Product Backlog: what it is, what it is for and how to do it

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The product backlog represents a crucial element in the agile management of projects, serving as a dynamic list of all the features, functionalities, requirements, improvements, and issues that make up the planned changes for the product in future cycles. This prioritized list serves as a guide for the development team to understand what to build to deliver the most value to the end customer and the business.

Through an iterative and incremental process, the product backlog is continuously updated and reprioritized based on customer feedback, market needs, and strategic business changes, ensuring that the team always focuses on the most critical and valuable activities.

In this article, we will explore the nature of the product backlog, its role within Agile methods, how it is managed and optimized, and best practices to ensure it functions as a reliable compass to guide product development towards success.

What does product backlog mean?

“Product backlog” is a key term in the Agile methodology, referring to an ordered list of everything necessary for the development and implementation of a product. This list is dynamic and can include various items such as new features, changes to existing features, bug fixes, technical tasks, and performance improvements, among others. Each item in the backlog is called a “Product Backlog Item” (PBI) and is prioritized based on the value it brings to the end customer and the project.
The product backlog is managed by the Product Owner, who is responsible for its definition, prioritization, and updates. Prioritization of backlog items is based on various factors, including customer impact, urgency, business value, and technical dependencies. The Product Owner works closely with the development team to ensure the backlog is clear, items are well-defined, and it always aligns with the product goals.

During the development process, the team selects items from the product backlog to work on in the next sprint (a fixed time period, typically 2-4 weeks), based on the priorities defined by the Product Owner. This process ensures that the team focuses on the most important tasks, and the product evolves iteratively and incrementally, responding to user needs and the ever-changing market conditions.

What Does the Product Backlog Contain

The Product Backlog contains a variety of elements that collectively define everything needed to develop and enhance a product. Product Backlog Items (PBIs) can vary widely depending on the project type, business needs, and user requests. Below are listed the types of content you can find in a Product Backlog.

  1. Features: Descriptions of new features or enhancements to add to the product. They are often described from the user’s perspective to explain the value they will bring.
  2. Bugs: Reports of errors or issues in the product that need correction. These are often a priority because they can impact the user experience or product functionality.
  3. Technical Improvements: Work that doesn’t directly add new visible features to users but improves the technical foundation of the product. This can include code refactoring, performance optimization, dependency updates, or implementing enhanced security practices.
  4. User Experience (UX) and Design: Changes or improvements to the user interface or overall user experience. These can range from minor adjustments to complete redesigns.
  5. Documentation: Updates or creation of new documentation for both users and developers. This can include user guides, API documentation, or technical specification documents.
  6. Compliance and Regulatory Activities: Work required to ensure the product complies with relevant laws and regulations. This can be particularly relevant in industries like healthcare or finance.
  7. Experiments and Research: Elements related to data collection and hypothesis testing to guide product development. These can include A/B tests, market research, or prototyping.

Each item in the product backlog is accompanied by a description, acceptance criteria (defining when the item is considered complete), and a priority indicating its relative importance compared to other items in the backlog. Priority is typically determined by the Product Owner in collaboration with stakeholders and the development team, based on factors like customer value, business impact, and technical dependencies.

If we consider the product backlog as our “wishlist,” then the Sprint Backlog represents the portion of the list we choose to develop during the sprint to achieve the established goal.

As you probably know, this selection takes place during the Sprint Planning, a scheduled meeting at the beginning of each sprint with the purpose of identifying the items to focus on for that sprint and breaking them down into specific tasks, allowing work to begin the following day.

This process is a team activity. The fact that the Product Owner is responsible for the backlog doesn’t imply that they are the sole decision-maker; it’s intrinsic to agile principles that the entire team determines which items to include in the sprint and commit to.

How to Prioritize Items in the Product Backlog?

Prioritizing items in the Product Backlog is a key responsibility of the Product Owner in the Scrum framework, and it requires a careful balance between business value, technical complexity, and stakeholder needs. Here are some of the most common techniques for prioritizing the backlog.

  • Value-Based Prioritization: Focus on the value each item brings to the customer and the business. Items that offer the highest value should be prioritized. This approach requires a clear understanding of business goals and user needs.
  • MoSCoW Method: Classify backlog items as Must have, Should have, Could have, and Won’t have. This method helps distinguish what is essential for product release and what can potentially be postponed.
  • Cost of Delay (CoD): Evaluate each item based on the “cost of delay,” which is the economic impact of not implementing that item immediately. Items that would cost more if delayed should have higher priority.
  • Kano Model: Classify features based on how they affect customer satisfaction: Basic (basic needs), Performance (user expectations), and Delighters (surprising features not expected). This helps balance development between essential features and those that can significantly increase customer satisfaction.
  • Effort vs. Impact: Assess each item based on its impact versus the effort required to implement it. Items that require less effort but have a high impact are often prioritized over those that require a lot of work but offer minor benefits.
  • Fibonacci Sequence or Planning Poker: Use Fibonacci sequences or Planning Poker to estimate the complexity or effort needed for each backlog item. These methods, combined with impact assessment, can help prioritize items more objectively.
  • Feedback from Stakeholders: Gather regular feedback from customers, end-users, and other stakeholders to better understand which features or improvements are most important to them.
  • Dependency Analysis: Consider dependencies between backlog items. Some features may require others to be completed first, which can affect their priority.
  • Time Criticality: Prioritize items that are critical for specific events or dates, such as a conference or product launch.

The prioritization process should be iterative and flexible. The Product Owner should regularly review and adjust the priorities of the Product Backlog based on changes in business needs, user feedback, and the development team’s progress.

Example of a Product Backlog

An example of a Product Backlog for an e-commerce application could include a wide range of items covering features, improvements, bugs to fix, and so on. Here’s how it could be structured, with simplifications for clarity:

Product Backlog for E-commerce Application

  1. Implement Payment System
    • Integration with PayPal
    • Support for credit card payments
    • Cash on delivery option
  2. Advanced Search Functionality
    • Category-based search
    • Filters for price, rating, and brand
    • Auto-suggest search
  3. Detailed Product Page
    • Product description, images, and reviews
    • Stock availability information
    • Social media sharing options
  4. Shopping Cart
    • Addition and removal of items
    • Summary view before purchase
    • Quantity adjustments
  5. User Account Management
    • Registration and login
    • Password recovery
    • Order history and shipment tracking
  6. Mobile Performance Improvement
    • Page loading speed optimization
    • Responsive design for mobile devices
  7. Bug Fixes
    • Resolve checkout issues with specific browsers
    • Fix product image display error on certain devices
  8. Implementation of Recommendation System
    • Product recommendations based on purchase behavior
    • Recommendations on the cart page
  9. Localization
    • Support for multiple languages
    • Currency adaptation
  10. Feedback and Reviews System
    • Create a user reviews section
    • Star rating system
  11. Inventory Management System
    • Low stock notifications
    • Automatic product availability updates
  12. Administration Dashboard
    • Sales reports
    • Inventory management
    • User behavior analysis

Each element of the Product Backlog should be accompanied by a detailed description, acceptance criteria, and an estimate of the effort required for its implementation. These items will then be prioritized by the Product Owner based on strategic importance, user value, and urgency, and selected for development in future sprints based on their priority.

Product Backlog Template

A Product Backlog template can vary depending on the specific needs of software design and team preferences, but it tends to include some key elements to ensure that all necessary information is present and clear. Here’s an example of a template that could be used in an Agile context, such as in the Scrum framework, to manage and organize the product backlog.

Product Backlog Template

ID Title Description Priority Estimate Sprint Notes
1 Item Title A brief description of the backlog item, including details on what needs to be done and why it’s important. High/Medium/Low Estimated time to complete the item, often expressed in person-days or story points. Sprint number in which the item is scheduled for development, if already decided. Additional remarks, including comments on dependencies, decisions made during planning meetings, or any identified risks.

Example Filling

ID Title Description Priority Estimate Sprint Notes
1 Payment Gateway Integration Implement integration with PayPal and Stripe to process payments. Necessary to allow users to complete purchases. High 5 days 2 Depends on approval of merchant account.
2 Mobile Optimization Ensure all main pages are fully responsive on mobile devices to enhance user experience. Medium 3 days 3 Testing on various devices for validation.
3 Product Reviews System Allow users to leave reviews for products they’ve purchased. Includes star ratings and a text field for comments. Medium 4 days 4 Needs integration with the product database.
4 Shopping Cart Bug Fix Fix the issue where items are duplicated in the cart when the user refreshes the page. High 1 day 2 Critical for cart functionality.

Notes on the Template

  • ID: A unique identifier for each backlog item for easy reference.
  • Title: A brief title summarizing the backlog item.
  • Description: A detailed description of the item, including the goal and why the item is necessary. It should also include acceptance criteria when possible.
  • Priority: Indicates the urgency and importance of the item compared to others in the backlog. It can be determined by factors like user value, return on investment (ROI), or business strategy.
  • Estimate: An assessment of the work required to complete the item, which aids in planning and resource allocation.
  • Sprint: Identifies the Sprint in which the item is planned to be worked on, if already decided.
  • Notes: Space for any additional comments, such as details on dependencies, key decisions, or identified risks.

This template is flexible and can be adapted to better meet your team’s and project’s needs. The important thing is to keep the Product Backlog organized, transparent, and up-to-date to ensure the team is always focused on the right priorities.

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