What Is a Product Backlog

Creating a product is rarely easy. In fact, it’s never easy. When you think about all of the moving parts that go into product development, the level of detail needed to get everything absolutely perfect…it’s enough to make your head spin!

With all the tasks needed to be done to develop a product, it’s a wonder that anything ever gets launched. The secret is the product backlog. Here’s what you need to know about the product backlog, and how to prioritize a product backlog in Agile.

Product Backlog Definition

If you take a look at our Product Glossary, the product backlog is defined as:

“Tasks – normally bugs that need fixing – that are important but not urgent, and have been listed to be completed at a non-specific date in the future when time and resources become available”

During development, certain problems or bugs arise that aren’t life-threatening for the product, and if the team is on a time crunch, usually the product will be safe to launch before they get fixed.

There will usually also be small feature suggestions that aren’t quite vital enough to make it into the product before launch, but are important or useful enough to be added at some point.

This is where the backlog, and the Product Owner come in. A product backlog is a prioritized list of tasks or bug fixes to be completed after launch. It may be added to from team feedback and customer requests. It’s a living document that can change and evolve alongside the needs of the product and the capabilities of the team.

Having such a system allows the team to launch a serviceable version of the product, enough to get it into consumers hands and start gathering feedback.

Within Scrum, the product backlog is a list of tasks which contribute towards something called the Product Goal. This is the ‘ideal’ version of the product at that moment in time. It gives the development team a target to all be working towards together.

Check out: The Difference: Agile vs Scrum

Product Backlog vs Sprint Backlog: What’s The Difference?

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Product backlog and sprint backlog are two similar and familiar beats for product managers, but there are some key differences between them.

A product backlog involves all of the tasks to be done that will fulfil the overall product vision. Whether that be an imperfect V1 that’ll be shipped next week, or the planned V2 to be launched next year. Anyone can contribute to the product backlog (although not everything is good enough to make the cut, which is often the Product Manager’s call to make). This is the backlog which is owned and managed by the Product Owner.

However, a sprint backlog is an artifact of Scrum, and is owned by the development team rather than the product management team. While the overall product backlog is a list of prioritized tasks for the whole lifecycle of the product, the sprint backlog is just for what’s being worked on right now. It’s necessary because sprints usually include more than one feature/bug fix at once, and having a sprint backlog helps the development team to prioritize and stay on target.

What Does a Product Manager/Product Owner Have To Do?

In a smaller company or startup, the Product Manager will be responsible for prioritizing the product backlog, working hand in hand with the engineering team to make sure reasonable expectations are set. However, within a larger company this may fall to the Product Owner.

Either way, if you’re part of the product management team, it’s useful to understand what goes into prioritizing a backlog. Managing and prioritizing a product backlog for Product Managers is a key skill that will help you to climb that career ladder.

How to Prioritize a Backlog within Agile

1. Separate the tasks into categories

The first step to solid prioritization is to give each task a label/labels that make it easier to understand. Figure out which ones are the most time-intensive, which ones are expensive, and which ones impact the back end rather than the front end, etc.

2. Separate immediate tasks from long-term/moonshot tasks

To avoid confusion, don’t include low priority or moonshot tasks in the product backlog. Save these for another day, certainly. But it’s more important to the short-term success of the team to focus on the most important tasks now, and not muddy the waters with things you’re not planning to work on until next year. Create a separate list for anything that is quite obviously not urgent or important.

3. Score your tasks

Once you’ve figured out what’s immediately important, start prioritizing tasks by giving each of them a score.

One of the more popular scoring methods is RICE:

RICE scoring method prioritization

Reach: How many customers will be impacted by this update/addition/fix?

Impact: How much will this update/addition/fix impact the customer experience?

Confidence: A subjective score of how confident you feel based on intuition and an educated guess.

Effort: The hours and resources needed to implement.

In an ideal world, all of our tasks would be high impact and low effort, but that’s rarely the case! See our full guide of the top 3 prioritization skills all Product Managers should know, including a detailed breakdown of how to calculate your RICE score.

Top Tips To Make Prioritization Easy

While prioritization falls fully into the Product Manager/Owner’s wheelhouse, you need as much cross-functional information as possible in order to make the right decisions. This is why it’s better to make prioritization a collaborative effort. Work closely with the engineering team to fully understand the effort needed for a task. Listen to customer support teams in order to better know the reach and impact of each task.

Keep going back to the work you’ve done leading up to this point. Go over your user stories and personas and remind yourself of the product vision you’re working towards. Prioritization of the product backlog is the perfect time to get lost in the weeds, which is a quick way to kill momentum. Stay user focused and remember the goal you’re trying to achieve, and the problem you’re trying to solve. All of your prioritization decisions should be helping you to work towards that.

If in doubt, look towards your North star, and look to your team for help. If you can rely on both of these, you’re that much closer to backlog prioritization success.

Mariano Capezzani, Head of Product at HSBC, has a great prioritization system that makes the job that much easier. Check it out:

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