Robust Prioritization Techniques for Optimizing Product Backlog

Pavel Ku
Pavel Ku
Dec 24, 2019 · 6 min read

Product managers often face chaos related to feature requests’ order. When they have to prioritize an overfull backlog, it is quite easy to lose sight of the big picture and prioritize the wrong features.

That’s right, the word “prioritize” may keep product managers awake at night every time their product’ backlog seems overload.

No doubt, feature prioritization is one of the most severe headaches for a product manager. When they get their feature priorities wrong, a huge chunk of the resources gets eaten up, while the clients leave them for a competing product. So, how do successful product managers prioritize features? Let’s figure it out.

Before diving into prioritizing individual features, it’s worth breaking them up into smaller groups.

Start With Minding a Product Vision

It is easy to give in to the short-term goals and try to satisfy the requests of some clients hoping to retain them. But that will definitely lead to chaos. Choosing the way when you try to please everyone while building your product is ends up pleasing nobody, including your own team.

After all, your clients will get frustrated and stop using your product altogether.

It’s important for growing companies to learn how to deal with feature requests that don’t fit the product vision. If you want to build a great product, you’ll have to make tough decisions and say no to feature requests.

Your product vision will provide transparency in the direction of where your product is headed and why. If a feature doesn’t suit the overall vision, it shouldn’t be a priority.

Now it’s time to learn more about some powerful ways to improve feature prioritization.

Five Practical Ways to Prioritize Features

1. Breaking down features according to feasibility, viability, and desirability

It is never superfluous to look at the features of your product more objectively, considering various criteria and talking to particular teammates. These criteria are:

  • Feasibility. The first step means evaluating how technically possible the features and tools you currently have are. Involve your tech team members: back-end engineers, front-end developers, and UI designers to discuss and determine what can be done.
  • Viability. You should have a clear picture of how every single feature supports the overall product strategy and market realities. Arrange the discussion with executives and stakeholders to understand how each feature works in the industry in general (meaning legal issues and financials).
  • Desirability. Make sure your clients actually want all the features you are planning. You may apply any available tool to understand users’ desires. Go through users’ tests and validation and talk to researchers, marketers, UX designers, and support guys to figure it out.

You may say that these criteria are based on individuals’ opinions, however, be sure — cross-examining them through several lenses will help you keep everything objective and make the first step to a professional feature prioritization.

2. Scaling Effort/Impact

If you already have a set of more or less validated features, it’s time to define which ones are most important to implement first.

One of the most simple and effective ways is to plot them on a simple Effort/Impact matrix. This 2x2 grid contains squares that represent a different level of effort to create a feature and the potential impact it will have.

The idea of this prioritization technique is simple: the matrix assists you in finding the features that will have the highest impact with the lowest effort. However, do not think you’ll always know exactly where a feature fits on the matrix.

You may practice applying this 2x2 matrix within your team’s meetings:

  • Write down each feature on a sticky note and draw a simple matrix on a physical whiteboard.
  • Involve your colleagues and then grab and explain every sticky note, allowing everyone to vote on how much effort it will take and the potential impact from it.

This is definitely not the best feature prioritization method, however, it will help you to gather input from various groups of people.

To make the prioritization process more digital, apply one o the powerful project management software with built-in prioritization that offers such a matrix.

3. Kano model

You have probably heard about the famous Kano method to prioritize features by delight. It’s important to always remember that one of the key goals of product management is to build something your customers will love and value.

Kano model allows seeing every feature through the lens of customer delight. This process may seem more complex compared to the other methods we describe here, but it can result in effective insights.

According to the Kano prioritization techniques, each potential feature is broken down into several categories and their emotional responses:

  • Attractive needs involve the features that stimulate feelings of satisfaction and delight. If the feature is not included, users will not be dissatisfied.
  • Performance needs — the features and ideas that result in delight if they are present and in dissatisfaction if they are not.
  • Basic needs to describe the features that look like must-haves. Your customers really expect them.

In order to understand where every feature is placed, you need to talk to 12–24 users and ask them the following questions:

  • How would you feel if this particular feature was present?
  • How would you feel if this feature was not provided?

You’ll get both positive and negative answers like “I like it, I expect it, I’m neutral, I can tolerate it, I dislike it”. Depending on responses, you will plot which emotional curve that features sits on.

4. ICE Scoring

If you have too many important and urgent features to implement, the penalty for choosing the wrong prioritization model can be high.

The ICE score system is a pretty simple way to get things done and prioritize features with no extra requirements.

The ICE formula calculates the final score of the feature value in the following way:

  • Impact reflects how much the feature will positively affect the core metric you’re trying to improve.
  • Confidence is about how you are sure about all estimates (both about impact and effort).
  • Ease means the easiness of features implementation. It is the estimation of how much effort and resources are needed to implement this feature.

Rate all your feature requests and select the most valuable.

5. RICE score method

Complexities happen and sometimes you have to set priorities with more details than just a simple matrix can propose.

In this case, the RICE scoring model looks appropriate for scoring priorities.

The RICE concept contains four common factors to evaluate features when deciding which to prioritize:

  • Reach defines how many people will this feature affect in a moment. It is typically measured with the help of real product metrics such as “customers per quarter” or “transactions per month”.
  • Impact means how the feature will contribute to the product as well as how the project will impact your customers.
  • Confidence is about how you are sure about all your estimation — both about impact and effort. The factor of confidence helps to back you up when you think a project will be impactful but do not have enough data to back it up.
  • Effort estimates how much time the project will require from the product, engineering, and design teams. It’s measured as a number of “person-months”, weeks or hours.

Here’s how the RICE formula looks like:

Conclusion

Prioritizing product features into your product roadmap, do not forget that the overall strategy and the roadmap must be always front and center. Focus on the bigger picture as long-term strategy always trumps short-term results.

Taking the big-picture, defining the actionable next steps, and getting the right priorities, product managers can turn a struggling product to a product that users can’t live without.

Business environment and markets change. Priorities will change as well, so try to always find time gaps to make sure everything is still aligned with the bigger picture.

Hopefully, the ways to prioritize the features described above will help you to improve your career and skills in product management.

Cuspy Software

Dedicated engineering teams that deliver.

Pavel Ku

Written by

Pavel Ku

Marketing content manager

Cuspy Software

Dedicated engineering teams that deliver.

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