It's normal that a product backlog changes over time. But some backlogs grow too big and become overly long, detailed, and complex. Consequently, they are difficult to update, prioritise, and refine. The following five tips help you simplify such a backlog and reduce its size so you can manage with it more easily.
Split the Product Backlog
Faced with an overly long and detailed product backlog, investigate if it does describe one cohesive product. Over time, products can serve an increasingly heterogeneous market and provide a large number of different features, some of which may not be used by all users.
If that’s the case for your product, then you can unbundle one or more features and release them as products in their own right, like Facebook did with Messenger in 2014. The company unbundled the messaging functionality originally included in its Facebook mobile app and made it available as a stand-alone product.
Move the unbundled features to a separate backlog for the new product, and enjoy working with the original product backlog, which is now smaller.
Limit the Product Backlog Scope
Your second option is to limit the scope of your backlog. To do so, choose a clear, specific, and measurable product goal for the next three to six months, for example, acquire x number of new users or increase engagement by y%. Then use the goal to focus your product backlog: Remove all backlog items that do not help meet this goal.
While this approach may sound radical, it ensures that your product backlog is concise and focused. It avoids looking too far into the future, having speculative items on the backlog, and turning the product backlog into a wish list.
To capture additional ideas of how to progress your product, use a goal-oriented or outcome-based product roadmap and focus the product backlog on the next goal or outcome on the roadmap. This way, the product roadmap complements the product backlog: The former is a longer term, strategic plan; the latter contains the product details and facilitates execution.
Hide the Details
Your third option is to structure the product backlog in order to make it more manageable thereby hiding detailed items. A simple way to do this is to group epics into themes, which represent coarse-grained features or user journey steps like registration or search and navigation.
This allows you to work with the following structure: theme → epic → user story. While such a product backlog contains the same number of items, you can now access its contents more easily by using themes and epics to navigate to the corresponding user stories.
Aggregate the Details
Another option to reduce the product backlog size is to combine detailed items. This is achieved by replacing lower-priority, fine-grained items with a coarse-grained one, for example, substituting a number of user stories with a newly created epic. This can be particularly helpful when you inherit an overly long and detailed product backlog.
In addition to reducing the product backlog size, aggregating the details creates an appropriately detailed product backlog. Such as backlog is easier to update and change, which is particularly helpful for young products and those experiencing a major change like a life cycle extension.
Eliminate Zombie Items
Most of us have probably done it: Adding items to the product backlog to please an important stakeholder even though we knew that we would not be able to implement them any time soon. Over time, they’ve turned into zombie items at the bottom of the product backlog, which aren’t dead or alive.
If you’ve followed my earlier advice, you will have already removed those items. But if that’s not the case, then either make them high priority or delete them now. Your product backlog should only contain items that help create value for the users or business—not to appease individuals.
In the future, make sure to decline items that are not helpful to execute the product strategy and meet specific product goals. Attentively listen to and empathise with a stakeholder who requests a feature. But be not afraid to say no once you’ve understood the person’s underlying needs and interests.