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What Is A Product Backlog And How To Make It Work For You?

Jan 17, 202210 min read

Jarosław Ziembiński

IT Project Manager at Ideamotive and agile advocate.

What Is A Product Backlog And How To Make It Work For You?

If you work in the tech industry, your software or product development team is likely using the scrum project management methodology (a subset of the Agile methodology) where teams work in two-week sprints to continually develop a product rather than delivering entire products at once.

 

But, as with any project management methodology, organization is key. And the Scrum Product Backlog is an important tool to help you do just that.

 

An Agile Product Backlog is essentially a list of items that are ready for the development team. This is a list of things to do in a larger product. It's worth noting that this isn't something you're working on in a two-week sprint, but it helps you see what's next so your team can plan and quickly work on new feature releases.

 

Here, we'll tell you what is a product backlog, why a product backlog is important, who owns a product backlog in scrum, how to develop and improve your own, and how this list affects sprint planning.

What is a product backlog?

To keep up with the ever-evolving technology and customer requirements, many companies are adopting what is known as an Agile workflow. An Agile workflow is an interactive process focused on completing a project in multiple phases, often called sprints, that last 1-4 weeks.

 

The main advantage of using the Agile methodology is the ability to quickly adapt your priorities to focus on what is most important at the moment. This is where the Product Backlog comes into play.

 

According to the official Scrum Guide, a product backlog meaning in agile is "... an ordered list of everything that is known to be needed in the product."

 

The product backlog is outside of the sprint cycle (meaning it contains work that will not be completed during the current sprint) but provides information on how your sprint will be planned. The product backlog consists of reviews from:

  • Development team
  • Customer
  • Stakeholders

 

In the context of a product backlog, a product is a vehicle for delivering value to customers. It could be a physical product, but it could also be a service or something less tangible and more abstract.

 

Product backlogs are a staple in many industries, and they each have their own unique perspective on how they use them.

 

In the software industry, the software itself is the product. Unlike most products, the software is constantly evolving to meet the needs of its customers. Sometimes it changes weekly or every two weeks.

 

Software is just one example.

 

Answering what is a product backlog in other words, it is a list of priority tasks for the development team. This is a list of what needs to be done to create a new product or improve an existing one. It acts as a single source of truth for the entire development team and gives each direction.

 

Basically, if it's not in the backlog, it's likely out of scope and nothing more than a distraction.

 

It's also worth noting that not all items in the product backlog need to be prioritized.

 

The product backlog is more of a wish list rather than a checklist or to-do list that needs to be completed.

Breakdown of product backlog content

A product backlog typically includes, but is not limited to:

New features

These are new features that a stakeholder has requested to be added to the product.

Ideas for new features

Not all features are fully implemented yet. Your team can jot down ideas for new features that will be evaluated later.

Technical debt

Some work is needed to ensure the maintainability, safety, and relevance of the product. This is often referred to as "technical debt".

Bugs of any severity and level

Defects and errors are often discovered by end-users or support representatives, and often require high priority deadlines to fix them.

Research

While not a function, research helps to know if concepts or functions are possible. Since it takes time to do so, it is often recorded in the backlog.

Feature enhancements

Existing features require ongoing maintenance and support, especially as the product changes.

Redesign ideas

Not all features are tangible or benefit the end-user. Some are purely cosmetic in nature and provide a more modern aesthetic.

UX issues

User experience is paramount to creating a product that is easy to use and intuitive.

Infrastructure changes

The code sometimes needs a major overhaul to keep up with the times, and the integrations switch and require retooling.

User stories

Taking into account the wants and needs of the end-user is essential to the success of the Sprint. Often these are functions written from the user's point of view to better illustrate the basic need or desire that must be satisfied.

Action from retrospective

Analyzing what worked and what didn't can lead to actions that the team wants to take to improve their internal processes and the rest of the project.

Who owns the product backlog?

So, who owns the product backlog in scrum? The Product Owner owns the Product Backlog.

 

The Product Owner acts as the primary stakeholder for the product team and is solely responsible for maximizing the value of the product. They are in close contact with all key stakeholders and clients so they have the best understanding of what is important, what can wait, and what should be completely cleared from the backlog.

 

Naturally, the Product Owner observes the backlog from a bird's eye view and makes sure its content is up-to-date, relevant, and prioritized.

 

Prioritization boils down to:

  • Products that bring the most value to the customer
  • Scope of work that fits the project budget and constraints
  • potential risks associated with the deployment of new features

 

The product backlog should also be crystal clear and free from any ambiguities that could derail an upcoming sprint or an entire project.

 

If a team has a Scrum Master - not everyone has it - then they are likely to have a hand in the backlog, but not as intensely as the Product Owner. The Scrum Master should focus on the project itself, not the details of the product.

Why does a product backlog matter?

Think of the product backlog as a way to turn a brainstorming or product plan into action. You will no doubt be approached by stakeholders (or customers) who have many ideas for improving the product. Not all ideas are good and not all ideas are valuable, but without an organized product backlog, it's hard to tell great, valuable ideas from ideas that would be a waste of time. Here are some other benefits of the Product Backlog:

  1. This is an organized list and easy to argue about.
  2. Prioritizing is easy.
  3. It can be changed as priorities change.
  4. It allows you to see dependencies at a glance and organize them.
  5. This allows you to think about products in the long term, not just in terms of immediate needs.

 

In short, a product backlog allows you and your team to systematically and intelligently improve your product over the long term.

How to create a product backlog and make it work for you

Creating a product backlog is far from advanced math, but some best practices will make the process easier for everyone involved.

 

Here are 5 steps to get your product backlog up and running and ensure the success of all your sprints:

#1. Use a product roadmap

Before you start thinking about filling out your backlog, you need to make sure you are in the right frame of mind. Revisiting your product strategy is critical if you want to prioritize the right sprints and individual tasks.

 

Ultimately, the team's requirements and roadmap lay the foundation for the product backlog. This reminds your team of what users want and what the requirements are.

Do this consistently enough, and you will find that the product backlog is not only easy to maintain but also easy to prioritize.

#2. Unload your roadmap and your mind

A product roadmap will help you lay the foundation for your product backlog, but as you saw above, there is much more to it than that.

 

Between feature requests, bugs, and maintenance, you will likely have a huge list of potential issues that need to be addressed.

 

The best you can do is dive into the product backlog. Don't think too much about whether it's the right thing to do. When in doubt, write it down at this stage. Judgment and prioritization will come later, so don't get bogged down in the details.

 

Think about the project progress, high-level features, and major releases that your company wants to implement this year.

 

Capture also the smaller features, any known bugs, and various internal and external feature requests. Get insights from users, front-line employees, engineers, developers, and anyone else that comes to mind.

#3. Put everything in its place

Now that you have a master list, it's time to organize each item of the backlog. There are several ways to organize your product backlog. Small backlog items as stories and large items as epics are one way.

 

(What is a product backlog item? A Product Backlog Item (PBI) is a separate work item in a Product Backlog. This could include specifications, new feature requests, bugs, or change requirements. Simply put, PBI is a separate task that needs to be taken care of in order to improve a project or fix a problem.)

 

You can also group work by initiative and topic. Here's a short description of each:

  • Topics are larger areas that often span an entire department or organization.
  • Initiatives are comprehensive collections of epics that ultimately lead to shared goals.
  • Epics are large volumes of work that will be broken down into several smaller tasks (called stories).
  • Stories, also known as “user stories,” are shorter queries or requirements written from the perspective of the end-user.

 

Whatever you decide, it should be consistent throughout your entire backlog.

#4. Start the prioritization process

You have a basic list of “can be done” tasks, and now there is a method of insanity when you agree on a way to organize.

 

Now it's time to do your first backlog preparation session to add details and prioritize backlog items.

 

The pinnacle of the backlog is where the high-priority tasks go. Thus, they are in the spotlight and do not require digging when planning the next sprint. The level of detail for each item often decreases as you move down the list.

 

Factors influencing prioritization include customer expectations, development effort, feature complexity, overall feature coverage, and potential changes to the product roadmap.

 

Here are some strategies for prioritizing your backlog:

Distribute tasks by urgency and importance

As you focus on completing the backlog, try organizing tasks by urgency and importance. The team must prioritize product backlog that improves product functionality as well as user experience.

Solve difficult problems first

Your team may be tempted to complete simple tasks first, to remove them from the product backlog and shorten the list, but this is a less efficient form of project management. The product backlog will continue to grow, so solving complex problems in the first place may be most effective for product development.

Complete tasks in focused sprints of time

Agile teams work in focused sprints of time to complete work, and this method is very effective for increasing productivity. At the end of each sprint, the product owner and all stakeholders can attend the sprint review with you and the development team to make sure everything is going according to plan.

Communicate with your team

Communication between team members is an important part of prioritizing the product backlog. To successfully sort out the backlog and complete tasks within a reasonable time frame, you and your team must work together and follow the Scrum guidelines.

#5. Schedule a backlog review

It's not enough to prioritize your backlog once. The product backlog is a living, breathing mechanism that requires constant maintenance and service. Otherwise, tasks become obsolete, lack depth, and likely lack real prioritization.

 

Call a review whatever you want, but more often than not in Agile methodology, it is called “backlog grooming” or “backlog refinement”.

 

As a cross-functional team, it is imperative that during this regular grooming process, you carefully consider products through the lens of "what adds the most value to the customer?"

Team organization

Workflows help you map out what needs to be done. Team coordination, cross-functional project management, and more can be part of the workflow. The product backlog workflow is about creating a simple, centralized path through which development requests can go to your backlog and improving your backlog management efforts. Here are some ways to optimize your product backlog workflow:

Streamline and shorten meetings

Regardless of whether the task of keeping your backlog working is assigned to one or more people, the team must stay connected so that everyone is on the same wavelength. This could mean multiple meetings. Make sure that when organizing meetings, you invite only those who absolutely need it, and that you do your best to make them quick and painless.

Build a development request funnel

One problem with this workflow is that you are handling requests from across the company. These requests can come from other work management tools, email, informal conversations, and so on. Organizing your backlog is tricky when you have to sift through multiple external sources. By integrating your organization's work management tools, you can empower other teams to submit requests directly from your tool. This way, even if requests still come from different locations, they all go to your backlog.

Use a workflow management tool

If a workflow is a map of what needs to be done, then workflow management is the way to do it better. A well-thought workflow solution can help you automate some of the more painstaking parts of your workflow with tools. For example, you can automatically assign labels to tasks as they arrive, or sync sections across multiple tools so that tasks move smoothly from one to the next.

Prioritize communication in your work management tools

Let's say you rework the priority of items in the backlog. You may need to contact someone for more information on their request. But if you are in one instrument and they are in another, how do you do it? Usually, you are probably sending an email. If you are working on one request at a time, this is not a problem. When you integrate your work management tools, you can leave your question directly in the problem that represents that request and get an answer there.

Sample product backlog

Product backlogs look different across projects, but some start with an epic. An epic is an overarching problem that you are trying to solve for a client. Here's an example below:

 

Epic: As a marketing manager, I need a content management system that allows me to deliver quality content to my readers.

 

This epic could lead to a variety of product features, from how a user creates content in the new system to how they edit and share content with teams. To continue our product backlog example, we can split the epic into more specific user stories.

 

Story 1: As a content creator, I want a content management system that allows me to create content so that I can inform customers about our products.

 

Story 2: As an editor, I need a content management system that allows me to preview the content before publishing it so I can make sure it's well written and optimized for search.

 

The Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Development Team will identify the features that the product should include from user stories and prioritize them based on importance.

 

Features that the product should include in Story 1:

  • Login to a content management system
  • Create content
  • Edit content page
  • Save changes
  • Assign content to the editor for review

 

As a product manager, you will use epics to guide your product roadmap and backlog items. As you can see in this example, one epic can lead to multiple user stories and product features.

Bonus

Even a knowledgeable audience always asks: “what is the difference between product backlog and user stories; and what is the difference between product backlog and sprint backlog”.

 

Let’s close this misunderstanding once and forever. 

 

A user story is a way of defining a requirement in a limited context with eligibility criteria. The Product Owner defines the user story with corner scenarios and eligibility criteria.

 

A product backlog lists all requirements (new features, enhancements, existing product issues, defined as user stories or defects). The Product Owner maintains this list and updates new volume items or defects as they are discovered.

 

The sprint backlog is a priority list that the Product Owner updates to meet business needs or market-ready features. These elements are then considered in the sprints according to priority.

Summing up

Hope our clarification of what is a product backlog worked for you. To put it simply the product backlog helps your team operate like a well-oiled machine, improving organization and collaboration. It becomes a central communication tool and allows everyone to agree on goals and expectations.

 

Since all work on a product goes through the backlog, it serves as the basis for planning iterations. As your team prioritizes tasks under the guidance of the product owner, they also determine how much work they can get done in a given time frame. These blocks of time are called iterations or sprints.

 

The product backlog also contributes to the development of the Agile team by creating a flexible yet productive work environment. The tasks in the product backlog are not set in stone, and the team sorts them by priority before deciding which tasks to tackle first.

 

Getting a product to the finish line is easier if you have a well-organized product backlog. Ideamotive can help you manage Agile projects most efficiently with modern Scrum software.

 

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We believe you should spend less time aligning your team with the limitations (location, salary, required skills) and instead modify the team to suit your unique needs. So you're looking at the prize, not the tools you use every day.

 

If you're ready to start building your own project right away, let us give you a leg up with our tech professionals!

Jarosław Ziembiński

Jarosław is an IT Project Manager at Ideamotive. Agile enthusiast with master experience on working with technical teams.

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