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5 mistakes you’re making with feature prioritization

5 mistakes you’re making with feature prioritization

One of the hardest, yet most important, product management tasks is figuring out how to make decisions amid so many competing priorities. Product managers always deal with conflicting requests from customers, sales teams, developer teams, and customer success teams. Everyone has needs, and they often lean on the product team for solutions.

Facing pressure to accommodate everyone’s requests and make quick decisions, product managers can easily make the wrong decisions regarding which features to prioritize.

Some of the most common feature prioritization mistakes include:

  • Letting the loudest voice dictate priorities
  • Losing sight of objectives
  • Saying yes too much
  • Deciding with an incomplete framework
  • Mishandling customer insights

Each mistake threatens the overall success of your product.

1. Letting the loudest voice dictate priorities

Every product manager has at least a few internal stakeholders and customers who are very vocal about certain features they want built. Appeasing the loudest voices in the room by letting them dictate your priorities, however, is a mistake that can lead to a disjointed product.

For example, suggestions from sales teams may focus on building a feature that allows them to close a specific deal. Power users, who likely engage you the most, may have suggestions that only have limited appeal across your entire customer base. However, what helps your sales team and power users might not be the best for your broader customer base or internal teams. If you give too much weight to a single stakeholder’s input and suggestions, the features you build will likely only solve a problem for a small group, while going mostly unused by the rest of your customers.

Features driven by the loudest voices may also sacrifice cohesion between features. Ideally, features should work together to achieve a common goal. If you always listen to the suggestions from your sales team or your most vocal customer, though, you’ll end up with a handful of “one-off features” that don’t connect through a singular product vision.

The answer to these loud voices is holistic feedback collection. Feedback from your loudest and most active stakeholders are certainly important. However, feedback from non-power users will be more representative of broader and more systemic issues related to your product, such as sign-up flow. You need to collect all of it and make it accessible to all stakeholders.

Once you have everything in one place, you’ll be able to put feedback from your more vocal stakeholders in context with everyone’s needs. Holistic feedback will make the specific objectives of each stakeholder and how those objectives align with the product strategy much more apparent.

2. Losing sight of objectives

For a product to drive specific business goals and delight customers, the product team needs to align on clearly defined objectives. A common mistake product managers make with feature prioritization is focusing solely on delivering the feature and not the outcome it’s supposed to drive.

An objective is a goal with clear and measurable outcomes for customers, the product itself, or the business. A business objective, for example, could be to decrease churn by 5%. Achieving this objective may not be a one feature fix. In some cases, it may take multiple features working together. You may also decide, based on testing and data, that achieving the objective requires an entirely different feature.

If you don’t focus on clear objectives when prioritizing, then you’ll end up with a handful of scattered features, which individually make incremental improvements to your product, but together fail to achieve any significant product or business goals. For that reason, it’s important to group features by objective and build them together. To do that, however, you need to first clearly define and document your objectives and then come up with a system for matching potential features with objectives. This makes prioritization easier because you can visualize which features fit into your overall strategy and goals and which don’t.

3. Saying yes too much

As a product manager, you get a lot of feature requests. Some are easy to rule out, but there are also be a lot of ideas that may excite you. Brian Halligan learned when starting HubSpot, that saying “yes” to feature requests is tempting, but it also drains resources and threatens the health of your company. In HubSpot‘s early years, they said “yes” to nearly everything, and it wasn’t long before their team was bogged down with “half-baked projects all over the place.” It took the practice of saying “no” more often to right the company.

As Jason Fried notes in a blog post about saying no to feature requests, “No can be temporary. No now may be yes later. Or it may be no forever. The trick is to figure out which camp a certain no falls into and then respond appropriately.” Some ideas might be good ideas at the wrong time.

It’s also important to remember that an idea for a feature that would undoubtedly provide a benefit to customers can still hurt your product in the long run if the time and resources required to build it outweigh the benefit it provides. What’s hard is distinguishing between the good ideas that are worth the effort and those that aren’t.

It’s helpful to evaluate a feature based on a combination of two variables: how much effort will be required to develop it and how much of a positive impact it will have on the product. By plotting each based on these variables, you can easily visualize which ideas you really should say yes to and which would just be nice to have but not necessary.

feature decision marix

Features that fall into the top left quadrant are ideas that you can safely say yes to, whereas ideas that fall in the bottom right quadrant are ones you might say no to.

As Erin Essex, Creative Director of Webonise noted in an episode of This Is Product Management, using a decision matrix, “helps steer the conversation in a healthy direction, so it’s less about one stakeholder versus the other.” While a decision matrix helps you sort features into yes, no, and maybe categories, it also makes it easier to explain to a stakeholder why their idea is not being built. Instead of saying no without context, a decision matrix can help you clarify why the idea proposed could provide a lot of potential value, but not enough to warrant the effort to deliver it.

4. Making quick decisions with an incomplete framework

Great product managers are expected to make quick, decisive decisions about features and strategy in the face of uncertainty and confusion. This pressure to act fast and avoid indecision drives many product managers to make feature prioritization decisions based on a single, or incorrect, indicator of a potential feature’s value.

The problem is that features don’t exist in a vacuum, and their potential impact can’t be accurately predicted by looking at one variable. For example, consider a feature that gives your product functionality a competitor’s product doesn’t have. At first, this might seem like a good idea that would give your product a competitive advantage. However, if this particular feature slows down the product, doesn’t increase revenue, and drives support calls, then prioritizing this feature would be detrimental to your team and product.

To get an accurate read on whether or not to prioritize a feature, or even to discount it altogether, evaluate each idea on a range of performance metrics. Come up with a framework for evaluating a feature’s performance over a standard set of metrics such as customer value, strategic alignment, costs, feasibility, and revenue potential. Prioritize those features that score well across all of these categories over features that score exceptionally well in one category, but poorly in the rest.

5. Mishandling customer insights

Ultimately, a product manager’s most important goal is to build a product that delights the customer. CEOs across the tech industry reference customer centricity as a key to business success. Sachin Rekhi, founder of notejoy, lists customer obsession as an essential component of product development. However, without a reliable way of capturing and documenting customer insights, you can’t represent the customers’ best interests with your product.

Ignoring customer feedback is not usually a conscious choice, but it still happens a lot. Your customer insights might be scattered across sales notes, support tickets, emails, formal research briefings, and call notes, making it difficult for a product team to synthesize all the information the company has about their customer base and make informed decisions about feature prioritization.

Getting all the insights into a single repository is one problem. The next issue is figuring out what to do with all that information and how to organize it. When you’re prioritizing, participants may be relying on memory, their own notes, or Post-It Notes containing some cherry-picked bits of feedback.

The best product teams not only have a way of storing all customer insights into a single source to ensure that information isn’t lost, but they also match those insights directly to larger objectives and product strategies. Using productboard, you can put all of your customer insights in a single place and then link each insight to the feature and goal related to that feedback. This allows you to identify which features will be most impactful for your customers.

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