What is a product backlog? (And how to create one)

Alicia Raeburn contributor headshotAlicia RaeburnMay 26th, 20226 min read
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Summary

A product backlog is an ordered list of tasks, features, or items to be completed as part of a larger product roadmap. With an effective product backlog, you can assign developers daily, weekly, or monthly tasks that target your end goals and help you build a better product. Learn how to create a product backlog, plus tips on how to prioritize the items in your backlog.

A product backlog is an ordered list of tasks, features, or items to be completed as part of a larger roadmap. 

Product creation begins with an idea, and it takes a dedicated team to create something special. Yes, even the iPhone was once just a prototype that made its way to mainstream popularity thanks to the right team. When managing a Scrum team of developers, staying organized is crucial for product success. 

So how can development teams stay organized and meet their goals? With tried and true to-do lists. A product backlog is essentially a specialized to-do list. It’s an ordered list of tasks, features, or items to be completed as part of a larger product roadmap.If your team uses the Agile methodology, a product backlog can help you break down projects and initiatives to determine which tasks are most important. 

Read on to find out what a product backlog includes and how to create one for your team.

What’s a product backlog?

A product backlog is a prioritized list of work items or features that help you meet product goals and set expectations among teams. In general, each product in development should have a dedicated product backlog. Similarly, each product backlog should have a dedicated project team. 

Occasionally, there are multiple product backlogs with multiple teams working on one larger product. For example, let’s take a look at the Adobe Creative Cloud suite.Creative Cloud is an umbrella product, with smaller products like Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects housed inside it. Each of these smaller products would have its own product backlog and designated teams for development.

You create a product backlog from the product roadmap, which explains the plan of action for the product’s evolution. Developers use the tasks in the product backlog to get to their desired outcomes as quickly as possible. 

Who uses product backlogs

While any developer can use a product backlog, they’re most often used by Agile teams. In Agile projects, the teams dedicate their time to product creation and make adjustments as their project progresses. Because of the flexibility of the Agile methodology, tasks on the product backlog aren’t set in stone, and you’re not expected to complete every one of them. Plus, Agile teams will regularly undergo product backlog refinement to re-prioritize tasks as needed.

Read: The beginner's guide to Agile methodologies

What’s in a product backlog?

A product backlog commonly includes features, bug fixes, technical debts, and knowledge acquisition. These product backlog items are distinct pieces of work that have yet to be delivered for a product. 

What's included in a product backlog?

1. Features (user stories)

A feature, also known as a user story, is a function of the product that the product user finds valuable. Features can be complex—often referred to as epics—or they can be simple. Creating a story map can help your team determine what the user needs most.  

2. Bug fixes

Bug fixes are self-explanatory, and your Scrum team should address these quickly to uphold the integrity of the product. Some bugs may be important enough to interrupt your team’s current sprint, while others can wait for the next sprint. An overall rule with bugs, however, is to keep them at the top of your product backlog so your team doesn’t forget about them.

Free bug tracking template

3. Technical debts

Technical debt, like financial debt, “accrues interest” when ignored. When developers push technical work to the bottom of the product backlog, it builds up and becomes harder to accomplish. Effective backlog management can prevent the buildup of technical debt. When your team stays organized and takes on technical work in smaller, daily increments, you’re less likely to accrue interest on a huge piece of work. 

4. Knowledge acquisition  

In knowledge acquisition, you gather information to accomplish future tasks. Essentially, this is a research stage. When you identify a feature that needs more research, you create a knowledge acquisition task such as a prototype, experiment, or proof-of-concept to get the information you need to work on the feature.

4 Steps to create a product backlog

A product backlog is more than a simple to-do list—it’s where you break down complex tasks into a series of steps and delegate them to team members. Follow these four steps to develop an effective product backlog. 

1. Build a product roadmap

The product roadmap is the foundation for the product backlog. Your team should create a roadmap first, which will then serve as the action plan for how your product will change as it develops. The roadmap is the vision for long-term product development, but it can also evolve. 

Read: Project roadmaps: What they are and why you need them

2. List product backlog items 

With your product roadmap in mind, your team can begin listing product backlog items. These items should  include both high-priority items and more abstract ideas. During this phase of product backlog creation, you’ll also need to communicate with stakeholders and listen to their ideas for product improvements. If you’re using the Agile method, you can organize this conversation as part of your sprint planning meeting.

3. Prioritize your backlog

After your team lists all the product backlog items, sort and prioritize your most important tasks. You can identify top-priority items by putting the customer front of mind and considering what items provide the most value to them.

Read: How to solve problems using the design thinking process

4. Update regularly

As your team works through the product backlog, remember that it’s a living document. You can continuously add items to the backlog and prioritize or refine them as you work. 

How to prioritize product backlog items

An essential component of managing the product backlog is prioritizing tasks. As the Scrum master, you should have a thorough understanding of what new features stakeholders want to see in the product. Here are some strategies on how to prioritize backlog list items.

How to prioritize product backlog items

Refine product backlog items

Before you can prioritize, you first need to define your backlogs. Add details such as a description, size, and associated goals or metrics.

Organize tasks by urgency and importance

When focusing on backlog refinement, try organizing tasks by urgency and importance. The team should prioritize product backlog items that improve the functionality of the product as well as the user experience. 

Read: How to prioritize your most important work

Tackle complex tasks first

Your team may feel inclined to complete simple tasks first so they can remove them from the product backlog and shorten the list, but this is a less efficient form of project management. The product backlog will continue to grow, so tackling complex tasks first is often the most effective. 

Complete tasks in focused sprints of time

Agile teams work in focused sprints to complete work, and this method is highly effective for productivity. At the end of each sprint, the product owner and any stakeholders can attend a sprint review with you and the development team to ensure everything is on track.

Read: Burndown chart: What it is and how to use it (with examples)

Communicate with your team

Communication between team members is a crucial part of product backlog prioritization. To successfully sort through the backlog and complete items in a reasonable time frame, you and your team must work together and follow the Scrum guide.

Read: 12 tips to effective communication in the workplace

Product backlog example

Product backlogs look different between projects but some begin with an epic. An epic is an overarching problem you’re trying to solve for a customer. Here’s an example below:

Epic: As a marketing manager, I want a content management system that allows me to deliver quality content to my readers.

This epic can help you work on user stories, such as how a user creates content in your new system or how they edit and share content with their teams. To continue our product backlog example, we can split the epic into more specific user stories.

Story 1: As a content creator, I want a content management system that lets me create content so I can inform customers about our products.

Story 2: As an editor, I want a content management system that lets me review content before it’s published so I can ensure it’s well-written and optimized for search. 

The product owner, Scrum master, and development team will determine features the product should include from the user stories and prioritize them based on importance. 

Features the product should include for Story 1:

  1. Log in to the content management system

  2. Create content

  3. Edit a page of content

  4. Save changes

  5. Assign content to editor for review

As the product manager, you’ll use epics to guide your product roadmap and backlog list items. As you can see with this example, one epic can result in multiple user stories and product features.

What are the benefits of a product backlog?

A product backlog helps your team run like a well-oiled machine by improving organization and collaboration. It becomes the central tool for communication and keeps everyone aligned on goals and expectations. 

Because all the work for a product flows through the backlog, the product backlog provides a base for iteration planning. As your team prioritizes tasks with guidance from the product owner, they’ll also determine how much work they can commit to in a specified block of time. These time blocks are called iterations or sprints. 

The product backlog also promotes Agile team development by encouraging a flexible yet productive work environment. Tasks on the product backlog aren’t set in stone, and the team sorts them by order of importance before choosing which tasks to tackle first.

Read: Understanding the iterative process, with examples

Sprint backlog vs. product backlog

Sprint backlogs and product backlogs are very similar in terms of their components. Sprint backlogs are a subset of the product backlog, but they’re used specifically during sprints.

Sprint backlog vs. product backlog

Here’s another way to look at the difference: 

Product backlog: 

  • Owner: Product owner

  • End date: Ongoing

  • Goal: Uses the overarching product goal in order to prioritize tasks

  • Flexibility: Very flexible, based on the needs of the customer

Sprint backlog: 

  • Owner: Development team

  • End date: When the sprint ends

  • Goal: Short-term goal developed during sprint planning

  • Flexibility: Less flexible once the sprint begins

Log your progress with a product backlog

Getting a product to the finish line is easier when you have a well-organized product backlog in place. Asana can help you manage Agile projects in the most efficient way possible with modern Scrum software. 

Manage Agile teams with Asana

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