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What is a product backlog? Understand the basics

Last updated

27 June 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Sophia Emifoniye

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Working with a new product is a stressful endeavor that can tax even the most expert teams. 

When refining, launching, or updating a product, keeping everyone on track can make all the difference in achieving strategic goals. 

A product backlog is one of the best ways to keep every team member organized with individual tasks that make up a completed timeline. 

Whatever the size of your organization, a strong product backlog can ensure an efficient, focused team. 

Here are some product backlog basics and what you need to know about creating one.

What is a product backlog?

A product backlog is a prioritized list of work for the product development team derived from the roadmap and its requirements. It contains all task-level details from the product roadmap. 

From start to finish, the product backlog communicates what's next in a product. This enables a team to check things off the to-do list while keeping an eye on the big picture.

Who uses product backlogs?

Product backlogs are closely associated with agile project management and software development. However, any team that wishes to re-prioritize tasks and stay on task throughout the project lifecycle can use product backlogs. 

A product backlog includes various features like bug fixes, user stories, and technical debts. 

Essentially, the product backlog serves as an internal to-do list for a development team. 

What is the difference between a product backlog and a product roadmap?

A product backlog is very different from a product roadmap. While they’re essential to many successful long and short-term product development projects, they serve different functions on the back end. 

A product backlog allows development teams to track the technical, tactile details of product development or refinement. 

A product roadmap primarily focuses on the broader strategy related to the product, including:

  • The pre-planning phase

  • Technical development

  • Product launch

  • Post-launch tracking and success measures

Another key differentiator is that a product backlog is entirely internal, while you may share certain portions of a product roadmap externally. Interested parties may include stakeholders and investors. 

It is rare to share any product backlog specifics with people outside of the development team.

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What's included in a product backlog?

Every product backlog will vary from team to team. 

However, a solid product backlog should include an initiative: The "mission statement" of the backlog for that particular product. It outlines the product’s overall goal and any significant information for the team to remember throughout the project.

Past that, most product backlogs contain a few categories, such as: 

  • Features (also known as user stories)

  • Bug fixes

  • Technical debts

  • Knowledge acquisition

While every product backlog might not include all these elements, you should consider them all during development.

Features (user stories)

Possibly the most crucial element of a product backlog is the features portion. These are the product functions a user finds valuable. 

They can be as simple or complex as the product necessitates. You could include customer feedback, depending on whether it makes sense for that particular product.

Technical debts

Technical debt refers to the technical problems or issues that accumulate over time. When these build up, it can cause issues down the road. 

When managing a product backlog, take care to avoid too much technical debt. 

Bug fixes

No one wants bugs in their product. Realistically, some will likely occur. 

Listing any known bugs in the product backlog gives developers an ongoing list of problems that need their attention. 

You should keep bugs at the top of the product backlog so they don't get neglected or forgotten about entirely. 

Bugs don't always need to bring other tasks in a product backlog to a screeching halt. Depending on the nature and severity of the bug, they might be able to wait for the next sprint.

Knowledge acquisition

Gathering information is how developers and management teams prepare for the next stage of product development. 

The product backlog is a great place to store information to prime and enhance future tasks and projects. 

Knowledge acquisition might include a proof-of-concept or experiment, but it can also be as basic as text information that outlines ideas for the team.

Who owns the product backlog?

Even though the product backlog serves as a point of reference for the entire development team, one person needs to take ownership of the backlog. 

In most cases, this is the product owner or project manager. The backlog manager is responsible for maintaining the flow of information and following up on projects to ensure team members complete them.

While one person should manage the backlog, multiple people will likely contribute. 

Depending on the size of the project and the number of products, it might make sense to have several backlogs in progress at any point. 

Managing the product backlog

After assigning an owner, they should outline a process for managing the product backlog. 

Project management software is the best way to manage a product backlog. If your company already uses software to track ongoing projects, you can opt for that one. You could also choose a new, standalone program specifically for product backlogs. 

How to create a product backlog

Creating a product backlog depends on the company and the specific product you need to track. 

Still, you can keep one goal in mind when creating the backlog: Synchronize your team. Discuss the backlog with every relevant team member to ensure everyone’s on the same page. 

Before creating the backlog, assign a product owner to manage the backlog. Keep everyone involved and engaged to keep the entire project running smoothly.

Here are some other steps that might be helpful in creating a product backlog:

Build a project roadmap and update it regularly

The roadmap is the outline for the project backlog, informing the action plan. 

It should evolve as the project progresses, and you should update it alongside the project roadmap.

Sort and prioritize

Not all tasks are created equal, which your product backlog should reflect. 

When you add tasks to the backlog, identify top-priority items and ensure the development team is on board. 

Not sure how to identify top-priority tasks? We’re covering that next.

Prioritize and refine product backlog items

Successful product backlogs and projects should focus on a list of priorities. 

For example, major technical issues will take higher priority over minor visual tweaks. 

It can be challenging to prioritize backlog items, especially with major product launches involving multiple stakeholders. 

Here are some tips for creating an organized product backlog:

Organize tasks by importance

Urgent tasks should receive top priority in your product backlog. This includes issues affecting customers and those who interact with the product directly, impacting their product experience.

Focus on complex tasks first

While it's relatively easy to knock out a series of smaller, easier tasks ahead of more complex ones, there are more efficient ways of managing a product backlog. 

Getting complex tasks out of the way will keep your product backlog more manageable. When your team adds new tasks and projects, they won't be overwhelmed.

Work in time "sprints"

Many time management experts recommend working in short bursts for maximum productivity. When it comes to working through tasks in a product backlog, this approach can be especially effective. 

Consider coordinating your team for "sprints" that focus on singular, vital tasks. Set a specific block of time around this task and have everyone focus on completing the assigned objectives. 

After completing each sprint, check in with every contributing team member to gauge progress and determine the next steps.

Prioritize communication

As with any project, communication is vital when managing a product backlog. Communicate clear roles and expectations up front so everyone knows their responsibilities and where to turn if they need assistance. 

Ultimately, everyone should work as part of a team and prioritize clear, consistent communication.

Benefits of using product backlogs

The primary benefit of using a product backlog is organization. A well-run product backlog keeps your team on track to complete projects on a more streamlined timeline. 

It can help with strategic planning and even encourage team development since team members work closely to complete important tasks.

Finally, a product backlog can improve customer experience

With the backlog highlighting pressing issues and bugs, they’re more likely to be resolved promptly, leading to happier customers and an improved product.

Challenges of product backlogs

Although product backlogs can be extremely beneficial, there are also some challenges to be aware of. 

Most notably, backlogs can quickly become too large to manage effectively, especially if the product has a lot of stakeholders involved. 

Product backlogs can also get too big if many team members add tasks and don't follow up on every task. This creates an unwieldy, overwhelming mess in your project management software. 

Product backlogs can also have issues if the development team doesn't establish effective communication methods. It’s too easy for a team to get hung up on minutia rather than focus on the task at hand. 

If there isn't a strong process for communication in place, the project and its backlog could become chaotic.


What is the difference between product backlog and user stories?

User stories are an item in a product backlog—the framework that holds user stories with other project points like bugs and knowledge acquisition. The two are related but very different.

How long does a product backlog exist?

A product backlog can last until you complete the product or project. 

When outlining the initial timeline as part of the product backlog creation phase, you should have an end goal in mind. However, this end goal doesn't necessarily have to be a date. 

As your team completes tasks within the product backlog, you can check them off in the project management software and archive them to clear space. Some project backlogs last a month or two, while others are part of long-term projects that can last several years. 

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