Step 1: Analyse the Data
Grooming or refining the product backlog starts with analysing the feedback and data 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 the validation technique used. I prefer to work with both, qualitative and quantitative data whenever possible and combine, for example, direct observation with A/B tests.
When evaluating the feedback, focus on the data that is relevant to help you understand if you are building the right product with the right UX, features, and technologies, or how you can further enhance and optimise the product. 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.
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 don’t learning anything new and you miss opportunities for making your product even better.
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 items, including 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 product strategy (pivot), remove the product backlog content, and restock your backlog.
Step 3: Decide what to do Next
After incorporating the new insights into your backlog, decide what to do next and choose the right sprint goal. Ask yourself what needs to be done next and what the purpose of the next sprint is. Which ideas and assumptions do you want to validate, which risks do you need to address? Or which functionality do you want to provide or enhance? You may want to try my sprint goal template to capture goal.
Step 4: Refine the Backlog Items
Next, break out user stories from the epics that help you to reach the sprint goal. Then make the stories high-priority, and order the stories according to their importance for reaching the goal.
You may also want to ask the development 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, to prioritise by cost-benefit, and track the project progress, for example, by using a release burndown chart.
Step 5: Get the High-Priority Items 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 picture 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.
Grooming is Teamwork
When I talk to product owners about grooming their backlog, I often discover that the individuals carry out the work alone. This wastes a massive opportunity: to mitigate the product owner’s cognitive biases, create shared ownership of the backlog, and leverage the team’s collective creativity and knowledge.
As the product owner, involve the team members in the grooming steps. This reduces your workload, and it is likely to result in better requirements and 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 new ideas or deliver more functionality.