5 Tips for Using Whiteboards for Backlog Refinement and Estimation

5 Tips for Using Whiteboards for Backlog Refinement and Estimation

Backlog Refinement, sometimes called Backlog Grooming or Backlog Management, is an ongoing, time-boxed activity that helps your team assess the effort, complexity, and priority of tasks and user stories waiting to be included in your Sprint. It allows Product Owners, stakeholders, and the Development team to begin the next Sprint planning with clarity and confidence.

A Backlog Refinement meeting creates a shared understanding of what can be done, how much effort it will take to implement, and what’s the order of work. It’s not a part of the five formal events from the Scrum guide but a reoccurring process the entire team can adjust to their workflow.

We’ll share with you five tips on how to make the most of it and prepare for upcoming Sprints, but first—let’s look at some of the obstacles that can emerge during a Backlog Refinement session.

Why should you refine your backlog?

So if it’s not an official Agile ceremony, why do it at all? There are a couple of reasons:

  • Your team is more aware of what’s ahead of them and how the product should develop over time.
  • It gives everyone involved a holistic perspective on processes, cooperation, and requirements that are an integral part of successful projects.
  • Allows the Development team to reduce stressful factors and surprises during upcoming Sprints.
  • Stakeholders and Scrum Masters can listen to the team’s questions and provide more information or guidance when coming up with new projects or products in the future.
  • Product Refinement meetings bring real value over time and make your team feel in control of their work.

The challenges of Product Backlog Refinement

With all the benefits listed, anyone who’s ever attended an Estimation session or a Backlog Refinement meeting knows the multiple challenges of this activity. Most Agile teams allow everyone to add tasks to the backlog. While it enables excellent ideas to surface, it can also create a messy list with insufficient details or context and different priority items. Tasks can be too big to assess, lack requirements or business value, and not include possible risks or what’s involved in implementing the feature.

If the backlog is not regularly groomed, it can grow and include items irrelevant to user needs or not crucial to deliver at a given moment. A Product Backlog Refinement meeting takes place to prioritize the tasks and remove unnecessary issues. Still, without good-quality backlog items, the grooming sessions can take forever to reach a consensus.

What’s a DEEP Product Backlog?

To ease the challenges of backlog grooming, Roman Pichler recommends having a DEEP Product Backlog. It stands for:

  • Detailed appropriately — high-priority items should include enough information to be included in the next Sprint planning. At the same time, low-priority tasks can have fewer details until their time comes.
  • Estimated — product backlog items should include a guess on how much effort the task will take. It’s not a commitment or a promise but an attempt to assess how time-consuming the job is. Most teams use story points or ideal days to provide an estimate.
  • Emergent — your backlog should constantly change and evolve. New user stories appear based on feedback and research, while existing ones should be prioritized, refined, or removed regularly.
  • Prioritized — you should review the product backlog items according to how they fit your product goal. The highest priority tasks are placed on the top of the list, while less important user stories should be ordered below them.

Having Pichler’s tips in mind, we’ll take you through different Whiteboards’ options and features that help improve your backlog and make Refinement meetings and estimations easier for the whole team.

Learn how to use templates, import and update zones, color-coding, our Jira integration, and collaboration features in Whiteboards to change your Backlog Grooming sessions.

But before we get started, here’s a word of advice—pick and test just one of these tips to see if it helps you and your team. It’s the little steps you actually take that matter most, not the great advice and articles stuck in your reading list forever.

Tip #1—Use our specialized templates

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when thinking about how to approach prioritization or estimating product backlog tasks. Save your precious time and try our templates based on proven frameworks and methodologies. They will help you order backlog items, assess risks and effort, and vote on the most relevant user stories. Use them with your Scrum team during Backlog Refinement meetings to create a common understanding of jobs to be done and estimate them accordingly.

Do an initial assessment of the backlog

Get the Scrum Master, Product Owner, Development team, and other stakeholders to collaborate on assessing the product backlog items. Use our Product Backlog Refinement template and start ordering ideas. This can be a quick exercise to get an overview of your backlog and start following the DEEP method. Don’t add details or estimate anything yet—old estimates won’t be relevant in the long run, so don’t waste time on it now.

Product Backlog Refinement Template from Whiteboards.
Product Backlog Refinement Template from Whiteboards.

Prepare user stories for the Backlog Refinement meeting

The next step will be for the Product Owner to focus on the tasks from the top—they should review which user stories lack information, add newly discovered needs or more details (what, why, and acceptance criteria), and remove invalid data. This will prepare the items for refinement with the whole team.

Refine and estimate

Once ready, gather the Scrum team on the board again and start the Product Backlog Grooming session. The Project Manager should quickly present what’s at the top of the backlog and then give an overview of the first item. Let the Development team collaborate and ask questions about it. Define feasibility, slice large items into smaller tasks, and remember your team’s “definition of done” to check if you have all you need to make an informed decision. Use our Planning Poker template to assign estimates with story points in a Fibonacci sequence or t-shirt sizes.

Planning Poker template from Whiteboards.
Planning Poker template from Whiteboards.

You can also try working with the Affinity Estimation template or our Magic Estimation In Story Points template.

Magic Estimation In Story Points template.
Magic Estimation In Story Points template.

If there are disagreements in estimations for a particular item, that task requires more discussion. If there are more problematic cases, you can use one of these templates to compare different backlog items and better understand their impact and place: Value Effort Matrix, Dot Voting, Risk Assessment, or MoSCoW Prioritization.

Spend some time listening to feedback and then adjust the templates to your team’s needs. Next, save the board or a part of it as a custom template—doing so will allow you to save time, better scale processes, and deliver consistent, repeatable results.

Tip #2—Set up import and update zones for Jira issues

To avoid time-consuming and repeatable administrative tasks, set up import and update zones that automate adding backlog items to the board and syncing changes with Jira in real time. These Whiteboards’ state-of-the-art features allow the team to focus on more meaningful and fulfilling jobs than going back and forth between browser tabs transferring decisions. Check out our quick overview video to get an idea of how they work.

A video explanation of import and update zones in Whiteboards.

Automatically add your backlog items with the import zone

There’s no need to manually bring all your backlog Jira tasks to Whiteboards or, what’s even worse, recreate each of them on the board to prepare for the Refinement meeting.

From Power tools, select the import zone and draw a rectangle on the board. Add your JQL query to pull issues from the Jira backlog, define how many items should be imported, and save the configuration. Once you refresh the import zone, the issues will be added, and you can start the Refinement session. Learn about other ways to add Jira issues.

The import zone on Whiteboards.
The import zone on Whiteboards.

Sync estimates with Jira in no time

Estimating a product backlog item is an art on its own, so once you agree on the proper value, use the update zone to add it to Jira and focus on the next task.

Select the update zone from Power tools and draw a rectangle on the board. Define the field and the value to be updated in Jira. For example, we use the “story points” field for our estimations. Create a separate update zone for each estimation value (if you’re using the Fibonacci sequence, then have one update zone for each number: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on). Drag and drop any issue to the appropriate update zone to add that story point estimate to your Jira. Learn about other ways to update Jira issues.

The update zone on Whiteboards.
The update zone on Whiteboards.

Want more? Try the issue table!

If you’re using Whiteboards for Jira on a Cloud-hosted instance, we have a unique tool that cuts down the refinement preparation time even more. An issue table brings the power of multiple update zones to a table format. It’s a smart grid that helps organize Jira issue cards into structures and update their properties

Add the issue table from Power tools by drawing a rectangle on the board. Then select “Estimation” as the field that will populate one of the axes with its values (like 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on, or whatever your team uses). You can stop at that or configure the second axis to update two properties simultaneously (for example, “Priority”).

Once the table is set up, drag any Jira issue from the board to the suitable cell, and the task will be updated. You can use the issue table in Playground mode until the end of the Refinement meeting. Once the session ends, switch to Live mode and move on with your day without unnecessary context switching.

The issue table on Whiteboards.
The issue table on Whiteboards.

Tip #3—Color-code your backlog items and group them

Using visual cues to differentiate tasks improves organization, efficiency, and accuracy but also enhances communication. Take advantage of the visual aspects that Whiteboards provides and change the colors of different backlog items, group them to create coherent clusters of work, and then define the dependencies between them by creating links between Jira issues.

Make sense of your backlog with colors

You can change the colors of Jira tickets or sticky notes to better understand different types of tasks in the backlog. Use the element toolbar to mark which ones are bug fixes, user feature requests, modifications to existing options, or new initiatives. Or take a different approach—use colors to show the hierarchy of different items: color epics as green, change all subtasks into blue, make all low-hanging fruits yellow, and so on. Add a legend to the board, to make sure there’s a quick way to check the colors meaning. This way, everyone can instantly identify key information about each backlog item.

This method will make it easier for the team and external stakeholders to recognize the scope of work and progress further with backlog refinement.

Changing colors of Jira issue cards on Whiteboards.
Changing colors of Jira issue cards on Whiteboards.

Group your backlog items to maximize productivity and efficiency

Now, once the tasks are color-coded, group tasks in a single color to get an overview of different job types. They will be visually organized, so the backlog chaos will be minimized. By pointing to different-colored groups on the board, team members can visually explain different steps and initiatives.

Press Shift and click on the tasks in the same color to select all of them. Then just drag selected elements to a different position on the board and reorder them so they’re organized nicely. Don’t actually create a group out of them yet—leaving the tasks like that allows creating dependencies between them.

When you bring backlog items together based on their similarity, it later helps identify relationships between issues.

Clustering work on Whiteboards.
Clustering work on Whiteboards.

Leverage dependencies for better insights and estimation

Not knowing the dependencies between backlog items can disrupt the Sprint if the team starts a task that can’t be finished without completing another issue. This can be a major blocker, especially if work on the dependent item hasn’t even started.

To easily visualize decisions about what to do in which order, discuss with the team members if there are any obvious links between Jira issues on the board. If there are, press L and draw a line from one item to another.

Whiteboards will recognize you’re connecting Jira issues and ask what should be the relationship between them. Once you select, the link will be displayed on the board but also created in Jira. Each link type has a different color on the board. Learn more about using Jira issue links in Whiteboards.

Adding links between Jira issues on Whiteboards.

Using the board to display the relationship between backlog items will make it easier to prioritize and estimate tasks efficiently. You’ll ensure the work flows smoothly in the upcoming Sprints and you’ll avoid blockers from getting in your way (at least the ones that can be predicted at this stage).

Tip #4—Collaborate with team members

Collaboration is the main component of a Backlog Refinement session and it’s important to keep all relevant insight and information in one place. Otherwise, crucial details can slip into oblivion only to reoccur at the worst time. Embedding pages with research, having calls directly on the board, and leaving comments on backlog items are all features that will help your Scrum team work together. They will also ensure all team members have a say in the refinement and estimation process.

Centralize backlog information by embedding files and pages

Make it easier for everyone to access and work with relevant information. Use the infinite board to embed or upload the current roadmap, wireframes, designs, or any other document connected to your Product Backlog. Having all that information in one place can greatly improve your team’s collaboration and organization as well as speed up the development process later on. Making sure all team members can see the same information reduces the risk of misunderstandings or confusion now or later, during an upcoming Sprint.

Embedded and uploaded files on Whiteboards.
Embedded and uploaded files on Whiteboards.

Get everyone on the same page with video calls

When you hold your Product Backlog Refinement meeting on Whiteboards.io, you don’t need additional software to connect. Use our video calls to bring team members together from anywhere in the world, making it easier to share ideas, clarify requirements, and work together on priorities. Learn more about video calls on Whiteboards.

It’s not only about building stronger relationships in the team. Having video calls during refinement and estimation sessions can also help to ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes to assigning story points or discussing the effort involved in each backlog item.

A video call on Whiteboards.
A video call on Whiteboards.

Use comments to leave feedback without derailing the meeting

Gathering feedback is a crucial part of Backlog Grooming, but sometimes it may disrupt the meeting if too much information comes at the wrong time. By leaving comments, team members can offer their insights, ask questions, or raise suggestions at any point, without interrupting the session. In this way, comments help keep your entire team organized and focused. You can review them at the end of the meeting to ensure everything’s covered. Learn more about commenting.

Comments on Whiteboards.
Comments on Whiteboards.

They’re also a great way to keep a record of discussions and decisions, which can be helpful when looking back at previous Refinement sessions or during Sprint planning.

Tip #5—Review and revise regularly

The whole point of Product Backlog Grooming is to regularly review what is piling up in your backlog and refine those tasks, so they’re not overwhelming during Sprint planning. It should be an ongoing process that will also result in creating a nicely prepared Sprint backlog. Holding voting sessions on the board, looking at historical data with time-tracking, and archiving your previous refinement boards allow better predictions of the team’s velocity and capacity.

Estimate tasks effectively by voting on the board

Voting anonymously on estimates (e.g., when using the Planning Poker method) speeds up the process, as each team member votes simultaneously, and no discussion is necessary at this step. After revealing the results, everyone can see if there’s a common understanding of the effort related to that backlog item.

It may happen that people have different opinions on the correct value and the votes differ. That usually indicates the task is not well understood or may cause issues in the Sprint. You can then review the item in more detail, address any potential risks, and repeat voting for this task. Learn more about voting on Whiteboards.

Voting session results on Whiteboards.
Voting session results on Whiteboards.

Time tracking improves your estimation accuracy

To get accurate and reliable estimations, it’s important to consider the historical data from previous Sprints and delivered tasks. The longer you keep track of time spent on issues, the bigger the chance your team’s estimations will get better and grooming sessions won’t last very long.

Try adding the last six completed Jira issues that were estimated at 5 story points and look at the time tracking information visible on the card. Check if the time spent is similar for all issues to verify if it matches the estimate—doing so allows making an informed decision on how long tasks estimated at 5 take to deliver. Learn more about time tracking on Whiteboards.

This data will also help later on in accurately planning product releases. Additionally, your team members will be less likely to fall prey to a planning fallacy (where we underestimate issues) and will base their estimations on evidence.

Time-tracking information on Jira cards on Whiteboards.
Time-tracking information on Jira cards on Whiteboards.

Use sub-boards as a reference point or an archive

Creating and adding sub-boards makes it easier for the team to access findings discovered by other teams or reference previous Backlog Refinement meetings. If there are boards where different stages of the product development lifecycle happened, embed them on the refinement whiteboard as benchmarks.

To keep more historical data—archive the previous Backlog Grooming boards. Access to them can prove important when struggling with a similar task or estimation, so it’s good to store them for future reference. Use the “Share” menu to get the embed code of an old refinement board and then use CTRL/CMD+V to paste it on your current one in the “Archive” section. That’s all!

An embedded board on Whiteboards.
An embedded board on Whiteboards.

Product Backlog—refined

While Backlog Refinement and estimating its tasks are crucial elements of the Agile development process, they can also be challenging and time-consuming if not well prepared.

Using the tips provided in this article and trying out different Whiteboards features should make your Backlog Refinement meetings more efficient and effective. With these best practices in mind, you can approach your Backlog Refinement with clarity and confidence, making the most of your Scrum team’s time and energy.