8 product prioritization frameworks
Do skillful product managers have a sixth sense? It might seem that way, especially when it comes to evaluating which product features will deliver the most value. The more you hone your understanding of customers, the better you are able to anticipate what they want.
But what makes product managers particularly good at feature prioritization is the ability to connect strategy to implementation. You want the features you choose to prioritize to help you achieve your product vision. That requires a repeatable, objective way to estimate the value of features. This is where prioritization frameworks come in.
A prioritization framework contains consistent criteria for product teams to use when putting features in priority order or ranking according to business value. Frameworks can support more strategic decisions, minimize biases, and avoid analysis paralysis. It is also easier to communicate priorities to stakeholders and leadership when you have an agreed-upon framework for making tradeoff decisions.
The framework product teams choose is usually informed by product type, customers served, organizational culture, and individual preferences. One approach is no better or worse than another. It is more important to choose a framework that your team will apply uniformly across the product.
Why is it important to prioritize features?
Product managers decide what to build next. But you do not do this important work in isolation. Plenty of voices weigh in — like sales and engineering teams, and company leaders. And customer feedback informs what to build next too. Strong opinions matter but should not overshadow product strategy.
Without a prioritization framework, you could spend all day sorting and resorting features — potentially relying too much on subjectivity or failing to reach a consensus with stakeholders. Effective prioritization also provides transparency for the team and builds confidence in the planning process. Everyone wants to work on features that truly matter to customers and the business.
Common prioritization frameworks
There are dozens of prioritization frameworks available to product managers, but let's take a closer look at eight common prioritization frameworks and the benefits of each.
Choosing a framework does not preclude deeper discussion and evaluation. These frameworks just provide guardrails for decision-making. Your team still needs to make thoughtful choices about what to prioritize next.
Cost of delay
The cost of delay (CoD) framework combines urgency and value — to make decisions on what will deliver the most value right now.
CoD is often used by teams following the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). CoD is a component of the weighted shortest job first (WSJF) prioritization framework. (See below.)
The Kano model weighs customer satisfaction against the cost to implement.
This framework can be useful for teams that want to determine which features to build for a Minimum Lovable Product (MLP).
The MoSCoW method qualifies initiatives and features into four categories:
MoSCoW prioritization can help teams deliver incremental value across each of the four categories.
Product tree refers to an exercise in which the product roadmap is represented by a tree:
This method of feature prioritization can be helpful for organizations with a large portfolio of products. The visual of a tree encourages teams to focus across the portfolio with decisions that positively impact the entire ecosystem.
The RICE framework scores features based on four factors:
Whereas CoD combines urgency and value, RICE balances value and effort.
User story mapping
User story mapping can be considered a prioritization framework as well as an exercise for charting the customer journey. Teams create a map of the user’s interactions with the product and evaluate which steps have the most benefit for the user.
This framework is commonly used because all product teams strive to be customer-focused. It is also often used by user experience designers, who are also intently focused on the customer experience.
Value vs. effort
Somewhat of a simplified version of RICE, the value vs. effort framework scores features based on value to the customer and organizational effort.
Lean teams that prefer a lightweight framework may choose this one.
Weighted shortest job first
Used in SAFe, weighted shortest job first (WSJF) sequences jobs (features, capabilities, and epics) in a flow-based order by measuring CoD against job size or duration.
Many product managers also customize existing frameworks. For example, you could create a framework based on any number of criteria — such as user engagement, usability, or operational efficiency. Then, customize the metrics, scale, or weight applied to each. For a customized framework to drive decisions, you need to choose criteria that are congruent with the overall strategy.
How can I choose the best prioritization framework for the team?
Look back at recent releases and the features you delivered. How did the team reach a decision on what to move forward? Dig in to see whether those reasons are aligned with the product strategy and business goals. If yes, you have a good start. You can begin codifying criteria and assigning relative value.
If you cannot find common criteria from looking at past decisions, you will need to start fresh. And even if you can, it is still a good idea to list your product goals in order of importance and determine what type of framework will help you make more deliberate, strategic decisions.
There is often not a perfect match when it comes to choosing a prioritization framework. You may need to experiment before you land on the framework that suits the team best. Or use a purpose-built product management tool that is prepopulated with proven prioritization scorecards. The goal is to have a constant flow of high-value features for the team to work on — a boon for product leadership, team competency, and customer value.
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