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Product Backlog 101: How to Build a Winner Using Customer Outcomes

Product Backlog

When it comes to innovation and product management, a great idea can only get you so far. In order to make your great idea come to life, you eventually have  to prioritize development tasks by collaborating with target customers, stakeholders and other team members. The result is a product backlog, which will take you task-by-task from conception to launch. 

In this post, we’ll introduce outcome-based product backlogs and how to develop one so you can consistently deliver winning products.

What is a Product Backlog?

A typical product backlog is, to put it simply, a prioritized feature to-do list. It is a list of tasks to be completed, items to be added, and features to be implemented as part of the product roadmap. Tasks in a typical product backlog are broken down further into sprint backlogs and can be assigned daily, weekly, or monthly in order to keep product development on schedule and manage time effectively.

An outcome-based product backlog differs from a typical product backlog in that the job tasks of your users are the lead story. An outcome-based product backlog answers the following questions:

  • What job tasks are most critical for our users to improve?
  • Why are those tasks most important?
  • What’s preventing users from improving those now?
  • How will those obstacles be removed?
  • How will user success be measured?

Product backlogs are typically derived from the product roadmap, which details the strategy and product direction required to deliver measurable strategic value to the customer A value-themed product roadmap is more about the context of WHAT you’re going to help customers accomplish and WHY it’s critical to their success. The product backlog further distills the roadmap into smaller chunks of work in order of development priority.

Sprint backlogs are distilled versions of a product backlog that prioritize specific development tasks for each sprint. This approach is typically utilized by product management teams that practice some version of the Agile methodology.

What is in a Product Backlog?

The specific tasks found in a product backlog will, vary based on each individual product, but they generally fall under similar categories. User (job) stories are the main focus while product features play second fiddle to accomplish the following:

  • Deliver new capabilities
  • Fix Bugs
  • Reduce Technical Debt
  • Iterate on Designs 
  • Flesh out Proof-of-concepts

In short, these are all the tasks necessary to take a product or new feature from concept to launch. It’s important to be quite granular with these lists to ensure you don’t skip or overlook a major step in the development process.

Why is a Product Backlog Important?

Typical product backlogs help meet major deadlines, reach milestones, and keep product development on track. Outcome-based product backlogs do the same but they’re front-ended with user job tasks, outcomes, and obstacles that provide greater value clarity to design and development teams that keep them focused on the end game for customers. 

As a result, outcome-based product backlogs help keep the entire team focused on tasks that benefit the job performance of the end user the most and prioritize them accordingly.

Who Creates a Product Backlog?

Product managers create and manage product backlogs, usually with the help of stakeholders and developers. Product managers are the ones who set priorities as they are the ones responsible for keeping an eye on the bigger picture and setting the pace for the rest of the team. 

During sprints, the product owner and development team handle sprint backlogs. The goal is to achieve as much as possible in a short amount of time (a “sprint”). Since developers know best what can be accomplished in the allotted time period, they have influence on what a sprint backlog looks like.

Product managers can use software specifically designed for project management to create an efficient product backlog. Jira is probably the most common tool but apps like Asana or Monday can also be helpful when creating your next product backlog.

Product Backlog Example 

How to Create a Product Backlog

Follow these steps to create a thorough and effective product backlog.

1. Build a Product Roadmap

The product backlog is built off of the product roadmap, so make sure you have a well-developed product roadmap to work from. Identify the customer outcomes that are most critical and the user job tasks impacted most. Make sure they support your overall product vision and strategy , and get stakeholders in alignment with your plan. Once the product roadmap is established, move on to creating your product backlog.

2. List Backlog Tasks

Always start with the user job tasks, outcomes and obstacles. Then have your team list out all tasks necessary for creating the product features, from necessary, high-priority items to abstract ideas and nice-to-have iterations. Be sure to receive input from all involved teams and stakeholders so you can develop a well-rounded product backlog.

3. Prioritize Backlog Tasks

Stay focused on customer job tasks and outcomes to determine development task priority and establish a workflow for those tasks. Prioritize tasks based on what will help end users the most regarding their job performance or desired outcomes and you’ll end up making something better than you ever dreamed. You can also prioritize the product backlog on a secondary level by focusing on the tasks that are strictly necessary to complete the product vs. tasks that are “nice-to-haves”. 

4. Update and Manage the Backlog Regularly

Check off, add, and re-prioritize backlog items continuously throughout product development. Keeping the backlog healthy helps keep teams on track and adds redundancy to ensure tasks are being completed as promised.

There will always be detours from your product backlog for one reason or another, but a growing or changing list shouldn’t discourage the team, especially if they’re focused on building a valuable product for your target customers. Reorient the team to stay focused on customer outcomes so priorities don’t waiver and teams stay on task.

Check Product Backlogs Off Your To-Do List

Ready to create a winning product backlog? Using these tips and insights, you should be able to rally your team to create a solid product backlog that keeps customer outcomes top-of-mind. Your customers and development teams will both welcome a more efficient way of handling things.

Click here if you want to experience the easiest way to learn product management with our unique hands-on product management courses that are personalized to your products and your markets. Be sure to check out our Product Management Framework that simplifies everything by making customer outcomes the starting point for building, marketing, selling and delivering strategic value.

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by John Mansour on March 16, 2023.