Grooming the product backlog means managing the backlog. This is necessary, as the product backlog changes and evolves: The team gains knowledge from exposing a product increment to the users, and the latest insights lead to a backlog update, as the picture below shows.
Much of the existing advice on product backlog grooming focuses on getting the backlog in shape to supply the development team with concise stories. Unfortunately, evaluating user feedback and integrating it into the backlog has been underemphasised. This blog posts tries to set the record straight by offering a holistic, five-step grooming process – from analysing user feedback to getting the backlog “ready”. Please note that I focus on new or innovative products rather than incremental updates of mature products.
Step 1: Analyse the Feedback
Grooming the product backlog starts with analysing the feedback collected from exposing a product increment to target users and customers. The increment may be working software, or in the case of a brand-new product, a paper prototype. The data obtained may be quantitative, qualitative, or both depending on what’s feasible and beneficial. I prefer to work with both, qualitative and quantitative data.
When evaluating the feedback, focus on the data that is relevant to test your ideas and answering your questions. Have the courage to say no to new ideas and requests if these are not helpful to move you closer to your vision. Otherwise, your product is in danger of becoming a feature soup, a loose collection of features with little or no connection, which usually results in a poor user experience.
Be aware of the cognitive bias we all have, your hidden assumptions and wishes, as these can lead to ignoring or misinterpreting data. To mitigate the risk, analyse the feedback together with the team members. Remember that negative feedback is good feedback: If all you ever hear is positive, you are not learning anything new.
Step 2: Integrate the Learning
Once you have analysed the feedback, incorporate your insights into the product backlog. This results in removing, adjusting, and adding content: epics, operational constraints, design and workflow sketches. If the feedback invalidates you assumptions regarding the target group, the user needs, and the business model, you may have to adjust your vision board, remove the product backlog content, and restock your backlog.
Note that in the image above, the product backlog board’s top section is empty, as the high-priority items have been consumed, and new ready stories still have to be created. (This is done in step 4.)
Step 3: Decide what to do Next
After incorporating the learning into your backlog, decide what to do next. Ask yourself why you want to carry out the next cycle. What do you want to learn? Which ideas and assumptions do you want to validate? Which functionality do you want to provide? For new products or innovative features, your goal should be a testable hypothesis, for instance, by using the following format: If we do x, we will achieve y.
My goal for writing this blog post, for instance, is twofold: Consolidate my knowledge about the grooming process and understand if my recommendations resonate with my readers. The first sub goal is met by making time to write the post. The second one is attained if the post gets a comparatively high number of hits, generates a certain amount of Twitter traffic, and attracts meaningful comments.
Next, carve stories out of the epics in order to reach your goal. Then make the stories high-priority, and order the stories according to their importance for reaching the goal, as the image below shows.
You may also want to ask the team to estimate any epics that have been added or adjusted as well as the newly formed stories. This allows you to understand how much effort is roughly contained in the backlog.
Step 5: Get the Stories Ready
With small, ordered user stories in place, you are close to starting the next cycle. But before you do so, ensure that the stories are “ready”: clear, feasible, and testable. This may entail creating a user interface design sketch and one or more operational quality constraints for the stories, as the image below illustrates.
Getting the stories ready may also require resolving dependencies between teams if several teams work on the same product. The stories should now be ready to be pulled onto the sprint backlog or the Kanban board.
When I talk to product owners about grooming their backlog, I often discover that the individual carries out the work largely alone. This wastes a massive opportunity: to mitigate the product owner’s cognitive bias, to create shared ownership of the backlog, and to leveraging the team’s collective wisdom and creativity.
As the product owner, involve the team members in the grooming steps. This reduces your workload, and it is likely to result in a better product. Don’t be afraid, however, to facilitate the discussions and to make a decision if no consensus can be reached. You don’t want to get stuck in analysis-paralysis but move on, and test your new ideas and assumptions.
When grooming your product backlog, don’t forget to collect and to analyse the user feedback. Integrate your insights, select your next goal, write small, detailed stories, and get them ready for implementation. Rely on your intuition as well as the data analysis, and involve the team in the grooming steps.