What Is a Product Backlog In Scrum? (With How-to Guide)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 May 2022

Teams using the scrum project management framework divide overall objectives into smaller accomplishable tasks, called sprints, that they can distribute to different owners. This framework usually involves a list of project tasks that aren't in progress but are required to be completed. If you want to learn more about Scrum and how agile methods organise tasks, understanding how a product backlog works is essential. In this article, we define what a product backlog is, discuss its benefits and explore how to create and implement one into a Scrum workflow.

What is a product backlog?

A product backlog is the main list of all the tasks relevant to a product development cycle. Backlogs are most common in Scrum and other agile project management methods, but you can use them in any system development method. Backlogs help teams maintain awareness of outstanding tasks for a development cycle while they focus on whichever tasks are relevant to the current sprint. Keeping backlogs updated also helps teams to coordinate and plan the distribution of tasks before the next sprint.

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How do backlogs work?

Backlogs traditionally list items by priority, with the highest priority tasks at the top of the list and the lowest at the bottom. This helps a team understand which tasks to assign and put into sprints first. If it suits your workflow better, you can sort a backlog by categories or task owner to facilitate collaboration. An effective sprint doesn't necessarily consist of the highest priority tasks, but what a team can reasonably complete in a short period.

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What items do backlogs contain?

Items in backlogs can range from smaller administrative tasks to larger subordinate projects involving large teams. Some different types of tasks you may see in the backlog include:

User stories

User stories are backlog items where the team creates a new solution to a hypothetical problem an end-user is trying to solve. Writing user stories rather than descriptions helps contextualise a task better because it gives team members an idea of the ideal outcome and what a solution is trying to address. This can also lead to more flexible and creative solutions to situational problems rather than directly following strict procedures and traditional designs. User stories are also a fairly unique feature of Scrum, which other agile methods rarely take advantage of.

Changes

A change is a backlog item that's similar to user stories, but instead of providing a completely new solution to a user's problem, it alters a process they already use or an existing user story. This allows teams to apply new thinking to existing solutions to make a familiar but more efficient user experience. Implementing change tasks into a Scrum workflow also allows you to build on existing work by identifying tasks that have experienced some progress already. This also cuts down on potential duplicate tasks.

Defects

A defect is a backlog item that focuses on errors in an existing task that a team wants to rectify. These tasks often hold a higher priority to ensure a product doesn't have defects. Other agile systems may create a completely new task but specifically identifying tasks based on existing work can help teams work more efficiently as they have a better understanding of what these tasks involve. Defects can also apply to altering an existing user story, such as new user issues or product features.

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How to implement backlogs into projects

If you're a professional looking to transition into a Scrum role, implementing backlogs into a project can help you manage a team more efficiently. Here are steps on how to implement backlogs into development projects:

1. Build a Scrum board

The first step to implementing a backlog is to first create a Scrum board, which you can use as a master template for a development cycle. Every sprint you can reuse this board to assign tasks and organise upcoming work. Make some example task cards with "User Stories", "Changes" and "Defects". Also add columns to the board, with appropriate names such as "Sprint Backlog", "Stories", "In Progress", "Pending Review" and "Complete". Make sure you name the columns appropriately and organise the board in a way that suits the team's workflow and structure for deliverables.

2. Add a column for the backlog

Add a column to your Scrum board at the far left with the title "Product Backlog". This column is where you store all the tasks that you haven't yet included in a sprint or assigned to a team member. Remember that the backlog contains all the tasks for the development project, and the "Sprint Backlog" contains the tasks relevant to the current two-week sprint.

3. Add task cards to the backlog

When the client has new ideas, requirements and tasks that are relevant to the end product, you can add a task card to the backlog for you to assign later. Try to add everything you think the team can accomplish to this backlog to facilitate discussion earlier, even if they're not a priority or necessary. If your backlog seems sparse, populate it with ideas and scenarios that may be relevant later.

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4. Clarify the tasks

Sometimes the client may request a task that's vague or doesn't yet have sufficient detail for the team to execute properly. Asking a client for clarification may be beneficial to help a team work on them more efficiently. Consider asking a client why they want to fix a certain problem and what value the solution adds to the project. Ask for particular specifications if you lack technical details for a task. Gathering this information helps the team get a better sense of a client's expectations and optimise their solutions accordingly.

5. Prioritise the tasks in the backlog

List the tasks in the backlog by priority based on how essential their completion is for the end product but also for how dependent other tasks are on them. A simple admin task that doesn't necessarily help a product, but may affect the completion of other tasks, can be a high priority. Sort your backlog with high priority tasks at the top and lower priority at the bottom, omitting or archiving any tasks with no priority. Consider colour coding this priority or adding other task categories to help a team interpret the backlog more easily.

6. Regularly update the backlog

Updating backlogs regularly is important, as completing sprints may add and or remove tasks from the backlog during a development cycle. Refreshing the tasks in the backlog not only reflects changes in the product but can also show the progress of a project. Rearranging the priorities of different tasks also helps you to stay adaptive to tasks, maintain the focus of a team and optimise a project's workflow.

Benefits of backlogs

Backlogs hold many benefits for project organisation and can be useful to Scrum teams in a variety of ways. Some of the benefits of backlogs include:

Flexibility

Backlogs can change regularly depending on how quickly a team completes tasks and how far through the development cycle a project is. Accelerated development may prompt a team to prioritise the backlog again and issue or remove tasks to address new issues or requirements. Scrum sprints that focus on completing specific tasks from a backlog help ensure a backlog doesn't overflow and teams don't neglect tasks. Teams routinely transfer items from the product backlog to the sprint backlog and complete them in more manageable segments.

Cohesion

Backlogs represent the whole development cycle and its progress visually in each iteration of a Scrum board. They can help show the progress of different elements of a product, so a team can understand the priorities of each team member. By aligning a team's objectives, they can synchronise their efforts and collaborate with each other's workflow rather than working completely independently.

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Efficiency

By simplifying the backlog into a priority system, the team can increase their efficiency by spending less time planning and managing tasks and more time completing them. The priority system of backlogs helps teams to implement the changes that are the most important. Lowering the priority of tasks that require a lot of resources but aren't immediate concerns can help a team provide a more completed product before deadlines.

Collaboration

Teams can make discussions, meetings and progress reports easier with backlogs because development progress is visible to the whole team. Adding more complex tasks to the backlog before meetings can help the team research and understand them before discussing them. It can also help teams understand which tasks relate to one another and how to assign them to people in groups that facilitate the efficient completion of multiple tasks.