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Refining the Product Backlog

Published on 15th February 2010

Product backlog refinement or grooming plays an important part of creating and updating a product in an agile context. Done correctly, it helps you develop a successful product, a product that benefits the customers and users and the organisation developing it. This post shares my tips on how to best refine the product backlog.

Why does Product Backlog Refinement Matter?

Product backlog refinement, also called product backlog grooming, is the set of activities necessary to make detailed product decisions based on the feedback you have received, update the backlog accordingly, and get it ready for the next sprint. It’s an ongoing process, as your product backlog is likely to change based on the learning obtained from developing software and exposing it to customers, users, and other stakeholders, as the image below illustrates.

Product Backlog Grooming Overview

Refining the product backlog helps you capture the latest insights and it ensures that you develop a product with the right user experience and features. It also makes sure that the product backlog is workable, that it is prioritised, and that there are enough ready items to start the next sprint.


What does Refinement Entail?

Grooming the product backlog consists of the following steps, which are described in more detail in my article “The Product Backlog Refinement Steps“:

  1. Analyse feedback / data from users, customers, and internal stakeholders.
  2. Integrate the learning.
  3. Decide what to do next.
  4. Refine the items.
  5. Get the high-priority items ready for the next sprint.

Carrying out the grooming steps should result in a product backlog that is DEEP: detailed appropriately, emergent, estimated, and prioritised. You should also ensure that your backlog is concise and visible for everyone involved in the development effort. A concise product backlog allows to effectively integrate the insights gained. A visible backlog encourages creative conversations.


Who should Carry out the Refinement Work?

Refining the product backlog should be a collaborative effort that involves the product owner and the cross-functional development team. This allows you to leverage the team’s knowledge and creativity, including taking into account technical feasibility and risks; it increases the team’s understanding of the product backlog items and generates buy-in for the backlog changes; it reduces your workload as the product owner, and helps ensure that the high-priority items are ready.


When should Refinement Take Place?

Refinement activities can take place before new development work starts or while it is being carried out, for instance, during the next sprint. If you require user and customer feedback to ensure that you are taking your product in the right direction, then you should first obtain the relevant data, analyse it, and integrate the new insights into the product backlog before you continue coding. You can find out more about the right time to groom you backlog in my post “When should Product Backlog Refinement Take Place?“.


Where is the Initial Product Backlog Derived from?

You may have noticed that the refinement steps above start with “Analyse the customer and user feedback”. This implies that we have already built a first product increment. But how can we bootstrap the process and create the initial product backlog?

I like to derive the inaugural backlog from a product roadmap, as the picture below illustrates. The product roadmap describes the journey you want your product to take including major releases, goals, key features, and dates.Deriving the Inital Porduct Backlog from the Product Roadmap

I discuss the relationship between the product backlog and the product roadmap in more detail in the article “The Product Roadmap and the Product Backlog“.


How much Time does Refinement Require?

To answer this question, it is helpful to take into account the life cycle stage of your product and the sprint duration. The more stable and mature your product is, the lower the refinement effort tends to be in the sprints. The reason for this is that there are less unknowns and risks and you rely less on feedback and experimentation to discover the right requirements. The following picture illustrates this correlation. (I discuss choosing the right level of detail in the product backlog in my article “How Detailed should the Product Backlog be?“.

How Detailed Should the Product Backlog Be?

The second factor is the duration of your sprints. I find that a two-week sprint usually requires 2-4 hours of focussed refinement work that involves the Scrum product owner and the development team.


Which Tools and Techniques are Helpful?

I like to work with the Product Canvas, a structured, multi-dimensional product backlog. The canvas allows me to capture all relevant aspects of a product, which is particularly helpful for new products and for product updates aimed at new markets.

Porduct Canvas

A great way to do the refinement work is to organise a product backlog workshop. The workshop involves the Scrum product owner and the development team, and carries out the five steps listed above.

Post a Comment or Ask a Question

2 Comments

  • Hania Hanie says:

    Hello,
    I am just starting out in the field of business analysis and agile approach to software development. I was wondering in what sequence should the backlog, user story and road map be prepared and derived from.

    Best regard,
    Hania

    • Roman Pichler Roman Pichler says:

      Hi Hania,

      Thanks for sharing your question. I recommend that you use the following sequence: product roadmap -> product backlog -> epic -> user story

      Hope this helps!

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