Acceptance Criteria: Challenges and Best Practices

The set of conditions that your product should meet in order to be accepted by the end user or the stakeholder is called acceptance criteria. This guide walks you through all the intricacies surrounding these criteria that are so crucial for acceptance.

Acceptance criteria are the yardstick by which the success of a project or a task is measured. They outline what needs to be done or accomplished to consider a deliverable complete and satisfactory. In project or product management, setting effective acceptance criteria is crucial for ensuring that everyone involved – developers, testers, designers and stakeholders – share a common understanding of what success looks like, and also to check that everyone is on the same page with regards to the expectations. 

However, crafting effective acceptance criteria has challenges and requires adherence to best practices. In this article, we will explore the intricacies of acceptance criteria, it’s common challenges, and outline best practices to overcome them.

What are Acceptance Criteria?

Acceptance criteria are a set of conditions or specifications that a product or service must meet to be accepted by a stakeholder, customer, or end user. They are used primarily in software development, project management, and quality assurance processes to define the requirements and expectations for a particular deliverable.

Acceptance criteria typically outline the functional and non-functional requirements that must be satisfied for a deliverable to be considered complete and acceptable. These criteria are used as a basis for evaluating if the delivery satisfies the desired goals. They are frequently collaboratively documented by development teams, product owners, and stakeholders. There is a common misconception that acceptance criteria and acceptance tests are synonymous, however, they have their differences and serve distinct purposes in defining requirements and validating functionality, respectively.

Why Do You Need User Story Acceptance Criteria?

User story acceptance criteria are specific conditions or requirements that must be met for a user story to be considered complete and ready for release. User story acceptance criteria are essential for several reasons: 

1. Clarifying Expectations: User story acceptance criteria help ensure that both the development team and the stakeholders have a clear understanding of what needs to be achieved. They provide specific, measurable details about the functionality or feature being developed.

2. Quality Assurance: User story acceptance criteria serve as a basis for testing. They help QA engineers understand how to validate whether the user story has been implemented correctly and meets the intended requirements.

3. Defining Done: Acceptance criteria outline the conditions that must be met for a user story to be considered complete. They help define the definition of “done” for the development team, ensuring that everyone understands when the work is finished.

4. Prioritization: Acceptance criteria can help stakeholders prioritize user stories based on their importance and impact. By clearly outlining the expected outcomes, stakeholders can make informed decisions about which user stories should be worked on first.

5. Alignment with Business Goals: Acceptance criteria should reflect the business goals and objectives that the user story aims to address. This alignment ensures that the development effort is focused on delivering value to the business.

Tips for Writing Acceptance Criteria

Writing effective acceptance criteria is essential for ensuring that user stories are well-defined and actionable. Here are some tips for writing acceptance criteria:

1. Be Specific and Clear: You need to clearly define what needs to be achieved and avoid ambiguity. Use precise language and provide enough detail so that there is no room for misinterpretation.

2. Use Measurable Criteria: Ensure that acceptance criteria are measurable so that progress and completion can be objectively assessed. 

3. Focus on User Value: Tie acceptance criteria back to the value they deliver to the user or customer. This helps keep the team focused on addressing user needs and priorities.

4. Be Testable: Ensure that acceptance criteria can be tested to determine whether they have been met. They should provide clear guidelines for how to validate the functionality being developed.

5. Include Both Positive and Negative Scenarios: Define criteria for both the expected behavior (positive scenarios) and any potential edge cases or error conditions (negative scenarios) that need to be addressed.

6. Consider Non-Functional Requirements: In addition to functional requirements, include criteria related to performance, security, usability, and other non-functional aspects of the system.

7. Collaborate with Stakeholders: Involve stakeholders, including product owners, customers, and end-users, in defining acceptance criteria. This ensures that everyone has a shared understanding of what needs to be delivered.

8. Keep Criteria Agile and Iterative: Acceptance criteria may evolve as the team learns more about the requirements or as priorities change. Be prepared to adapt and refine acceptance criteria as needed throughout the development process.

9. Prioritize Criteria: Indicate which acceptance criteria are essential for the minimum viable product (MVP) and which are nice to have but not critical for initial release. This helps the team focus on delivering the most valuable functionality first.

10. Review and Validate: Review acceptance criteria with relevant stakeholders to ensure they accurately capture requirements and expectations. Validate them through discussions, demos, and testing to confirm that they are achievable and meaningful.

Acceptance Criteria Examples

Example 1: 

User Story As a registered user, I want to be able to reset my password if I forget it.

Acceptance Criteria:

  • The “Forgot Password” link is prominently displayed on the login page.
  • Clicking the “Forgot Password” link opens a page where the user can enter their email address.
  • After entering the email address, the system sends a password reset link to the user’s email.
  • The password reset link expires after 24 hours for security reasons.
  • When the user clicks on the password reset link, they are redirected to a page where they can enter a new password.
  • After successfully resetting the password, the user receives a confirmation email.

Example 2:

User Story – As an online shopper, I want to be able to filter search results by price range.

Acceptance Criteria:

  • The search results page displays a filter option labeled “Price Range.”
  • The “Price Range” filter allows users to input minimum and maximum price values.
  • When users enter valid price values and apply the filter, the search results update to display only products within the specified price range.
  • If the user enters invalid price values (e.g., non-numeric characters, negative values), an error message is displayed, and the filter is not applied.

When Should User Story Acceptance Criteria Be Written?

User story acceptance criteria should ideally be written during the early stages of the sprint or iteration planning process, typically before development work begins. However, the precise timing may vary depending on the specific agile framework being used (e.g., Scrum, Kanban) and the team’s preferences.

Here are some common scenarios and guidelines for when to write acceptance criteria:

1. During Sprint Planning: In Scrum, acceptance criteria are often defined during sprint planning meetings. Product owners and members of the development team work together to define the requirements for every user story and to specify the acceptance criteria that will be applied to verify that the story is completed.

2. Before Development Begins: Ideally, acceptance criteria should be written before the development work starts on a user story.  By doing this, the team may prevent misunderstandings or rework later in the sprint and ensure that everyone on the team knows exactly what has to be implemented.

3. As Part of Backlog Refinement: Acceptance criteria can also be refined or added during backlog refinement sessions, where the team reviews and discusses upcoming user stories in preparation for future sprints. This allows for ongoing clarification and improvement of acceptance criteria over time.

4. Constant Collaboration: Product owners, developers, testers, and other pertinent stakeholders should work together to define acceptance criteria. Throughout the development process, constant coordination and communication make sure that acceptance criteria appropriately represent needs and intended results.

5. In Response to Change: Requirements may change, stakeholders may provide input, or new information discovered during development may necessitate updating or improving acceptance criteria. It is critical to maintain flexibility and modify acceptance criteria as necessary to take into account the user story’s changing interpretation.

Best Practices for Acceptance Criteria

1. Avoid Over-Specifying: Although acceptance criteria are essential for defining expectations, too specific criteria may limit developers’ creativity and adaptability. Rather than offering a definitive answer, concentrate on communicating the intention. This guarantees that developers can make changes and still accomplish the goals of the user story. Extremely narrow criteria could miss other user activities that were not originally included in the scope.

2. Make sure it is attainable: Acceptance criteria must specify a manageable minimum amount of functionality that the team can produce in a sprint. Steer clear of too thorough descriptions of every little detail as this may result in an excessive amount of work. Instead, give priority to necessary features to keep your workload under control.

3. Keep it measurable: Acceptance criteria must be narrow enough to avoid making the user story unclear while still being measurable enough to evaluate completion. Provide a clear description of the task to help developers properly plan and estimate their time.

4. Avoid Technical Jargon: Write acceptance criteria in plain language to ensure clarity and understanding among all stakeholders. Technical details can be confusing for non-technical team members, including stakeholders and managers. Keep the language accessible to everyone involved in the project.

5. Seek Consensus: Diverse viewpoints among team members and stakeholders may result in different approaches to problem-solving. Make sure that everyone is in agreement and that the acceptance criteria are conveyed clearly. Encourage everyone on the team to thoroughly review and validate what they understand.

6. Ensure Testability: Make sure the criteria are testable by drafting them so that testers can confirm that all requirements have been satisfied. Effective validation of the user story’s fulfillment is made possible by testable criteria. When a user story is not testable, developers could find it difficult to judge when it is finished.

Challenges with Writing Effective Acceptance Criteria

Writing effective acceptance criteria can present several challenges, including:

1. Ambiguity: Acceptance criteria must be unambiguous to ensure a shared understanding among all stakeholders. However, capturing the desired functionality without leaving room for interpretation can be difficult, leading to ambiguity in the criteria.

2. Technical Complexity: It can be difficult to strike a balance between technical complexity and simplicity in acceptance criteria. It takes significant thought and communication to write criteria that are understandable to non-technical stakeholders while capturing the essential technical aspects for developers.

3. Scope creep: It might be difficult to properly define the scope of work without unintentionally going beyond the initial plan. Acceptance criteria have to be both sufficiently broad to encompass all required functionality and sufficiently narrow to prevent scope creep.

4. Alignment with Business Objectives: It is important to give serious thought to how acceptance criteria fit into the larger picture of business objectives and user requirements. If the underlying goals are not well understood, approval criteria could be too strict or give preference to less important features.

5. Testability: Creating verifiable and tested acceptance criteria has its own set of difficulties. Effective testing necessitates the structuring of criteria, which may call for cooperation between developers, testers, and other stakeholders.

What is the Right Amount of Acceptance Criteria?

The right amount of acceptance criteria for a user story is the minimum necessary to ensure clarity, testability, and alignment with business objectives. Acceptance criteria should offer enough direction so that testers can confirm that the user story has been properly finished and the development team knows what needs to be executed. However, it’s important not to overwhelm the user story with excessive or overly detailed criteria.

A good rule of thumb is to aim for a balance between providing enough detail to convey the requirements effectively and avoiding unnecessary complexity or verbosity. Acceptance criteria should avoid getting mired down in minute details or edge cases and instead concentrate on the core capability or behavior that must be provided.

In the end, how many acceptance criteria are appropriate will rely on the user story’s complexity, the project’s particular requirements, and the team’s preferences. The context of the user story and your judgment should be taken into account when deciding on the right amount of detail for the acceptance criteria. To guarantee that the acceptance criteria successfully direct development efforts and support the timely delivery of the user story, strive for clarity, conciseness, and relevance.

Importance of Acceptance Criteria for Software Testers

Acceptance criteria play a crucial role for software testers in several ways:

1. Guides Testing Efforts: Acceptance criteria provide clear guidelines on what needs to be tested and validated within a user story. Testers use acceptance criteria as a basis for creating test cases and ensuring that the software meets the specified requirements.

2. Helps in Defining Test Coverage: Testers can better define the extent of their work by using acceptance criteria. Testers are better able to prioritize their efforts and concentrate on areas that are crucial to achieving business objectives and user needs when they are aware of the requirements that must be fulfilled for the user narrative to be approved.

3. Ensures Quality: Acceptance criteria are used as a standard to assess whether the software satisfies the required quality standards. To guarantee a high-quality final product, testers confirm that the implemented functionality satisfies user expectations and is in line with the acceptance criteria.

4. Identifying Defects: When a test runs, variations from intended functionality or behavior are flagged using acceptance criteria. The development team can then report, monitor, and fix any inconsistencies that exist between the accepted criteria and the implemented features by marking them as defects.

5. Facilitates Collaboration: Acceptance criteria give testers, developers, and other stakeholders a common language to communicate and work together. Testers can work with the development team to resolve any problems or concerns and effectively explain their testing results by referring to the acceptance criteria.

6. Supports User Feedback: Testers can better grasp the context and expectations of user feedback by using acceptance criteria. Testers can ascertain whether reported issues are in line with the requirements and prioritize them for resolution by evaluating user feedback against the acceptance criteria.


In conclusion, while acceptance criteria are essential for ensuring clarity, testability, and alignment with business objectives, they come with challenges such as ambiguity, over-specification, and scope creep. However, by following best practices such as maintaining clarity, involving stakeholders, and prioritizing testability, teams can overcome these challenges and write effective acceptance criteria that guide development efforts and contribute to the successful delivery of high-quality software.

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