Understanding Agile: The Difference Between a Product Backlog and a User Story

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Last Updated: August 16, 2023

What is a User Story?

A user story is a concise, simple description of a feature told from the perspective of the person who desires the new capability, usually a user or a customer of the system. It’s like a brief statement of intent for a particular feature that focuses on the value or result it provides.

The structure of a user story is typically written in this format:

“As a [actor], I want [to do something], so that [a benefit]”.

This format keeps the focus on the user and their needs, and it helps to ensure that the functionality is developed with a clear purpose in mind.

Let’s consider an example of a user story for a B2B system. Imagine we’re developing a system for a company that provides online invoicing services to other businesses. A user story might be:

“As a business owner, I want to be able to generate invoices online, so that I can bill my clients quickly and accurately.”

This user story clearly states who the user is (the business owner), what they want to do (generate invoices online), and why they want to do it (to bill clients quickly and accurately).

Ownership of a user story can fall to the product owner or the development team. The product owner is typically responsible for defining and prioritizing the user stories, but the development team also plays a key role in shaping them. The team can help refine the details of the user stories, ensuring they are technically feasible and that they accurately capture the requirements.


What is a Product Backlog?

A product backlog is a comprehensive list of all the tasks, features, and improvements that need to be completed to deliver a product. Think of it as a to-do list for your product development process, but it’s not just any to-do list. It’s a dynamic, evolving artifact that provides a holistic view of everything that can be done to make the product better.

The product backlog is owned by the product owner. This individual is responsible for managing and curating the backlog, ensuring that it accurately reflects the current needs and priorities of the project. The product owner adds, changes, and prioritizes items in the backlog as the project’s needs evolve.

The product backlog is a crucial tool for planning and prioritizing work. It helps the team understand what needs to be done next and allows them to focus on the most valuable tasks. The product owner uses the backlog to guide the team’s work, ensuring that they are always working on the most important features.

Now, you might be wondering, how is a product backlog different from a user story? Well, a product backlog is made up of many different items, which can include user stories, but also bugs, tasks, and other work items. A user story, on the other hand, is a single item that could be part of a product backlog. It’s a specific requirement or feature, described from the perspective of the end user.

In other words, if we consider the product backlog as a book, then user stories are like individual chapters. Each one is important and contributes to the overall narrative, but they are part of a larger whole.


The Problem with Flattening User Stories

When user stories are incorporated into a product backlog, they lose their context. Everything is flattened into an ordered list. While it might seem like a harmless process, it can actually lead to a number of challenges.

One of the main issues is that when user stories lose their context, it becomes harder to see the journey and to understand how different features fit into it. This user journey is a vital aspect of product development, as it outlines the process that a user goes through to achieve a specific goal.

Lack of context also impacts the prioritization of features. Without a clear understanding of the user journey, it’s hard to determine which features are most important and should be developed first.

For development teams, flattened user stories lead to confusion. Without context, it’s difficult to understand the requirements of each feature and start working on them. In essence, while flattening user stories might seem like a way to simplify the product backlog, it can actually lead to a loss of vital information and create more challenges in the long run.


User Story Mapping

Alright, we’ve talked about the challenge of flattening user stories into a product backlog and how it can lead to a loss of context. But don’t fret, we’re not leaving you hanging with a problem. We’ve got a solution up our sleeve, and it’s called user story mapping.

User story mapping is a technique that helps us keep the user journey front and center when dealing with user stories and the product backlog. It’s about taking those user stories and laying them out in a way that shows how they contribute to the overall user experience. It’s not just about listing user stories, but about creating a visual representation of the user’s journey.

One of the great things about user story mapping is its ability to highlight gaps in the user journey. When you can see the whole journey laid out in front of you, it’s much easier to spot any missing steps or areas where the user’s needs aren’t being met.

And when it comes to prioritization, user story mapping really comes into its own. With a clear view of the user’s journey and how each feature contributes to it, deciding which features are most important becomes a much more straightforward task.



We’ve covered a lot of ground together – discussing the ins and outs of product backlogs, user stories, and user story mapping. These are all key elements in agile software development that each play a unique role in the process.

Understanding the difference between a product backlog and a user story is crucial. It’s like knowing the rules of the game – it helps you play more effectively. Product owners can use these tools to their full potential, delivering high-quality products on time and within budget.

User story mapping is an invaluable technique. It helps maintain the context of user stories when they’re broken down in the product backlog. It’s a practical, straightforward way to ensure the user journey remains clear throughout the development process.

Ready to put these concepts into practice? Sign up for a free trial of CardBoard today. Experience the benefits of user story mapping firsthand and see how it can enhance your product development process. It’s a straightforward, effective way to keep your development user-focused.

Give it a try – your product development process will thank you!