What is a product backlog?

A product backlog (often referred to simply as a backlog) is a list of all things — new features, bug fixes, improvements, changes to existing features, and other product initiatives — that product teams must prioritize and deliver in order for a product to strategically come to life. 

Essentially, the backlog is a single source of truth for everything the product team needs to work on. Nothing gets built unless it is on the product backlog. On the other hand, listing an item on the backlog doesn’t guarantee that it will be delivered. In that sense, the backlog is a large to-do list of all product-related tasks that the team has captured but hasn’t committed to delivering yet. 

The product backlog is a living document. As product teams gain a better understanding of the problem and the work required to deliver the right solution, existing backlog items can be reordered or removed, and new items added.Not everything can be a top priority when building a product. The backlog should be groomed regularly by organizing, prioritizing, and removing items. A well-attended backlog keeps product teams agile by challenging feature importance and keeping everyone’s priorities in sync.

How does the product backlog fit into the big picture?

product backlog

Source: Strategize: Product Strategy and Product Roadmap Practices for the Digital Age

  • The product strategy is a high-level overview of how the company vision will be achieved.
  • The product roadmap dictates how the strategy will be executed.
  • The product backlog contains the task-level details required to develop the product as outlined in the roadmap.

The product backlog contains the task-level details required to develop the product as outlined in the roadmap.

The product roadmap and product backlog complement each other as tools for facilitating project execution. The relationship between the roadmap and the backlog is bi-directional: the backlog can be derived from the roadmap (top-down approach), but changes to the backlog can influence the overall roadmap (bottom-up approach).

 

Product Roadmap

Product Backlog

WhatStrategic product planning toolTactical task-level list of all things necessary to create the project
ContainsProduct versions or major releases along with
key features for each release
User stories and epics
Intended forStakeholders, investors, and even customersThe product team and development teams
MeasuresStrategic goals and metricsTasks/initiatives completed
TimeframeVaries, anywhere from a few months to a yearProduct backlog – varies
Sprint backlog – 1-2 weeks

What goes into the product backlog?

All work items related to the product or project should be included in the backlog. The specific type of items and initiatives will vary from team to team, but the following items usually belong in the backlog:

  • New features
  • New feature ideas
  • Bugs of all levels and severity
  • Bug fixes
  • Feature improvements
  • De-scoped improvements
  • Feature requests from customers and stakeholders
  • Design changes
  • UX issues
  • Technical debt
  • Infrastructure changes

These items that vary in size and extent of detail can be described technically or focus on the personal needs and problems of users. In a Scrum product backlog, for example, product managers can enter items in the form of user stories — short stories about someone (usually the customer) using the product. User stories contain a brief narrative and normally follow the template: As a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>.

Who owns the product backlog?

Which role is responsible for turning the product backlog into incremental pieces of functionality?

The product owner owns the product backlog.

While the entire team works and contributes to the product backlog, the product owner is responsible for maintaining the backlog.

In the Scrum methodology, the Scrum product owner is held accountable for keeping a healthy backlog, while the Scrum Master, the Scrum team, and other stakeholders contribute by adding new entries and completing tasks in the backlog.

Different backlog owners can exist when teams use multiple backlogs. For example, the main product backlog could be maintained by the product owner, while the technical team could be in charge of the sprint product backlog.

How to create a product backlog?

Depending on your team’s approach to product management and which agile methodology you use, you might choose different tactics and processes for creating and managing your product backlog. 

There are a few universal rules that would keep your team in sync and save you from the hurdles of an overwhelming backlog:

  • Ensure that every team member understands and adopts your process for backlog management.
  • Appoint a clear owner of the backlog, as discussed in the previous section.
  • Set criteria about which items belong in the backlog. It’s essential that you get everyone to contribute, but you must avoid expanding the backlog with entries that don’t add value to the customer.
  • Groom the backlog regularly. The backlog owner should review all entries to ensure that prioritization is correct and that the latest team feedback has been incorporated.

A 5-step backlog management process

Step 1: Start with a coherent product roadmap and deep user insights

At productboard we believe that Product Excellence lies on the intersection between:

  • Deep user insight
  • Clear product strategy
  • Coherent roadmap

A coherent roadmap and user insights provide the foundation for the product backlog. Before you can add and prioritize items in your backlog, you must have a deep understanding of what your users want and what their requirements are.

From your insights, you create and prioritize your roadmap. A clear roadmap will help you build a concise backlog that is easy to update and change.

Step 2: Discover and list all new items in your backlog

Once you have the first iteration of your roadmap, add and describe all items in the product backlog as derived from the roadmap.

The goal of your roadmap is to define the overall product journey, major releases, and high-level features. With the backlog, you want to capture the details — medium and small features, bugs, user requests, and so on. 

At this stage, you’re still not prioritizing or grouping backlog items.

Step 3: Organize your backlog items in stories and epics

List and describe small backlog items as stories and big items as epics.

  • As mentioned, user stories are items written from the perspective of an end-user.
  • Epics are large bodies of work that consists of multiple stories.

As noted, you may prefer a more technical way of describing your backlog items instead of using user stories and epics.

Step 4: Prioritize your items

The product owner prioritizes the items scheduled for the near-term at the top of the backlog. The items on top tend to be described more comprehensively, while the level of detail decreases with priority as you go down the backlog list.

There are multiple factors that could influence the backlog item prioritization:

  • Feature value
  • Complexity and implementation difficulty
  • Development effort
  • Customer expectations
  • The overall reach of the feature
  • Changes to the product roadmap — iterations to the roadmap will influence the backlog. The product owner must keep the roadmap and backlog in sync by re-prioritizing, adding, and removing backlog items.

If you’re new to product prioritization, make sure to check our guide on product prioritization frameworks.

Step 5: Review your backlog regularly

It’s important to maintain and declutter the product backlog regularly. These reviews are called “backlog grooming” or “backlog refinement” in agile circles. Regular reviews ensure prioritization is correct and help you maintain peace of mind with a manageable product backlog.

Product backlog vs. sprint backlog

The product backlog is a compiled list of all items that must be delivered to complete the whole project or product. 

The sprint backlog, on the other hand, is a subset of the main product backlog. Items in the sprint backlog are selected from the main product backlog, but the sprint backlog contains only tasks that can be completed during the sprint. The sprint backlog helps reduce the workload and increase the team’s effectiveness by focusing only on the initiatives that can be completed during the sprint.

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With a tool like productboard, it is easy to keep your product backlog manageable. Access a free 15-day trial and see how.