5 Practical Tips For PMs To Effectively Manage Design Backlogs

Renuka Savant | 8 min read

Let’s start with understanding what a design backlog actually is. One of the most essential parts of the product design process, a design backlog is a prioritized list of features that mirrors the company’s and product’s vision from execution to a full release. Think of it as a centralized log of product optimization initiatives such as new feature additions, changes to existing ones, bug fixes, and architectural optimizations. Every backlog is dynamic in nature, and never truly completed.

A product manager or the lead UX designer holds the charge of creating, prioritizing, and maintaining a design backlog. Let’s look at a few tips that will help you manage a healthy product backlog.

5 Smart Tips to Manage Design Backlogs

Create an effective priority matrix

backlogs management

The key to backlog management lies in prioritizing smartly. Let’s say there are 50 items in a backlog. The way to go about this is by gathering periodic user feedback which can point you to what matters most to your users. 

Also, an established priority definition within the project may already exist which defines the “High”, “Medium” and “Low” levels in the right context. However, if it isn’t so, you may consider conducting a story mapping exercise to prioritize the stories into manageable parts. 

User-story mapping (also known as user-story maps, story maps, and story mapping) is a lean UX-mapping method, often practiced by Agile teams. The method uses sticky notes and sketches to outline the interactions that the team expects users to go through to complete their goals.

The one big advantage of story mapping is that it is a useful tool to identify gaps in the workflow. It also gives a logical sequence to share with the dev team that actually explains the user experience in the context of the work to be done.

From there, you can move on to prioritizing the items in the backlog as per the must, could, should format. Or the backlog can be arranged in a value-based sequence, starting with the item that would bring the most value to the user, based on research-backed parameters to measure success.

There are other ways to tackle the priority conundrum in UX backlogs. Here are a few examples –

Usability testing

To identify the task that users most struggle with, is most critical, or is most commonly performed by users.

Project goals

As defined in the strategy document by taking the business objectives into consideration – such as customer retention or improved ticket resolution.

Design goals

Such as UI overhauls, usability upgrades, improved task completion, etc.  

Can’t prioritize? Then measure the effort required

UX Backlogs

The effort required refers to the estimated time required to complete a backlog item. However, keep in mind that the time estimation depends on the nature of the task and the size/availability of resources, for instance, a PM can define a minor effort to be a task that can be completed by 2 people in 1 day, whereas another might think of it as a major effort if it calls for 2 resources.

Therefore, if you decide to resolve your product backlog with the ‘effort required’ method, it is best to clarify to the stakeholders that this is at best an estimate and not a guarantee. 

There may be instances where the product strategy has outlined what an “effort” means to them, but if not, it’s best to do some kind of estimation activity together with the rest of the UX team.

Stay ahead of the development deadline

Stay ahead of the development deadline

Setting a deadline based on when the dev sprint begins might seem a bit obvious, but also tends to be overlooked. Taking the development dependencies into consideration, let’s say that the front-end work is scheduled to work on the corresponding feature in sprint X+1. In this case, the design deliverables such as prototypes, wireframes, and visual design specifications ought to be ready by the end of sprint X. Don’t forget to factor in extra days for any unforeseen delays.

By working ahead of the development sprint, the design team can test assumptions with actual users. This time can also be utilized to review mockups and identify potential issues before it moves to development. Here’s a great guide for UX designers to seamlessly tailor their sprints into agile development

Make sure your backlog is a solution, not a problem

Responsible product managers maintain a consistent, well-oiled collaboration with their designers and developers and ensure that they are on the same page (well, at least most of the time, if not all the time!). 

While team meetings and stand-ups are a regular part of the product management process, they tend to be scheduled separately for design and development. So, how does the PM make sure that design and dev (teams that tend to be at odds with each other) remain in sync? Here are a few tips –

– Be reasonable by respecting everyone’s schedules, and acknowledge any barriers they may have to complete tasks on hand.

– Get both teams together periodically to obtain and issue feedback and identify any anticipated barriers or bottlenecks. Make sure these meetings are efficient by inviting only those who are necessary, while still encouraging participation from across the team.

– Schedule regular AMAs to ensure you’re in touch with individual team members, giving each person an opportunity to participate.

Every product team member will come up with valuable insights on how best to prioritize the backlog and manage debt. Joint meetings will lend a clear understanding across the team of what has been prioritized and why.

Keep communication flowing with stakeholders

Keep communication flowing with stakeholders 

Dealing with stakeholders can be overwhelming at all times. Mention ‘backlogs management’ and things get heated soon enough. How does a PM make sure that the matter of backlog management does not spiral into the conflict zone? By making sure that regular, transparent updates are shared with stakeholders, and communicating the current status of the backlog.

These updates can look different across product and business types. For some, it could mean giving stakeholders access to a live dashboard featuring an up-to-date picture of your backlog. This dashboard can feature the number of issues that have been resolved since the last update, items that have been added to the backlog, or metrics that indicate efficiency, demonstrating how long the oldest item has been a part of the backlog. Some might prefer weekly email updates to the relevant people in the C-suite sharing these very details.

Keep in mind the severity of the backlog item, for instance, a forthcoming product launch may warrant more frequent updates as compared to a post-merger UI updation project, which is expected to last for a longer time. 

Retain a balance while providing updates by making sure they’re sent only to the most relevant stakeholders. Avoid spamming people with the information they don’t need. Most stakeholders, or at least those that do not micro-manage, aren’t interested in seeking granular details regarding backlog management, therefore, sharing a bird’s eye view makes sense. For example, you may share items depicting progress and its impact on the product, but leave out the details about your decision-making process.

Providing backlog updates to stakeholders is a primary responsibility of the PM, but they need to keep in mind that the communication has to keep flowing in both directions. Make sure to seek stakeholders’ opinions on the prioritized items in the backlogs, hear out their suggestions, and validate them by conducting user tests or employing other methods of research. This ensures that the stakeholders stay in the loop and aren’t forced to deal with unexpected events.

As a product manager, it is natural to have the product backlog seem very intimidating. However, remember that as you go on managing it with finesse, you’re laying the foundation for successful product management. All the best PMs have their own tricks and tips to keep their teams engaged, mitigate the chaos, and effectively balance a barrage of ideas and initiatives in their backlog. How do you tackle these backlog management challenges? Share your tips with us in the comments section!

The product manager, in consultation with design, development, and stakeholders is responsible for managing and prioritizing the backlog.

The purpose of the backlog is to ensure that the high-priority bugs or items appear at the top of the list, and the least important ones are at the bottom - thus ensuring an efficient way to manage product debt.

Backlogs are usually calculated based on the complexity or priority/urgency of the bugs or items, and classified into low, medium, and high priority levels.

About Author:

Sr. Content Writer at Koru UX Design, Renuka loves to write, discuss, research, and read up on the latest in user experience design. When she’s not doing that, she spends her days watching crime thrillers and sports.

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