How do product managers prioritize features?

How do you know what to build next? How do you organize your product backlog and prioritize which features to add to your product roadmap? These are fundamental questions for any product manager.

Product managers juggle ideas from customers, requests from the sales team, and feedback from executives. There are always plenty of opinions about what should be built and when. It can be disorienting — you are often pulled in many directions at once. Internal squabbles about what to build next can cloud your objectivity.

To cut down on guesswork, take a goal-first approach. Start with strategy — including measurable goals that align with your product vision. Doing so will bring clarity to feature prioritization and, ideally, create a repeatable process that the entire product team can follow.

The best product managers take the goal-first approach even further and use quantifiable metrics to score ideas and features based on potential value. Assigning a tangible score makes it easier to decide what to prioritize next and to share the reasoning with others.

Organize your features backlog

Some product teams use static spreadsheets, email, or even development tools to track and organize ideas and features. This type of ad-hoc process can be labor-intensive and difficult to keep information organized and up to date. Teams that use purpose-built product management software are able to manage idea backlogs, planned features, and product roadmaps all within one system.

In either case, it is important to start the prioritization process by reviewing all submissions and requests that you receive from customers and other stakeholders. When an idea aligns with your product strategy, you can then add it to your product backlog. This backlog serves as an inventory of features that you want to pursue — but have not yet scheduled or begun defining.

Before prioritizing features in your backlog, it can be helpful to sort out what you have. Here are a few ways to organize features:

  • By theme or area of your product: Organize front-end features versus back-end features. Or mobile versus desktop features. You could also organize features based on the user persona who benefits most from the enhancement.

  • Based on a user story map: User story mapping is a visual exercise that creates a dynamic outline of a user's interactions with a product. Organizing features based on a user story map gives you groups of features at each step of the customer journey.

  • Based on how features roll up to product strategy: For example, some features may help you reach your revenue goals. Others differentiate your product in the marketplace. Sorting features in this way ensures that you are keeping top-level goals in mind.

Score and rank your backlog

Now that you have organized your features, it is time to prioritize. There are many prioritization frameworks — choose one that can be adjusted to best support your strategic goals. Apply the framework to a product scorecard.

For example, some product managers use the RICE scoring model. RICE stands for reach, impact, confidence, and effort. You could easily apply the factors below to a scorecard:

  • Reach: How many users will this feature benefit?

  • Impact: How much will this feature impact those users?

  • Confidence: How confident are you in these estimates?

  • Effort: What is the time investment for this feature?

Scorecards are ideal because you can choose metrics, scales, and weightings to assign an objective value to each feature. In general, metrics should address considerations such as customer impact, revenue increase, effort to develop, and cost to implement.

Regardless of what prioritization framework you follow, these questions should be asked when scoring features:

  • How many customers will benefit?

  • What kind of value does this feature add?

  • Will this feature impact new users or existing users?

  • How much will sales increase?

  • How many hours will it take to implement?

  • How much do these hours cost?

Scorecards can get quite complex depending on the number of variables, but you can keep it simple too. For example, you might use a 2x2 prioritization matrix comparing value and effort. Subtract effort from value to identify an overall score.

Planning your releases

Now that you have prioritized your backlog of features, you can move high-priority work to a current release or save for the future. Once assigned to a release, the requirements for each feature are typically defined by product managers in more detail.

You may work cross-functionally with an engineering manager or scrum leader to make these decisions. For agile teams who are continuously iterating, product managers are regularly reviewing and reprioritizing their backlogs.

A transparent, metrics-based approach helps you assess incoming requests. And you provide a predictable evaluation process for your team too. When everyone is reviewing features and making decisions using the same method, you can remove emotion from the process and make more informed decisions.

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