A paint roller rolling red paint onto a green background, representing the product backlog.
A paint roller rolling red paint onto a green background, representing the product backlog.

What Is a Product Backlog?

Feature requests, bugs, and infrastructure changes are just a few of the things that developers might have to deal with. While something like a to-do list is great for an individual developer to keep track of their work, it can quickly get out of hand when applied to the whole product team. You need a way to manage everything that’s required of you, as well as prioritizing work for each sprint. Enter the product backlog.

A product backlog is one of the most popular ways for product teams to keep a handle on everything that’s required of them. But what is it, and how does it work?

A quick definition of the product backlog

A product backlog is an authoritative list for all the work a development team needs to get done. Everything from feature requests to bugs will be in the backlog. Essentially, if it’s a task the development team needs to take care of, it’ll be in the backlog. But it’s not just an amorphous mass of work; product teams regularly go through the backlog to prioritize tasks. If they’re using a work management tool like Jira, the most important tasks in a backlog will usually be near the top of the list.

The product backlog is used as a base to plan initiatives and dispatch work.

Treat it as a work repository. As you draft up your roadmap and your product requirements, new projects and requirements get added to the backlog. From there, you can prioritize the most pressing work and plan how to tackle it.

Since the product backlog is the catch-all for the work a team might be responsible for, keeping it organized can be a huge challenge. On top of everything a team lead might add to it, a backlog will hold development requests from multiple other teams.

Product backlog benefits

So now that you know what a product backlog is, let’s go over why it’s worth implementing with your product team. Here are just a few of the benefits that come with the backlog:

  • Discussions can be had later: Adding an item to your product backlog doesn’t mean it has to be done right away, the way assigning a task to someone might. It just means that someone in your organization thinks this is something the product team should get onto. By putting it in the backlog, you record this need while giving yourself the room to decide whether it’s worth working on or not.
  • Nothing falls through the cracks: Without a product backlog, how do requests get to the product team? Slack messages? Tasks assigned to individual developers? Emails? When everyone knows they can put their requests through the product backlog, you get a centralized funnel where all these requests can live. Nothing goes missing.
  • Not everything has to get done: Not only do issues in your backlog not have to get done right away; they don’t have to get done at all. Putting something in the backlog doesn’t mean it’s going to get done; you still have the power to determine whether it’s worth pursuing or not.
  • You can prioritize work on your schedule: Because the product backlog serves as a transitory stage between the initial request and the product roadmap, you don’t have to decide how important that request is right away. That gives you the time you need to do this while considering what you’re already working on.

How to keep your backlog healthy

Treat a backlog like a to-do list and it’s going to get cluttered real quickly. Usually, someone is in charge of keeping a product backlog organized. That means regularly checking through tasks and comparing them to the team’s current priorities. There are some things to keep in mind so a product backlog stays healthy:

  • Be receptive to feedback. When stakeholders get a look at your backlog, it might not line up with their priorities. Remember that they’ll have a different view of a project than you do, and their feedback can help you avoid roadblocks later.
  • Regularly reassess priority. The beginning of a sprint is not the only time you should be assessing a team’s tasks. Sometimes, a request is less pressing than when it came in. Initiatives get de-scoped, projects are put on hold, and bugs sort themselves out — not really, but one can dream. That means you should be regularly evaluating the priority of tasks in your backlog.
  • Avoid keeping your backlog in a local document. Spreadsheets are great for a lot of things: expense reports, creating charts, storing data. But they’re not the best way to store your product backlog. Even if it’s not on a spreadsheet, your product backlog shouldn’t be in a local document. If that’s the case, anyone who needs to give input or ask questions has to get a copy of that document, and it can quickly get outdated. Make sure your product backlog is somewhere easily accessible, where it can be updated in real-time. Usually, that should be in your work management tool of choice.

Pro tip: The backlog grooming session

A backlog grooming session should happen regularly, likely once a month. During this session, someone — usually a product manager or a team lead — goes through the product backlog to make sure it’s still up to snuff. That means eliminating items that aren’t relevant anymore, merging duplicate items, fleshing out issues that aren’t too clear, and more. By doing this regularly, your product backlog will always represent the work your team is responsible for. It’s essential if you want to keep your processes agile.

Here’s how it’s done

Managing your product backlog workflow

Workflows help you map out what needs to get done. Coordinating a team, managing cross-functional projects, and more can all be part of a workflow. The product backlog workflow is about creating an easy, centralized path that requests for development can follow to land in your backlog, as well as improving your backlog management efforts. Here are a few ways you can optimize your product backlog workflow:

  • Streamline and reduce meetings. Whether the task of keeping your backlog healthy falls on one person or more, the team needs to stay in touch so everyone’s on the same page. That can mean multiple meetings. Make sure that, when you set up meetings, you only invite people who absolutely need to be there, and that you do everything you can to make them quick and painless.
  • Create a development request funnel. One of the challenges of this workflow is that you’re fielding requests from across the company. Those requests can come from other work management tools, email, informal conversations, and so on. Keeping your backlog organized is tough when you need to sift through a number of external sources. By integrating your organization’s work management tools, you can empower other teams to make requests directly from their tool. So even if requests are still coming from multiple places, they all get funneled down into your backlog. 
  • Use a workflow management tool. If a workflow is a map of what needs doing, workflow management is how you do it better. A workflow solution like Unito can help you automate some of the most painstaking parts of your workflow across tools. For instance, you can automatically assign labels to tasks as they come in, or sync up sections in multiple tools so tasks move seamlessly from one to the other. 
  • Prioritize communication within your work management tools. Say you’re reworking the priority of the items in your backlog. You might need to reach out to someone for more information on their request. But if you’re in one tool and they’re in another, how do you go about it? Usually, you’ll probably send an email. If you’re working on one request at a time, that’s not a problem. But when are you working on one request at a time? When you integrate your work management tools, you can leave your question right in the issue representing that request, and get your answer in the same place.

Don’t get bogged down by your backlog

A product backlog is an incredibly useful tool for any product team. Used right, it can help you stay organized, keep track of work, and properly dispatch things across your teams. But if it’s not managed properly, it can be a bit like pulling wired earbuds out of your pocket; a tangled mess that leaves you scratching your head. So keep it healthy, and learn how to manage your workflow so you can leverage the strengths of the product backlog while avoiding its pitfalls.