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Definition of Done vs. Acceptance Criteria: A complete guide

PostsSoftware development
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

May 19, 2023

Imagine spending hours on a project, only to have it land flat when you show it to the client. Where did it all go wrong? What did you miss out on? A clear understanding of the Definition of Done (DoD) vs. Acceptance Criteria (AC) can help you avoid this situation. 

While people often use these terms interchangeably, they both have very specific goals and roles. In this article, we’ll break down the differences between DoD and AC and show you how to use both effectively to create a foolproof plan for your next project. So read on — your clients will thank you for it.

What is the Definition of Done (DoD)?

DoD is the secret sauce that helps keep everyone on the same page when it comes to wrapping up a project, feature, or user story

Essentially, it’s a checklist to tick off before you can pop the champagne and call something ‘done.’ It’s also about making sure you maintain a consistent level of quality and avoid any miscommunication or surprises down the road.

A DoD can look a little different depending on the project, company, or industry, but here are some key ingredients you’ll usually find (in this example, we’re using software development).

1. Code quality

You want your code to be neat and tidy and follow the company’s coding standards and guidelines. 

2. Testing

This means running unit tests, integration tests, and user acceptance tests to make sure everything is working as it should.

3. Documentation

Let’s not forget about the paperwork. You need clear documentation, like code comments, user guides, and technical docs for your fellow developers.

4. Peer review

It’s always good to have a fresh pair of eyes take a look at your work. A team member should review the code and give it the green light before you move on.

5. Performance

We want your feature or user story to be fast and efficient, meeting performance benchmarks and not slowing down the rest of the system.

6. Security

You need to make sure all security measures are in place, like vulnerability scans and following the company’s security policies.

7. Integration

Your new functionality needs to work flawlessly with the existing system, so you need to make sure everything is compatible and running smoothly.

8. Deployment

Last but not least, the feature or user story should be ready for deployment, complete with any necessary configuration changes and updates to the deployment pipeline.

Top tip: Remember, the Definition of Done isn’t set in stone. It’s a living document that we should revisit and update from time to time to make sure it stays relevant and effective. 

What is the Definition of Ready (DoR)?

Think of DoR as the green light we need before starting a new feature, user story, or project. 

It’s a set of criteria that must be met before you can kick off a project. It’s your way of ensuring you have a clear understanding of the project’s goals, requirements, and scope before investing your valuable time and resources.

So, what does a typical DoR look like? Here are some key points you might find.

1. Well-defined goals

You need to know what you’re aiming for, so your project’s goals should be clear, specific, and achievable.

2. Detailed requirements

A solid DoR will include a clear outline of the project’s requirements so you know exactly what you’re building and why.

3. Acceptance Criteria

Our DoR should also include the Acceptance Criteria for the project so you know what success looks like.

4. Resource availability

You want to make sure you’ve got the right people and tools for the job, too, so your DoR should confirm that your team members, equipment, and any other necessary resources are available and ready to go.

5. Realistic timeline

Don’t set yourself up for failure with an impossible deadline. Your DoR should include a realistic timeline for the project, taking into account potential setbacks and any dependencies.

By establishing a solid Definition of Ready, you’re setting yourself up for success from the get-go. It’s like stretching before a workout or prepping ingredients before cooking a meal. With a well-thought-out DoR in place, you can dive into your projects with confidence, knowing you’ve got everything you need to make them a success.

What is Acceptance Criteria?

Now that we’re familiar with the Definition of Done and Definition of Ready, let’s chat about Acceptance Criteria (AC) and how it fits into the Scrum and Agile world. 

While DoD helps you make sure your work is ready to go, Acceptance Criteria is like a GPS guiding you through user stories and sprints, ensuring you’re on the right path to meet your client’s expectations.

In Scrum and Agile methodologies, Acceptance Criteria are the specific, measurable requirements that a user story, feature, or project must meet to be accepted by the Product Owner or client. They’re the details that help your team stay focused on what really matters during each sprint, making sure you’re building something your clients love.

Here’s what you should aim for when creating Acceptance Criteria in an Agile environment:

1. Clear and concise

AC should be easy to understand, with no room for ambiguity. This way, everyone on the Scrum team knows exactly what’s expected, and the Product Owner can be confident that the deliverable will be spot on.

2. Measurable

Your AC should also be quantifiable so you know when you’ve hit the mark. Think “the app should handle 10,000 concurrent users” rather than “the app should handle a lot of users.”

3. Testable

You want your Acceptance Criteria to be something our QA team can test during the sprint. You need to be able to demonstrate that you’ve met these requirements, so they have to be verifiable.

4. Relevant

AC should be directly tied to the user story, feature, or project at hand. You don’t want to get sidetracked by unrelated details that could derail your progress.

5. Realistic

Aim to keep your Acceptance Criteria achievable with the resources, technology, and time you have available during the sprint. After all, you don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver.

An example of Acceptance Criteria

Let’s say you’re working on an e-commerce website, and your task is to create a user story for the shopping cart feature. Here’s an example of a list of Acceptance Criteria for this specific user story:

  1. Add items to cart: Users should be able to add products to the shopping cart by clicking the ‘Add to Cart’ button on the product detail page.
  2. Cart item quantity: Users should be able to change the number of items in the cart by entering a new number in the quantity field and clicking the ‘update’ button.
  3. Remove items from cart: Users should be able to remove items from the cart by clicking the ‘Remove’ button next to the product.
  4. Display cart subtotal: The shopping cart should display the subtotal of all items in the cart, automatically updating when the user adds, removes, or adjusts the quantity.
  5. Persistent cart: The shopping cart should retain its contents even if the user navigates away from the cart page or logs out and logs back in later.
  6. Empty cart message: If the cart is empty, a message should display to the user indicating that the cart is empty and suggesting that they browse for products to add.
  7. Mobile responsiveness: The shopping cart should be fully responsive and display correctly on mobile devices, tablets, and desktops.
  8. Loading times: The shopping cart page should load in under three seconds on a standard internet connection.

These Acceptance Criteria are clear, concise, measurable, testable, relevant, and realistic, ensuring that the user story for the shopping cart feature is well-defined and understood by the entire team. 

Acceptance Criteria vs. user stories

In Agile development, user stories and Acceptance Criteria are essential components that help teams stay focused on delivering value to the end users.

User stories are short, simple descriptions of a feature or functionality told from the perspective of the user. They typically follow a format like “As a [type of user], I want [a specific feature or functionality] so that [a specific benefit or outcome is achieved].” User stories provide a high-level view of what the end user wants and why they want it, allowing the team to focus on meeting the users’ needs.

Acceptance Criteria, on the other hand, are the specific, measurable requirements that a user story must meet to be considered complete and accepted by the Product Owner or client. They provide a detailed step-by-step explanation of what the feature or functionality should do, guiding the team in building the right solution to address the user story.

Acceptance Criteria essentially serve as the ‘checklist’ for a user story and the product’s functionalities. Or, to look at it from a different angle, user stories capture all the Acceptance Criteria. 

They help the team ensure they’ve met all the necessary requirements to satisfy the user’s needs as described in the user story. In this way, Acceptance Criteria act as a bridge between the high-level view of user stories and the actual implementation of features or functionalities.

By connecting user stories with Acceptance Criteria, Agile teams can get a clear view of the desired outcome for each feature or functionality, reducing the risk of miscommunication or unmet expectations. This ultimately leads to higher-quality products that better meet the needs of end users.

Definition of Done vs. Acceptance Criteria

Now that we’ve got the lowdown on both Definition of Done (DoD) and Acceptance Criteria (AC), let’s chat about the key differences between these two Agile powerhouses. Because while they might seem similar at first glance, they actually play distinct roles.

Definition of Done is all about the big picture, focusing on the overall quality and completeness of the project, feature, or user story. It’s a shared understanding among the Scrum team that sets the standard for what ‘done’ means. The DoD includes criteria like code quality, testing, documentation, and integration.

Acceptance Criteria, on the other hand, are the nitty-gritty details specific to a particular user story or feature. AC guides the development process by outlining key requirements that must be met for the Product Owner or client to accept the work as complete. They help the team stay laser-focused on building the right solution to address the user story.

So, how can we sum up the key difference between DoD and Acceptance Criteria? Think of it like this: Acceptance Criteria are the customized requirements for each user story, ensuring we’re meeting the unique needs of our users. Definition of Done, however, is more like a universal quality checklist that applies to every user story or feature in our project.

What do Definition of Done and Acceptance Criteria have in common?

While Definition of Done and Acceptance Criteria serve distinct purposes in the development process, they share some key attributes that help keep your Scrum teams on the right track.

  1. Clarity: Both DoD and AC emphasize the importance of clear and concise communication. 
  2. Quality: DoD and AC share a common goal — delivering high-quality products that meet the needs of your clients and end users. By setting clear standards and requirements, they provide a framework for the team to deliver top-notch work consistently.
  3. Measurability: Both DoD and AC require specific, measurable criteria. This allows the team to objectively evaluate whether they’ve met the requirements, ensuring that your work is truly ‘done’ and ready for acceptance.
  4. Agile principles: DoD and AC both embody key Agile principles, like collaboration, flexibility, and iterative progress. They’re tools that help your Scrum teams stay agile and focused on delivering value at every stage of the development process.

Team alignment: DoD and AC work together to keep the entire Scrum team aligned and focused on the same goals. By providing clear guidance on what’s expected, they help ensure that everyone is working in harmony toward a shared vision of success.

Creating the Definition of Done: a checklist 

Remember, the DoD is our universal quality checklist that ensures our work is ready for its debut. So, how do we create a Definition of Done that hits the mark? Let’s break it down step by step:

  1. Collaborate: Crafting a solid DoD is a team effort. First, bring your Scrum team together to discuss and agree on what ‘done’ means for your project. This shared understanding is crucial to ensure everyone’s working toward the same goals.
  2. Consider quality standards: Your DoD should reflect the quality standards that are important to your team, your organization, and your clients. Think about things like code quality, documentation, testing, and performance, and include criteria that cover these aspects in your DoD. 
  3. Be specific and measurable: Make sure your DoD includes specific, measurable criteria that are easy to understand and evaluate. This way, there’s no room for confusion or misinterpretation, and the team can objectively determine when a user story or feature is truly ‘done’.
  4. Keep it realistic: Your DoD should be achievable within the time and resource constraints of your sprints. While it’s essential to aim for high-quality work, be mindful of what’s feasible given your team’s capacity and project requirements.
  5. Review and refine: The Agile process is all about continuous improvement, and that includes your Definition of Done. Regularly review your DoD with your Scrum team to ensure it’s still relevant and accurate. Make adjustments as needed to keep it aligned with your team’s evolving needs and goals.

A checklist for creating the Acceptance Criteria 

Crafting top-notch Acceptance Criteria (AC) will keep your Scrum team laser-focused. And just like the DoD, creating the AC is a team effort.

  1. Collaborate with the team: Bring together your Product Owner, developers, QA team members, and other stakeholders to discuss and define the Acceptance Criteria for each user story. This collaborative approach helps everyone understand the requirements and contribute their expertise to create robust, well-rounded AC.
  2. Focus on the user: Remember, Acceptance Criteria should describe the specific requirements needed to satisfy the user story. Keep the end user in mind as you craft the AC, and make sure it addresses their needs and expectations.
  3. Be clear and concise: Clarity is key when it comes to Acceptance Criteria. Write your AC in a way that’s easy to understand and leaves no room for ambiguity. This way, your Scrum team can easily grasp the requirements and work toward fulfilling them.
  4. Make it measurable and testable: Your Acceptance Criteria should be quantifiable and testable. This allows the team to objectively assess whether the user story or feature meets the requirements, and it helps the QA team verify that the work is ready for acceptance.
  5. Stay relevant: Keep your AC focused on the specific user story or feature at hand. Avoid including unrelated details or requirements that could distract the team or dilute the focus of the work.
  6. Review and refine: As with the Definition of Done, it’s essential to regularly review and refine your Acceptance Criteria. Continuously iterate and improve your AC to ensure it remains relevant and accurate, and make adjustments based on feedback from your Scrum team and any changes in project requirements.

Final thoughts 

Project management software is the gold standard when it comes to product development. Not only does it provide a central place for the team to collaborate and check progress; but tools like Backlog also offer automatic notifications and task assignments to keep everyone on track. It also has continuous integration and automated testing capabilities, which is ideal for when you want to streamline code-checking and rollout.

By taking a collaborative, user-focused approach to create both the Acceptance Criteria and Definition of Done docs, you can empower your Scrum team to build features and user stories that truly meet the needs of your clients and end users. And when your team is aligned and working together to deliver exceptional work, happy clients are never far behind. 



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