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Product Backlog

When a group is planning to transition to Scrum, before the first Sprint can begin, they need a Product Backlog, a prioritized (ordered 1, 2, 3, …) list of customer-centric features.
The Product Backlog exists (and evolves) over the lifetime of the product; it is the product roadmap (Figure 2 and Figure 3). At any point, the Product Backlog is the single, definitive view of “everything that could be done by the Team ever, in order of priority”. Only a single Product Backlog exists for a product; this means the Product Owner is required to make prioritization decisions across the entire spectrum, representing the interests of stakeholders (including the Team).

Priority Item Details (wiki URL) Initial Size Estimate New Estimates At Sprint
1 2 3 4 5 6
1 As a buyer, I want to place a book in a shopping cart (see UI sketches on wiki page) 5
2 As a buyer, I want to remove a book in a shopping cart 2
3 Improve transaction processing performance (see target performance metrics on wiki) 13
4 Investigate solutions for speeding up credit card validation (see target performance metrics on wiki) 20
5 Upgrade all servers to Apache 2.2.3 13
6 Diagnose and fix the order processing script errors (bugzilla ID 14823) 3
7 As a shopper, I want to create and save a wish list 40
8 As a shopper, I want to to add or delete items on my wish list 20

Figure 2. The Product Backlog

Figure 3. Visual Management: Product Backlog items on the wall
Figure 3. Visual Management: Product Backlog items on the wall

The Product Backlog includes a variety of items, primarily new customer features (“enable all users to place book in shopping cart”), but also major engineering improvement goals (e.g., “rewrite the system from C++ to Java”), improvement goals (e.g. “speed up our tests”), research work (“investigate solutions for speeding up credit card validation”), and, possibly, known defects (“diagnose and fix the order processing script errors”) if there are only a few problems. (A system with many defects usually has a separate defect tracking system.)

Product Backlog items are articulated in any way that is clear and sustainable. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, the Product Backlog does not contain “user stories”; it simply contains items. Those items can be expressed as user stories, use cases, or any other requirements approach that the group finds useful. But whatever the approach, most items should focus on delivering value to customers.

A good Product Backlog is DEEP…

Detailed appropriately. The top priority items are more fine-grained and detailed than the lower priority items, since the former will be worked on sooner than the latter. For example, the top 10% of the backlog may be composed of very small, well-analyzed items, and the other 90% much less so.

Estimated. The items for the current release need to have estimates, and furthermore, should be considered for re-estimation each Sprint as everyones learns and new information arises. The Team provides the Product Owner with effort estimates for each item on the Product Backlog, and perhaps also technical risk estimates. The Product Owner and other business stakeholders provide information on the value of the product requests, which may include revenue gained, costs reduced, business risks, importance to various stakeholders, and more.

Emergent. In response to learning and variability, the Product Backlog is regularly refined. Each Sprint, items may be added, removed, modified, split, and changed in priority. Thus, the Product Backlog is continuously updated by the Product Owner to reflect changes in the needs of the customer, new ideas or insights, moves by the competition, technical hurdles that appear, and so forth.

Prioritized. The items at the top of the Product Backlog are prioritized or ordered in a 1-N order. In general, the highest-priority items should deliver the most bang for your buck: lots of bang (business value) for low buck (cost). Another motivation to increase the priority of an item is to tackle high risks early, before the risks attack you.

Traditional development does not usually emphasize delivering according to highest bang for your buck, but this is a theme of Scrum, and therefore the Product Owner will need to learn how to assess the bang of “business value.” This is something the Scrum Master may help the Product Owner learn. What does “business value” mean? Some product groups use a simple relative value-point estimate for each Product Backlog item which synthesizes a “guesstimate” of factors including revenue gain, cost reduction, stakeholder preferences, market differentiation, and so forth. Some fund a specific item by one or more customers paying for its development and so use that item’s exact (short term) revenue as a proxy for value. For other groups such item-specific value estimation is too unfocused or granular; they apply a broader business-outcome-based approach (“increase subscriptions by 10% by September 1”) in which value is only delivered when multiple outcome-contributing items are delivered together. In that case, the Product Owner needs to define the next increment of Minimum Viable Product.

For effort estimates, a common technique is to estimate in terms of relative size (factoring in effort, complexity, and uncertainty) using a unit of “story points” or simply “points”.

These are just suggestions; Scrum does not define the technique for expressing or prioritizing items in the Product Backlog and it does not define the estimation technique or units.

A common technique used in Scrum is to track how much work it completes each Sprint; for example, averaging 26 points completed per Sprint. With this information they can project a release date to complete all features, or how many features can be completed by a fixed date, if the average continues and nothing changes. This average is called the “velocity.” Velocity is expressed in the same units as the Product Backlog item size estimates.

The items in the Product Backlog can vary significantly in size or effort. Larger ones are broken into smaller items during the Product Backlog Refinement workshop or the Sprint Planning Meeting, and smaller ones may be consolidated. The Product Backlog items for the upcoming next several Sprints should be small and fine-grained enough that they are understood by the Team, enabling forecasts made in the Sprint Planning meeting to be meaningful; this is called an “actionable” size.

Major engineering improvements that consume much time and money should be in the Product Backlog, since they may be an optional business investment, ultimately to be made by the business-oriented Product Owner. Note that in Scrum, the Team has independent authority of how many items from the Product Backlog they decide to take into a Sprint, so they are independently free to take on minor engineering improvement work as they can be considered part of the normal cost of doing business and what is required for a developer to do their job properly. That said, in each Sprint, the majority of a Team’s time should usually be on Product Owner goals, not internal engineering tasks.

One of the myths about Scrum is that it prevents you from writing detailed specifications; in reality, it is up to the Product Owner and Team to decide how much detail is required, and this will vary from one backlog item to the next, depending on the insight of the Team, and other factors. State what is important in the least amount of space necessary – in other words, do not describe every possible detail of an item, just make clear what is necessary for it to be understood, and augment this with continuous dialog between the Team and Product Owner and stakeholders. Low priority Product Backlog Items, which will not be worked on for some time, are usually “coarse grained” (large, with less-detailed requirements). High priority and fine-grained Product Backlog Items that will soon be implemented tend to have more detail.