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Good Product Backlog Characteristics

Good product backlogs exhibit similar characteristics. Roman Pichler (Pichler 2010) and Mike Cohn coined the acronym DEEP to summarize several important characteristics of good product backlogs: Detailed appropriately, Emergent, Estimated, and Prioritized. Much as the INVEST criteria (see Chapter 5) are useful for judging the quality of a user story, the DEEP criteria are useful for determining if a product backlog has been structured in a good way.

Detailed Appropriately

Not all items in a product backlog will be at the same level of detail at the same time (see Figure 6.3).

Figure 6.3

Figure 6.3. Product backlog items are different sizes.

PBIs that we plan to work on soon should be near the top of the backlog, small in size, and very detailed so that they can be worked on in a near-term sprint. PBIs that we won’t work on for some time should be toward the bottom of the backlog, larger in size, and less detailed. That’s OK; we don’t plan to work on those PBIs anytime soon.

As we get closer to working on a larger PBI, such as an epic, we will break that story down into a collection of smaller, sprint-ready stories. This should happen in a just-in-time fashion. If we refine too early, we might spend a good deal of time figuring out the details, only to end up never implementing the story. If we wait too long, we will impede the flow of PBIs into the sprint and slow the team down. We need to find the proper balance of just enough and just in time.

Emergent

As long as there is a product being developed or maintained, the product backlog is never complete or frozen. Instead, it is continuously updated based on a stream of economically valuable information that is constantly arriving. For example, customers might change their mind about what they want; competitors might make bold, unpredictable moves; or unforeseen technical problems might arise. The product backlog is designed to adapt to these occurrences.

The structure of the product backlog is therefore constantly emerging over time. As new items are added or existing items are refined, the product owner must rebalance and reprioritize the product backlog, taking the new information into account.

Estimated

Each product backlog item has a size estimate corresponding to the effort required to develop the item (see Figure 6.4).

Figure 6.4

Figure 6.4. Product backlog items are estimated.

The product owner uses these estimates as one of several inputs to help determine a PBI’s priority (and therefore position) in the product backlog. Also, a high-priority, large PBI (near the top of the backlog) signals to the product owner that additional refinement of that item is necessary before it can be moved into a near-term sprint.

As I will discuss in more detail in Chapter 7, most PBIs are estimated in either story points or ideal days. These size estimates need to be reasonably accurate without being overly precise. Because items near the top of the backlog are smaller and more detailed, they will have smaller, more accurate size estimates. It may not be possible to provide numerically accurate estimates for larger items (like epics) located near the bottom of the backlog, so some teams might choose to not estimate them at all, or to use T-shirt-size estimates (L, XL, XXL, etc.). As these larger items are refined into a set of smaller items, each of the smaller items would then be estimated with numbers.

Prioritized

Although the product backlog is a prioritized list of PBIs, it is unlikely that all of the items in the backlog will be prioritized (see Figure 6.5).

Figure 6.5

Figure 6.5. Product backlog items are prioritized.

It is useful to prioritize the near-term items that are destined for the next few sprints. Perhaps it is valuable to prioritize as far down in the backlog as we think we can get in Release 1. Going beyond that point at anything other than a gross level of prioritization is likely not worth our time.

For example, we might declare that an item is destined for Release 2 or Release 3 according to our product roadmap. However, if we are early in the development of Release 1 features, spending any of our valuable time worrying about how to prioritize features that we might work on someday in Release 2 or Release 3 is likely not a good investment. We might never end up actually doing a Release 2 or Release 3, or our ideas surrounding those releases might change significantly during the development of Release 1. So time spent prioritizing that far out has a high probability of being wasted.

Of course, as new items emerge during the course of development, the product owner is responsible for inserting them in the correct order based on the items that currently exist in the backlog.

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