?

Those who work with a Scrum board in Jira should know that the key difference between a Jira story versus an epic is the scope and size of the feature they describe.

A story in Jira has clear boundaries and is typically implementable within a few days to a few weeks. In contrast to a story, Jira epics are more general in scope, are themselves composed of multiple stories, and may take months or even years to complete.

What is a user story?

To breakdown complicated workflows and describe a software feature in simple terms, product owners describe their visions in terms of user stories.

A user story takes the following form: "As a [user role], I want to [accomplish a goal] so that [a benefit is achieved]."

User story examples

For example, a Scrum team working on a new anti-virus program might include the following Jira stories in their backlog:

  • As a computer user, I want to scan my system for viruses regularly so that I can ensure my computer is free from malware and threats.
  • As a small business owner, I want to schedule automatic virus scans during off-peak hours so that my employees' work is not disrupted during business hours.
  • As a parent, I want to configure parental controls and restrict access to certain websites or applications so that I can protect my children from inappropriate content and online threats.

What is an epic?

In its simplest terms, an epic is just a big user story.

For example, imagine the product owner for the anti-virus app in the second example says in a Scrum planning meeting, "I don't just want to stop viruses from being installed. I want to digitally infiltrate the computers of bad actors who create viruses and disable their entire networks!"

The development team would tell the product owner that this proposal isn't just a regular user story but, rather, an epic user story.

A Jira epic is just a big, complex user story that teams must break down into multiple, smaller user stories to be accomplished.

Jira story and epics example

I am currently building an online learning engine and have broken up the product backlog into five epics as follows:

  • User registration and authentication.
  • Course management.
  • User engagement and interaction.
  • Payment and subscription management.
  • Performance and scalability.

Within Jira, epics and user stories typically receive titles that are generalized and easy to read. The full user story is usually included in the description of the ticket, not the title.

Jira story and epics.
A Jira Scrum board contains tasks and stories organized into epics.

Stories, epics and tasks

Each of these epics contains multiple user stories, and potentially even Jira tasks -- small units of work that devs must accomplish to complete a story. The following examples describe the epics in the above Jira screenshot:

  • The user registration epic contains three stories.
  • The payment and subscription management epic contains eight stories.
  • The course management epic contains five stories and tasks.

How to use stories and epics

A big challenge in all software development projects is how the product owner sufficiently describes their vision of what must be built. A Jira story lets the product owner put a feature or requirement into simple and easy terms. By contrast, the product owner uses an epic to categorize and contain a set of user stories that completes a larger, more general feature or global function.

Together, Jira epics and stories are simple tools for teams to organize their work and ultimately implement the overall product vision and goal.

Darcy DeClute is a technical trainer and Agile coach who helps organizations apply Scrum-based principles to adopt a modern DevOps stack. She is a certified Professional Scrum Master, Professional Scrum Developer and Professional Scrum Product Owner as well as author of Scrum Master Certification Guide.

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