My current project is a technically complex system rewrite. Software system rewrites always carry an extra set of risks and complications compared to a green field project. One such complication is the difficulty of slicing up user stories when the overall goal is to replicate a complete system’s past behavior. In providing technical advice during story writing to our delivery lead, staying out of any backlog management software for as long as possible has proved immensely valuable. Here’s what I’ve learned about using low-fi tools for backlog planning.
What: Bulleted List
My personal preference is about as low-tech as you can get (at least as low-tech as possible when using something as advanced as a modern laptop. I like to use indented, bulleted lists. I prefer Markdown because it can render anywhere, and I can edit it easily with Vim keybindings, but even that’s not important. The beauty of a bulleted list is that you can easily transfer it between Markdown, the Apple Notes app, a Word document — basically anything that edits text can handle a bulleted list. This also makes it easy to share among team members.
Why: Flexibility in Backlog Planning
Backlog management software like Jira or Pivotal Tracker uses stories as the be-all-end-all abstraction to capture the work the team must do. They often allow for grouping things into “epics” or adding labels to stories for other ad hoc categories, but at the end of the day, they quickly calcify work into flat to-do lists. This is fine at a certain point because, eventually, work needs to get done. However, backlog software is useful mostly as a projection of a higher level, more flexible plan.
A backlog is about concrete blocks of work, with additional context like estimates of how much effort that work will take to complete. At the story-by-story level, though, it’s easy to lose track of the broader project context. It can also be hard to capture cross-cutting domain knowledge that informs the work of multiple stories.
Most importantly, once stories have been entered into a backlog in your tool of choice, they’re simply harder to add or remove and it’s harder to move details around. Once a story is a story, it’s less malleable, changeable, and flexible. A lo-fi representation is lightweight, unencumbered, and completely flexible. It can serve as a project roadmap, a scratchpad for ideas, or even a domain design document.