Agile Methodology

What is Product Backlog in Agile? Properties, Process and Paybacks

Most of the projects today follow Agile methodology, and Scrum in particular. One of the four agile values say ‘Working software over comprehensive documentation’ – but it doesn’t mean NO documentation. It simply means only ‘effective’ documentation. We as testers are familiar with User Stories, the next most important & effective agile documentation is the Product Backlog. In this article let’s get a clear understanding of what is a Product backlog and its importance in agile implementations!

What is the Product Backlog in Agile

What is a Product Backlog?

If you search for ‘Backlog dictionary meaning’ on Google what you get is – “an accumulation of uncompleted work or matters needing to be dealt with.” Yeah! I know, this is self-explanatory 🙂

A Product Backlog is a list (accumulation) of all things (uncompleted) that needs to be done within the Project. A prioritized features list, containing short descriptions of all functionality desired in the product.

It’s a tactical tool that directs the work of the development team and provides the basis for tracking the project progress. The Product Owner creates, maintains, and regularly re-orders the Backlog. The Product Owner uses it to adapt to emerging requirements, customer feedback, and market changes.

Product Backlog Items (PBIs)

The Product Backlog breaks the big-picture vision down into manageable increments of work called Product Backlog Items (PBIs). By far, the predominant way for an agile team to express features on the product backlog is in the form of user stories, which are short, simple descriptions of the desired functionality told from perspective of the user. But it’s not just limited to User stories!

As such, the Product Backlog contain not only the new features for a product but may also contain functional and non-functional requirements, bug fixes, technical training, refactoring efforts and other non-feature requirements that may better position the team supporting the product research—anything that will take the team’s time. Whatever the team decides on, it is critical to represent the end-user’s perspective.

Properties of a worthy Product Backlog

Each Product Backlog has certain properties that differentiate it from a simple to-do list.

  • Each entry in the Product Backlog must add some value to the customer.
  • All entries are prioritized and the Product Backlog is ordered. The most important items are shown at the top so the team knows what to deliver first. Added Value, Costs, Risks and dependencies are the most common factors for prioritization. Keeping this prioritization in mind, the Product Owner & team can decide what needs to be done next.
  • The level of detail depends on the position of the entry within the Product Backlog. PBI’s at the top should be refined and immediately actionable. Items further down the backlog need less definition and can reflect bigger ideas. It does not make sense to invest time and effort into the specification of later requirements, as most of these will have changed anyway until implementation starts. These larger chunks will need to be broken down into smaller pieces as they approach the top of the Product Backlog.
  • A product backlog is never “done” — it is a living, breathing asset in your product release process that is constantly revisited. Utilize a backlog refinement or product backlog grooming process to progress the items contributing to your product strategy into your committed road map.
  • Each entry is estimated by the team to give the product owner clarity and enabling him/her to answer questions such as “When will these stories be done?” These items are estimated in abstract units, often called story points.

Not just a document | Product Backlog is a process tool

The owner of the Product Backlog is the Product Owner. The Scrum Master, the Team and other Stakeholders contribute it to have a broad and complete to-do list.

  1. When applying agile, it’s not necessary to start a project with a lengthy, upfront effort to document all requirements. Typically, an agile team and its product owner begin by writing down everything they can think of for product backlog prioritization – more than enough for the first sprint. It is then allowed to grow and change as more is learned about the product and its customers.
  2. Ordering the Product Backlog – the most important items are moved to the top. Effective product owners seek input and feedback from customers, designers, and the development team to optimize everyone’s workload and the product delivery.
  3. The Product Owner uses the Backlog during the Sprint Planning Meeting to describe the top entries to the team. The team then determines which items they can complete during the coming sprint.
  4. The team then moves items from the product backlog to the sprint backlog. In doing so, they expand each backlog item into one or more sprint backlog tasks so they can share work during the sprint more effectively.
  5. Backlog grooming: The Product Backlog is changed throughout the project, on a recurring basis (normally a few days prior to the next sprint or re-engagement) to keep it fresh and responsive to changing market drivers. If needed, new requirements are added and existing requirements may be modified, defined in more detail or even deleted. This is a collaborative process – it helps to clarify the requirements, ensure that team is building what matters, what to build is clear and creates a buy-in from the agile team.

Stay ahead with a well-managed Product Backlog

The Product Backlog is the manifestation of the vision and the business case for the product.

  • A well-prioritized backlog serves as the foundation for release and iteration planning.
  • It helps teams’ focus on delivering the highest value first; teams rank and re-rank for value.
  • Fostering discussion around what’s important gets everyone’s priorities in sync. These discussions foster a culture of group prioritization ensuring everyone shares the same mindset on the program.
  • Product owners dictate the priority of work items in the backlog, while the development team dictates the velocity through the backlog. I.e. Customer value is prioritized without pushing the work towards the team – a simple win-win 🙂
  • Having a list of features whose rank can be changed allows agile teams to welcome new ideas and changes in direction.
  • The backlog serves as the connection between the product owner and the development team.
  • The product backlog serves as a reliable and shareable outline of the work items for a project. It broadcasts all the things that team intends to spend time on – including internal work that the customer will never notice.
  • Providing this product backlog enables the product team to be as efficient and opportunistic as possible with available resources, i.e. a free developer can select the right “Next” priority task quickly.
  • If the product backlog includes all work – the product owner, team and management have a better picture of the work that remains and reduces last-minute surprises.

A good product backlog is at the heart of any well-functioning agile team. It does not automatically guarantee a quality software. However, the lack of it often results in incomplete software that does not meet the requirements of your customers and stakeholders.

Hope this article helped you in understanding more about the Product Backlog. Let us know how is it managed in your agile setup? Let’s learn and grow together. By the way, don’t forget to share the article with your colleagues 🙂

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