Feature prioritization in product management: the key to building products that sell

feature prioritization in product managementThere are many methodologies for feature prioritization in product management. If you are a product manager dealing with this, beware that one size doesn’t fit all. Choosing the right feature for the stage of development your product is in can unlock enhanced market performance. 

Product feature prioritization is one of the most difficult parts of a product manager’s job. It is the essence of the job in terms of defining ‘what’ gets built. But how do you decide, especially for an early stage product? Who do you listen to? What role do internal and external stakeholders play and how does their input get measured? And how does a product manager best communicate feature priorities?

An October 2016 survey by the organization, Mind the Product, asked the question “What’s your #1 single biggest product management challenge right now?” and it was clear the primary challenge on most product managers’ minds is setting roadmap priorities without real market feedback. Forty-nine percent (49%) of product managers said this is their biggest challenge, and when responses are added from enterprise software PMs, this figure jumps up to 62%. That means nearly two-thirds of enterprise product leaders are currently worrying about which product features are needed. And when.

An Overview of Product Enhancement Requests

The basics of customer segmentation and a clear value proposition have always been and remain essential to product feature prioritization. As every good product manager knows, everything to everyone results in nothing to no one. A product manager never simply adds every requested feature or enhancement.

Requests for enhancements to software products originate from many sources including prospects, customers, employees and resellers (dealers & distributors) as well as from internal constituents who have traditionally been the drivers of product enhancements – particularly in early stage companies. While the sources of enhancement requests are numerous, they frequently come from three major areas:

  • Domain experts or research inventors, who suffer the pain associated with the problem the software is attempting to resolve; often become the ‘definer in chief’ of feature sets.
  • Executives, who are driven by revenue or key customer relationships (often not market based).
  • Salespeople, who often perceive that they need one or more features to make a sale, which are frequently ‘one off’ requests, or that the timeframe of existing requests on the roadmap must be accelerated.

Enhancements not very long ago were a paper, phone call and/or email-based process, but quickly moved to digital. Enhancement requests became associated with ‘problem resolution’ or reported problems in customer service/support systems, and therefore became bug tracking and fix records since those systems existed and were easiest to leverage. Unfortunately, in many cases product enhancement requests remain in customer support and issue tracking “ticket” systems. Today’s leader in this area is Atlassian’s Jira. There are up to 18 on the market according to the blog at vendor Workzone (https://www.workzone.com/blog/jira-alternatives/)

Regardless of the source or the system and tools used, the primary goal of the product enhancement request process is to ensure that these suggestions and requests are evaluated promptly. A secondary goal is to guarantee that the requesters (especially customers) are informed quickly and updated often of the status of the request. A completed and well-communicated product enhancement will address the problem, benefit, and business impact of the request.

Methods and Tools

There are many methods and tools available to assist modern product managers with the process of feature and enhancements. Software tools, such as Aha!, ProdPlan and UserVoice exist to aid in product planning and road-mapping and help with strategic and  planning activities. Many of these solutions integrate with related technologies such as idea management applications and sales force automation (SFA) systems to import and quantify ideas, feedback and requests for enhancements. Choosing one or more of these tools is important.

Product management consultant Daniel Zacarias has assembled 20 prioritization techniques into the collection and grouped them into two areas: external/internal and quantitative/qualitative techniques. The most interesting among them:

  • MoSCoW Prioritization: This method of prioritization is widely used to reach consensus among stakeholders.
  • Opportunity Scoring: This method is derived from the concept of Outcome-driven Innovation (ODI) of the American researcher Anthony Ulwik. The basic prescription of the method is that people buy products and services to get a job done. That is, to get an expected result.
  • Value vs Cost or Value vs Complexity: Features are scored on their value and cost of implementation or the value based on its business value and relative complexity to implement.
  • Story Mapping: This method consists of ordering user stories along two independent dimensions. The “map” arranges user activities along the horizontal axis in rough order of priority (or “the order in which you would describe activities to explain the behavior of the system”). Down the vertical axis, it represents increasing sophistication of the implementation.
  • Feature Buckets: Features are placed in one of three buckets: Metrics Movers, Customer Requests, and Customer Delight.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list; many more exist. One final method worth mentioning for feature prioritization and planning is ‘Planning Poker.’ It’s an agile estimating and planning technique that is consensus based. In a poker planning session, the product owner or customer reads an agile user story or describes a feature to the estimators.

Planning Poker is based on an estimation technique known as Wideband Delphi which was created by the RAND Corporation either in the 1940s or 1968 depending upon which sources you find credible. The technique was refined by James Grenning in 2002. It became much more popular when it was included in Mike Cohn’s book “Agile Estimating and Planning.” Although the basics of the technique have been around for many years, the refinements by Grenning made it usable by agile teams that have taken full advantage.

Regardless of what you choose, none of these methods focus on an essential element of the product and an aspect of segmentation: the product lifecycle.

Product Lifecycle Stage Based Prioritization

Business leaders, especially marketers and product managers, have traditionally identified different kinds of technology buyers: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards. The traditional model assumed that, in the lifespan of a product, the market is first dominated by the innovators, then the early adopters and on down the line. This buyer model maps to the traditional product lifecycle. What hasn’t been mapped is a method to prioritize product features that maximizes feature selection at each stage.

For example, feature choice is a balance of differentiating a product from its competitors while meeting existing customer needs. However, these feature considerations vary depending on your product’s current placement in its lifecycle. In this case with a core concept, you would be in the innovators’ or early adopters’ stage. Feature selection in this area would be focused on prospects (those who have yet to purchase) and engineering/development areas. This also recognizes the fact that competitive issues and delivering on differentiation is more important than satisfying customers.

A New Paradigm for Prioritization: Clean up, Catch up, Keep up, Leg up.

Mapping feature sets to buyer and product lifecycle is essential. A good method to explore is ‘Clean Up, Catch Up, Keep Up and Leg Up’:

1.)   Clean Up: These are backlog items that still have not been addressed and need to be addressed. Bugs and fixes could be included in this, but it’s not exclusive to these.

2.)   Catch Up: These items present your product’s shortcomings. To meet the standards of competing products within the market, these need to be addressed.

3.)   Keep Up: These tend to be things where you need to be current, such as support for certain browsers, operating systems or new paradigms of computing such as moving from on-premise to cloud.

4.)   Leg Up: These are features that add clearly differentiated value to your product.

In the case of the core concept for a new product, the focus is on Leg Up and Keep Up features. At those early market stages, satisfying early customer needs is less important.

Recommendations and bottom line

Analyze the lifecycle stage your product is in carefully and select stage-appropriate prioritization techniques. A product in its earlier stages needs to be more prospect oriented with a competitive focus. As the product reaches more mature stages, it becomes more customer driven. Engineering and developmental changes can occur in different stages of a product’s lifecycle, but those changes need to be made with keen awareness to either situation. Carefully apply the feature prioritization technique that maximizes the value and goals of your product and organization, especially in light of the stage of the product lifecycle.

There are many methods to help product managers prioritize features. Whichever one you choose, don’t forget to map them to a dimension that includes the lifecycle of the product and the customer’s purchase journey. When working on earlier stage products, emphasize product features that differentiate when compared to competitors and continually address new buyer’s or prospects needs.