5 quick tips for involving customers in product backlog

How to involve customers in development? If you ever struggled with demanding or ambiguous customer requirement, you should find a better way to communicate. Customers don’t really understand flat backlogs, they have no idea about epics, user stories, iterations. etc. Product owners often realize too late, the customers have a different vision of the product. These obstacles lead to additional, unplanned dev work and possibly a failed product or feature. Developing a product or feature that meets customer requirements, needs an effective communication.

Read further to find learn the way to include and engage the customers into development. When product owner and customer communicate well with each other and have the shared understanding results laser sharp scheduled product delivery. The main thing you should solve the way of presenting a backlog. As well as of teaching the customers product development, why not including them into a visual product planning process.

User story mapping is one of the most effective way to visualize backlog items for both customers and developers. Moreover, they can learn the process in just a few minutes so let’s see how it works.

Why is user story mapping powerful for including customers

If you’re new to user story mapping you can learn more about Jeff Patton’s famous planning method here. User story mapping in a nutshell is an agile process, where you can visualize product goals, user steps and journeys and tasks in a clear layout. All these short information can be represented as sticky notes on the office wall, or virtually in a story mapping tool e.g. StoriesOnBoard.

Why is it so easy to understand?

  1. sticky notes keep the information short and clear (and keep long, annoying technical descriptions away)
  2. logical way of representing dependencies among goals, user steps and tasks
  3. arranging items vertically in priority order and horizontally for the narrative flow is intuitive enough for non-technical viewers
  4. the high-level overview serves strategic thinking and has the best spot to discover missing steps

What a story map tells to your customer

involve customers - goals - steps - user stories

As previously mentioned the product goals are located on the top. Collecting product goals is a good starting point when including customers in planning. They can easily describe the user’s problem and the solution for that – it doesn’t need technical knowledge.

Sticky notes visualize user steps on the second level. It’s still super-easy to understand especially when they are in a narrative flow. This is the product backbone, and tells almost everything about the user journey: What the users want and what steps they take to fulfill their needs.

involve customers - narrative flow, priority

All ideas or features are assigned under the related steps. For example, “paying with bank card”, “paying with PayPal” could be placed under the “make payment” step. The vertical order reflects the priority order. So if, the “paying with bank card” feature is above the “paying with PayPal” feature, it’s more important, and will be released earlier. You should pay attention to discuss the priority order with the customer. Adding description to the cards lets the customer read more about the feature. In addition, they can leave comments below the details. The comments section provides a great opportunity for remote or asynchronous work. Remember, you can invite customers for free and they are allowed to leave unlimited comments on cards.

When the cards are arranged into releases the story map tells a lot about scheduling. Moreover using StoriesOnBoard you can set up the release date to represent a precise scheduling.

5 quick wins when involving customers

1. Use colors

Using different colors on the board boosts the visual advantages. Different colors are useful for differentiating categories, e.g. core features, social share features, support features, etc… Issues or question cards stand out from the mass of details. Highlighting “need to be discussed cards” on the story map is vital when communicating with the customers asynchronously.

2. Tag cards

Running out of colors? Sometimes there is a need to find a better way to highlight several cards in one screen. Using tags is a visual aid for customers, which helps them understand the card or relationship without words. Just be sure to tell the customers the meaning of the tags! Tagged cards can be filtered using the “Search and Filter” menu. It’s a nice option to visualize different user journeys.

3. Add annotations

Reserve the first column for sharing guides for understanding the backlog. Although you can easily open the table of colors, you should display a card to explain the colors and abbreviations. In addition, you can include the legend of used tags. Annotations can explain any hidden dependencies on the board or point to further action e.g. “a step is missing here”.

involve customers - add annotations

4. Use consistent structure

Though the card title (especially when it’s labeled and colored) delivers enough information about the feature, some customers would like to read more about the item. Help them to understand the details by using the same description structure, such as: goal, short summary of the task, acceptance criteria, sketch or mockup etc. Try to display such pieces of these information in the same structure.

5. Stay open to new ideas

Customers always have new ideas or requests. To teach them how agile product development and prioritization processes works create them a place, e.g. an “input queue” in which to put upcoming ideas. Try to involve them not only in product planning but in the release planning too. Discuss which features are important and let them know the costs of any new features.

How to start involving the customers?

No matter where your flat backlog is, you can easily import it to StoriesOnBoard. After integrating with Trello, JIRA, Azure DevOps or Pivotal Tracker you can import the backlog items with just a few clicks. Do you use the good-old spreadsheet?
No problem! Import it! The epics and user stories will be arranged based on the given structure. It’s also a perfect spot for you to rediscover the product or to find holes in the product.

  • When starting a project from scratch cooperative product discovery delivers the most value. Involving the customer in building the product backlog on a story map has super power.
  • The customer can say exactly what he has in his mind – his specific ideas.
  • Forcing the product discovery from the user point of view gives massive opportunities to pay attention to each details.
  • Gives a fast feedback to customers about costs – possibly leading to decisions on where to start and where to finish.
  • Cooperative planing results shared understanding.

Involving the customers in an agile workflow

To sum up building a product without strong cooperation with the customer often results a misunderstanding about features or deadlines. The customer can’t tell all the information in his head, can’t be engaged with the dev process. To work with the customer effectively you should find a communication channel which connects product owners and non-technical customers. One of the most powerful ways to manage this conversation is doing product discovery and product planning on a virtual story map.

A user story map is a visual aid for customers. It contains all the vital info about the product goals, user journey, features and ideas. It shows priority order and schedule. Involving customers into the product planning process means a seamless integration into the dev process.

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