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

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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. If your team uses the Agile methodology, a product backlog can help you break down projects and 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 items or features needed to meet goals and set expectations among teams. It can help your team keep track of tasks. The general rule is to have one product backlog for each product being developed and one team assigned to that particular backlog. 

Occasionally, there are multiple product backlogs with multiple teams working on one larger product. Let’s use Adobe Creative Cloud as an example. The Creative Cloud is an umbrella product, with smaller products like Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects within it. Each of these smaller products would have its own product backlog and designated teams for development.

A product backlog is derived from the product roadmap, which explains the plan of action for how the product should evolve. Developers use the tasks in the product backlog to get to their desired outcomes as quickly as possible. 

Agile teams dedicate their time to product creation and make adjustments as a project progresses. Because of the Agile methodology, tasks on the product backlog aren’t set in stone, and not all items on the product backlog will be completed. Your development team should refine the product backlog as they prioritize necessary tasks.

What’s included 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. Your team can prevent buildup of technical debt by staying organized and taking on technical work in smaller, daily increments. 

4. Knowledge acquisition  

Knowledge acquisition involves gathering information to accomplish future tasks. If your team has a feature that they can’t accomplish without further research, then you would create a knowledge acquisition task such as a prototype, experiment, or proof-of-concept to get the information needed for the feature. 

How to create a product backlog

A product backlog is more than a simple to-do list. You can break complex tasks into a series of steps and delegate them to team members accordingly. Here are the steps to develop an effective product backlog. 

1. Product roadmap

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

2. List product backlog items 

With your product roadmap in mind, your team can begin listing product backlog items. These items can include 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. A product backlog template can make it easy for you to create item rows and move the rows around.

3. Prioritization

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

4. Update regularly

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

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

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. 

Läs: Prioritera det viktigaste arbetet

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 can be most effective for product development. 

Complete tasks in focused sprints of time

Agile teams work in focused sprints of time 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.

Läs: 12 tips för effektiv kommunikation på arbetsplatsen

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 could result in various product features ranging from how a user creates content in the new system to how they edit and share content with 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.

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How can a product backlog help your team?

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

The product owner has control over the product backlog because it takes the entire product from start to finish. The development team owns each sprint backlog because these smaller to-do lists taken from the product backlog are meant to be completed within a designated time period. 

The sprint backlog depends on the product backlog, and it ends when the sprint ends. A sprint backlog will also have its own sprint goal developed during sprint planning. The product backlog focuses on the entire goal of the product and tasks are prioritized based on that goal. 

The product backlog is more flexible than the sprint backlog and can vary based on the needs of the customer. The product backlog remains in place and must be maintained until the product reaches full development. 

Looking back at our product backlog example, we can also create a sprint backlog example. When developing a car accessory to help someone drive a car with their hands, one task on the product backlog was to create a prototype of the car accessory. This prototype could become a sprint because it may take a subset of tasks to develop. 

Sprint backlog items for the car accessory prototype may include:

  1. Create a concept sketch

  2. Develop a virtual prototype

  3. Build a physical prototype

  4. Locate a manufacturer to build the prototype

These sprint backlog items would also be on the product backlog, but separating them into their own sprint can help developers through the Scrum process as they accomplish these tasks and get the prototype created quickly. 

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. 

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