Working with the product backlog can be challenging, and many Scrum product owners wrestle with overly long and detailed backlogs. This article shares ten practical tips that help you take full advantage of your product backlog.
1 Complement your Product Backlog with a Product Roadmap
I find that the product backlog is best used to capture the product details. In this sense, it is a tactical tool that facilitates product delivery. If that’s the case, then you will benefit from completing your product backlog with a product roadmap. A product roadmap sketches the overall journey you want to take your product on.
I like to work with goal-oriented product roadmaps, which contain product goals that describe the benefits or outcomes your product should create in the course of the next six to twelve months. This picture below illustrates this setup.
2 Focus your Backlog with a Product Goal
Use a product goal like acquiring users, increasing conversion, or future proofing the product by reducing technical debt to direct and focus your product backlog. Any items in the product backlog should help meet this goal. If that’s not the case, you should remove them. While this approach may sound radical, it will result in a concise product backlog that is comparatively easy to update and change
If you complement your product backlog with a product roadmap that contains the product goals your product should meet, as I recommended in tip #1, you can use the next goal on the roadmap and copy it into your product backlog. This nicely connects your product backlog and product roadmap.
3 Start with a Short and Sketchy Product Backlog
Starting with an incomplete product backlog with largely coarse-grained items is particularly beneficial when you create a new product or add new features. Collect the user and customer feedback on early product increments to decide which functionality should be implemented, to evolve the product backlog, and to refine its items. Note that is alright to have a longer, more detailed backlog when your product is mature and your focus is on incremental changes and bug fixes.
4 Collaborate with the Development Team
Involve the development team members in the product backlog work, for example, by running collaborative product backlog workshops. This allows you to benefit from their knowledge and creativity and discover technical risks and dependencies. It also increases the understanding and buy-in of the team members and results in better, clearer requirements. Ask your Scrum Master to facilitate the sessions to help you focus on offering product leadership while ensuring that everyone is heard and nobody dominates.
5 Prioritise the Backlog
Use uncertainty and risk to decide how soon an item should be implemented. Addressing uncertain items early on allows you to test your ideas, to fail fast, and to learn how to continue. Complement risk with cost-benefit and take into account dependencies when necessary. If you struggle to prioritise your product backlog, see my article “Prioritising a Product Backlog When Everything is Important.”
6 Get the Backlog Ready
A key purpose of the product backlog is to direct the work of the development team: High-priority items are pulled into the sprint transformed into a product increment. To ensure that this can happen, you have to break larger items into smaller ones until they are ready for sprint planning: the items should be clear, feasible, and testable. This facilitates choosing a realistic sprint goal, and it helps the development team members do their work without having to constantly ask you for clarification during the sprint.
7 Regularly Update the Product Backlog
The product backlog is not a static, fixed plan. Instead, it evolves based on the insights you gain from collecting user feedback and building the product. You should therefore regularly update and refine it together with the development team.
Analyse the feedback and data collected from exposing the latest product increment to the users and apply the new insights to the product backlog: remove and add new items, and update existing ones. This maximises the chances of building a product that users want, and it keeps the product backlog up concise and usable.
8 Say No
Have the courage to say no and decline ideas and requirements that do not help you meet the product goal and move you closer to realising the product vision. This ensures that your product has a clear value-proposition, and it prevents your product from getting bloated. If the idea or requirement is important but cannot be realised in the next months, then consider adding it to the product roadmap.
9 Look beyond User Stories
While user stories, and functional requirements in general, are important, they are usually not enough. Also consider the user interaction, the nonfunctional qualities of your product, and the user interface and capture them in your product backlog.
10 Make your Product Backlog Visible and Easily Accessible
As the product backlog describes the outstanding work required to progress the product, it is important that everyone involved in the development effort has access to it. I therefore recommend using a product backlog tool that is easy to use and that facilitates collaboration.
One option is to use a paper-based product backlog that’s on the office wall—assuming that people are collocated. A tool like my Product Canvas can help you structure and visualise your product backlog.