The backlog, or product backlog, is a priority-ordered list of tasks your team undertakes to improve your product.

When a product development team decides what to do next, there’s no greater authority than the backlog. It’s the exclusive to-do list of the product team and provides a clear look at what tasks you need to work on next.

Read on to find out more about product backlogs and their importance to team cohesion and task prioritization.

What is a Backlog?

Backlogs, also known as product backlogs, are lists of all the tasks related to developing or improving a product. Your team orders this list according to priority level, with the most important items at the top.

The product backlog contains a variety of tasks and items, some of which include:

  • User stories or features
  • Active bugs
  • Technical or maintenance work, such as installing new software frameworks
  • Research required to do product-related tasks

Your team derives items on the product backlog from the product requirements, product spec, or roadmap. Different frameworks tackle items in various ways. For example, Scrum assigns a fixed set of product items at the start of each iterative sprint. Meanwhile, Kanban allows developers to continuously pull items from the backlog as their workload frees up.

What is the Importance of Having a Backlog?

The backlog is responsible for managing a product team’s workload and reducing ambiguity about what needs to be done. Here are some of the key benefits:

1. It provides a clear list of the next steps for product teams.

The backlog gives a clear answer to the question, “What do we do next?” Every item that’s on the list is a task for product teams to complete. In fact, you could say that teams can only work on items in the backlog; if it’s not on the list, they won’t do it.Because the backlog lists items according to priority, it also provides the sequence in which your team should execute tasks.

Note that just because a task is on the product backlog doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed to be executed. You should always regularly evaluate all items, and remove or revise them if necessary, based on their importance to business goals

2. It creates an avenue of discussion for cross-functional teams.

Source: Lucidchart

By their very design, backlogs provide two very easily understood pieces of information: What tasks to do, and how important they are. Sometimes, these tasks are not necessarily fully-formed ideas, so a team may choose to place a vague task at the bottom of the list to be revisited later on. 

During planning meetings, teams who are working on different aspects of the product can then further flesh out the item in question. Everyone’s input can then contribute valuably to detailing the item, as well as its prioritization level. This is only one example of how backlogs can make it easier for teams to discuss product-related tasks.

3. It makes it easier to assign product tasks.

When selecting tasks to do, the product backlog already provides the priority level of each task. This means that as developers complete items, you can distribute newer tasks among them according to priority level. There’s never any question about which tasks go to whom.

What Makes an Effective Product Backlog?

While a product backlog is an easily understood concept, it’s a little harder to build one and manage it to ensure that it’s consistently effective. 

So, here are some best practices for maintaining an effective product backlog:

1. It should be flexible and easily modified.

One of the most important things to remember about backlogs is that it should be very easy to add and remove items from them. Backlog items aren’t set in stone; instead, they provide guidance as to what tasks result in progress towards advancing the overall product goals. 

2. It should be regularly groomed.

Backlog grooming, or backlog refinement, is the process of reviewing a product backlog and ensuring that it’s updated. As time passes, various backlog issues may accumulate, such as:

  • Overly complex user stories
  • Erroneous prioritisation of tasks
  • General clutter due to multiple cross-functional teams contributing

Regularly grooming your backlogs makes them easier to follow and more efficient. The process of grooming also provides another avenue of discussion and transparency for stakeholders.

3. Every item should have deadlines.

Without clear deadlines associated with a backlog item, it can be difficult to prioritize and set expectations around it. Having deadlines makes items easier to manage and assign to sprints based on their estimated time and effort costs.

Order to the Chaos of Product Development

Product development is a complex, continuously evolving series of tasks that could easily overwhelm a team. With a backlog to guide how these tasks are executed, you can assure teams that they’ll always know what’s on their plate, and what needs to be done.