Backlog Grooming: What, Why & How

Ben Lee

Ben Lee

CEO and Co-founder of Neon Roots

Ben Lee is the co-founder and CEO of Neon Roots, a digital development agency with a mission to destroy the development model and rebuild it from the ground up. After a brief correspondence with Fidel Castro at age nine, Ben decided to start doing things his own way, going from busboy to club manager at a world-class nightclub before he turned 18. Since then, Ben has founded or taken a leading role in 5 businesses in everything from software development to food and entertainment.

When it comes to mobile app development, the backlog is a critical piece of the development process. It’s what gives order and structure to the entire development arc, laying out the steps necessary to bring the app to completion and helping to break up development into manageable tasks. But equally as important as constructing the full backlog is grooming it – the process of paring down the backlog to only what’s necessary for building the core functionalities of the app. Before we dive into the grooming process, though, let’s give a little background on backlogs themselves.

What Is a Mobile App Backlog?

All mobile apps start with a backlog

What do all these apps have in common? They started with a backlog.

Put simply, the backlog is a central database of all the user stories necessary for building the app. User stories are part of the Agile methodology of software development, and they follow a particular format:

As a <type of user>, I want to <some function> so that I can <some benefit>.

The critical thing about user stories is that they place the user at the center of development, describing app functionalities by the benefits they provide to users instead of just the features of the app. This helps to keep the app user-centric and prevent building out useless features.

The backlog is the accumulation of all the user stories necessary to build the full version of the app. Backlogs can get quite extensive, as they require a user story for every single function of the app – everything from the interface of the login screen to the elements of the settings page.

Managing the Backlog

Building out the backlog will require a concerted effort from you and your team – during Rootstrap workshops, we spend a good part of Week 1 focusing on creating user stories and building out the backlog. In general, it’s a good idea to spend at least a few days focusing hard on brainstorming all the user stories necessary to create the app.

Once you’ve built out and collected all the user stories your app needs, you’ll need to organize them to be manageable during the development process. At Neon Roots, we use Arbor, one of our internal tools, to manage backlogs, but you can also use things like Google Docs or Google Sheets. In general, we’d recommend using a cloud-based application for backlog management. This ensures you have a backup of the backlog that’s not constrained to a physical device, and it helps ensure that your development team can access the backlog from anywhere.

Backlog Grooming in Mobile App Development

After collecting and organizing your backlog, it’s time to start the real work: grooming it. Grooming the backlog involves paring down the backlog into only the core user stories necessary to launch a Minimum Viable Product, or MVP, of your app. The MVP is essentially the leanest, most basic form of your app necessary to take it to users. MVPs are important because they allow you to get user feedback as early as possible in the development process, which is critical to creating a product that your users will actually want to use.

For product owners, grooming can be a difficult process. Understandably, most product owners want to put their best foot forward and make sure that the initial launch of their app is as complete, robust, and feature-filled as possible. While this is understandable, it’s also a great way to bankrupt your startup and launch a failing app.

Developing the full version of an app can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and without user feedback early on, there’s no real way for you to know which features users like and which they don’t – and by the time you’ve launched the full app, you may not have the money to make major changes. This is why backlog grooming is so critical.

How to Groom Your Backlog

You can use sticky notes to collect user storiesWhen you start the backlog grooming process, you want to be as ruthless as possible about cutting down features. Are social logins really a must? In fact, do you really have to have users log in at all? An internal messaging service might be nice, but is it really necessary to the core function of the app?

The key to proper backlog grooming is to cut down any and all user stories that aren’t absolutely critical to your app’s function. Once properly groomed, the backlog for your MVP should consist only of user stories that the app couldn’t function without.

For a more in-depth look, let’s use an example. If we were to try to create an app that let users schedule a time to speak with an expert, there are a lot of features we could include in the backlog. There may be searchable categories of experts, an internal messaging system, a calendar function that integrates with Google Calendar, a rating system for the experts, and even a way to share the results through social media.

To an inexperienced product owner, all of these features may seem critical to the app. But to one with a little more grooming under their belt, it’s easy to see what we can do without. Integration with Google Calendar would definitely be a useful feature, but it’s certainly not critical to the app – so we can cross that off the list. Sharing the results through social media may also be fun for users, but again, it’s not critical to the basic function of the app. Similarly, we can probably do without the rating system.

Categories are a little more critical, as without those, users wouldn’t be able to find the right expert – but we don’t necessarily need them to be searchable. Having a scrollable, instead of searchable, list of categories means we won’t have to build a search engine into the MVP, which saves time and money. The messaging system is also probably critical, as without that, users can’t communicate with the experts.

In the end, only two of the five features we listed are necessary for the MVP: categories and a messaging system. This cuts our backlog by 60%, and in terms of development costs, that can easily measure out to upwards of $180,000 in savings and weeks cut off the development timeline.

Backlog Grooming Leads to Lean Mobile App Development

This is why backlog grooming is so critical to the development process. Properly grooming the backlog for the release of an MVP shaves hundreds of thousands of dollars off of initial development costs, helps to release the app sooner, and allows you to get user feedback early on in the process. And, critically, it allows you to use that feedback to make your mobile app better.

That’s the real, ultimate benefit to backlog grooming, MVPs, and the entire Agile development methodology. Releasing early means you get feedback at the beginning of the development cycle instead of only getting it at the end. Getting this feedback early on lets you incorporate your users’ feedback, ultimately creating a product that they want to use – and you can rest assured in the knowledge that they want to use it, because they told you exactly what they want from it.

Certainly, there are limits to user feedback. Users won’t always know exactly what they want, and you can’t expect them to do your design work for you. But the mindset of grooming ruthlessly, releasing early, and incorporating user feedback is the backbone of developing a successful mobile app and a sustainable company.

A Key Element of Rootstrap

This mindset is what Rootstrap is built upon, and it’s what has made the mobile app development workshop so effective. In Rootstraps, we perform market and user research to validate the concept for an app and back up our assumptions with data – but we still recognize that those assumptions are just assumptions.

Grooming is critical to the Rootstrap process, and it’s what lets us create an MVP in just two weeks. By pushing out an MVP early on, we ensure that our assumptions remain assumptions for as little time as possible. Developing the MVP lets us test those assumptions with real users and customers, determine if they’re true or false, and incorporate that feedback into the next product iteration.

We think that mindset – combined with the experience we’ve gained from the 100+ Rootstraps we’ve completed – are what makes Rootstrap alumni 2,600% more likely to receive funding than average startups. But ultimately, the best way to find out is to experience it for yourself. If you’ve got your own idea for a killer new mobile app, we’d love to hear about it – just drop us a line at our Rootstrap contact page. We’ll help you build out your backlog with strategy in mind, then we’ll lend our expertise in grooming it down to an MVP and helping you raise the money you need to build the full version.

What do you say – are you ready to see what your mobile app could be?

 

Our thanks to Moyan Brenn, Juhan Sonin, and Cristiano Betta for the images.