Writing by Peter Hilton

Product backlog naming tips

How to name things, for product people - 12 May 2020 #product

Uniformed police

unsplash-logoMarkus Spiske

Product people who don’t name things well end up with an incoherent product backlog. And product backlog naming matters more than product naming. Good names exhibit consistency and explanation, which don’t come easily. Use the following five tips to improve your product naming.

1. Name capabilities or features

Good product backlog naming requires consistency. In particular, product backlog items must name the same kind of things as each other. One of these doesn’t match the others:

  1. Capture kitten-related content
  2. Promote social sharing
  3. Remove Kill Kitten button

While the first two items describe capabilities that you could implement in various ways, the third describes a specific software feature. Rephrasing the feature as part of a capability, such as Manage test data will also normalise the abstraction level.

If you maintain a feature-based product backlog, you can either group features into capabilities in a two-level backlog, or use outcomes and capabilities in a multi-level product roadmap.

2. Use descriptive naming

A backlog item name like Capture kitten-related content tells you what it means, while a name like Google doesn’t. Product names may benefit that flexibility, but backlog item names don’t. Some names don’t mean anything, while others describe what they name. Some names lie in between, vaguely alluding to their origin: with the right context, you might guess what a web site called NekoFeed does.

Product backlog items need descriptive naming more than they need the flexibility to change their meaning. A list of tens or hundreds of these names has more value, because of the names’ meanings.

3. Use subject matter domain language

Made-up jargon doesn’t help. Inventing words may give you the idea that you have a system but no-one else will know what they mean. Instead, enter the subject matter domain - your customers’ jargon.

Product people may learn their customers’ domain language directly from customers, but can often find other sources. Ideally, you’d get to know your customer’s language from fictionalised accounts of their work, but except for police detectives, or people who wear a uniform, you probably won’t find a television drama about their work. In practice, you’ll find Wikipedia articles more useful.

4. Consistently use the same terms

Some people seem to think that writers should spice up their prose by replacing synonyms with repeating words. I blame schools’ focus on creative and literary writing, at the expense of other kinds of writing. As for product documentation, your product backlog requires a technical writing style.

Consistency applies to both problem domain language (kitten vs cat), and product language (display vs show). Giving similar things similar names will make your product backlog easier to read.

5. Minimise length

While, descriptive naming makes items easier to recognise, and separate from other items, excessive names are hard to remember or use consistently. As a rough guide, good names have two to six words. Using too many words leads to two kinds of inconsistency:

  1. long names will take up too much space in both written and verbal communication, so people will abbreviate them
  2. people will misremember long names and introduce slight variations.

In the end, people not only name things inconsistently, but they don’t all do it in the same way.