Developing new features is usually the most exciting part of working for a product company. The rewards of continuously enhancing a product and exceeding customer expectations are more valuable than any other perks of being a part of a product-based company.
But how can we choose which features to prioritize and which ones to defer for later? Now that’s a difficult question to answer.
Thankfully, talking regularly to customers offers a lot of valuable insights into developing your product. You may not even realize it, but you may be getting new feature requests from customers from all directions—oftentimes in the form of emails, phone calls, support tickets, or other customer interactions.
The challenge is to identify these data signals and organize them into coherent information so that product managers can prioritize the most promising features into the development cycle.
Prioritizing features is a continuous process for product teams—you must first collaborate to evaluate the cost of the requests, analyze the competitive landscape, and gather available resources while keeping your business goals in mind. It’s a tricky balancing act—to say the least.
In this blog, we will go through two main topics:
- Important factors to consider when prioritizing requests
- Tips to prioritize them using common frameworks
Let's dive right into it.
Factors to consider before choosing the right features to prioritize
Prioritizing the right features to incorporate into a product has multiple layers to it. You can’t just categorize features and their priorities in the same order you prioritize support tickets, for instance. You have to answer some very important questions such as:
What problem is the customer trying to solve?
Every product feature has an end goal—a problem that it solves. As the product expert, you should be able to map a feature’s use in the customer's lives. And no matter how cool a requested feature may appear, it should be representative of a problem that a wide set of customers are going through—not just a few. Also assess if your customers can solve their problems with an existing feature—or with a tad bit of enhancement on it.
For example—in Avoma, we have a feature where you can save your searches. As we started getting requests for an ‘alert’ feature from Customer Success users to identify potential churn, we knew that we could solve it with our existing ‘Save Search’ feature.
Is the feature request coming from an ICP or is it one-off?
Always prioritize features based on your ideal customer profile (ICP). Doing so will keep you true to your product-market fit and align your feature development with your product vision. It’s important not to be distracted from one-off unique requests that come from your non-ICP customers, if they do not represent your current audience or your potential target segment.
Let’s say your product caters primarily to salespeople but you have a one-off request coming from a Venture Capitalist who uses your product in a unique way. In such a situation, you should make a judgement call based on if the decision aligns with your north star metrics.
How much will it cost?
How much will the development of this feature cost? If the projected profit is high and the expense is minimal, you should definitely implement the new feature without delay. But if it’s going to cost you a bomb to develop it right now while not improving customer experience, maybe it’s not worth your time and effort—even if it looks financially profitable.
What’s the benefit?
Nothing happens in business without addressing the question about ROI (return on investment). Prioritizing a feature launch should answer a few elementary questions like—Is this feature launch profitable? How much will it cost you to develop it vs. what’s the potential growth opportunity it presents? Focusing on the feature that costs the least to create isn't always the best option. Don't lose perspective of the bigger picture or the north star metrics that matter to your company.
What kind of resources will you need?
Do you have enough time and bandwidth at the moment to release the feature? What about the availability of other teams who are equal stakeholders in the process? What else—besides cost and resources—do you need to make this feature a reality?
Most product companies overestimate their ability to launch a new product or a feature but underestimate the time it actually goes into releasing it. Product companies, for instance, anticipate a ten-week time to build a new feature. But several factors like holiday schedules, testing and bug fixes, and last-minute change in plans often throw cold water on your original plan—delaying it by another three months.
What are the technical risks involved?
It’s pretty common for out-of-the-blue problems to show up throughout the development process of a new feature, usually disguised as technical difficulties. A common scenario is when a new feature impacts the overall performance of your platform or impacts a set of existing features.
While it’s virtually impossible for you to predict those issues, you can at least be aware of the imminent challenges that might occur and assess the risk landscape beforehand so that you can have a contingency plan and avoid your development team from feeling burdened unnecessarily.
What are the market risks?
While you can't always forecast profit precisely, you may be able to forecast tentative market risks related when launching a new feature.
You need to have clarity on what features are table stakes, which you must-have even if it’s a feature common across all your competitors. At the same time, you also need to be able to bet on a set of features that are going to be unique to you.
For example, when you look at the conversation intelligence space, pretty much every platform offers conversation transcription. While we at Avoma knew that transcription is table stakes, we bet on building Notes, which is unique to us.
Notes are a one-page bulleted summary of the entire conversation (the left pane of the image below) which automatically gets updated into the CRM without people having to manually do it.
What does your team think of it?
Your product is a collective asset between all the teams that are involved in building, promoting, and maintaining it. Their opinions and feedback matter when it comes to adding or removing features from it. It’s easy to ignore what the marketing or customer support thinks of a new feature addition—not realizing that they can sometimes offer groundbreaking insights to improve your product. Therefore, it’s critical to involve your key stakeholders in prioritizing a new feature development.
Five ways to prioritize feature requests
Prioritizing new feature development is as thrilling as finishing a complicated jigsaw puzzle—and as significant as building a new product. Rolling out a new feature is not only about offering new product capabilities that you know your consumers will love, you are essentially deciding the future direction of your product—or perhaps even the company.
Here are five simple but tried-and-tested techniques to prioritize new product features and enhancements into your roadmap.
1. Group features into themes
Organizing similar features into groups helps you prevent choice paralysis, i.e. the inability to choose a good course of action when you have too many options. When you have a multitude of feature requests coming from all directions, selecting which ones to focus on can be a genuine problem. Grouping features into "themes" or most mentioned “Business Needs” is a simple method to help you overcome this kind of decision fatigue.
Here’s an idea to help you understand this better. When you are evaluating new features in your roadmap, categorize them into different buckets such as Demand Generation, Onboarding, Customer Insights. This will help you organize your thoughts around new feature requests while avoiding the problem of going through a long list of random user requests.
Remember, saying no to certain feature requests is also a viable option to build your product. It also doesn’t necessarily imply that you will never honor those requests. But grouping them into similar themes will certainly help you identify the ones that need immediate attention and deflect the rest to the back burner.
Here are a few ways for you to simplify the process further:
Themes based on your product roadmap
You most likely already have a product roadmap that’s divided into high-level topics such as Reporting, Connectivity, Management, or Workflows. It’s a good idea to divide new feature requests based on these existing themes. This way, you can go back and develop new features once you are done prioritizing the most urgent ones.
Themes based on metrics
Simply put, these are themes organized by their possible impact on your business. Metric haulers or metric movers are features that are guaranteed to improve your business metrics like sign-ups, upgrades, or annual contract value. Usually, these are features that you will build based on your team’s intuition and understanding of the customer behavior.
Themes based on customer requests
These requests include the features that your customers are vocal about. Sometimes, they might not be the most sought-after requests that directly impact your bottom line—but launching them guarantees a spike in customer delight. But a much more logical way of prioritizing it is based on the number of requests for a feature with common use cases.
On rare occasions, you will also get feature requests that fit into more than one category. And if such requests align with your product roadmap, it’s a win-win for everyone.
2. Measure their importance on feasibility, desirability, and viability
One of the biggest roadblocks to prioritizing the right features is our personal views and recency bias about the product that isn’t necessarily validated by customer data. Not only will this mislead you into prioritizing the wrong set of features, but you may also risk stifling your product’s growth by going in the wrong direction.
To fight this problem, you must examine each new feature request from an objective lens. You may want to consult the most important stakeholders of your product—your user base—to take an objective approach to prioritize features.
For example—on top of the user research interviews that you might be doing for the product team, you can also leverage conversation intelligence to gather customer insights from other teams such as sales, marketing, and customer success.
Once you have sizable data on what features do your customers expect the most, go through the following assumption mapping criteria to evaluate if you are prioritizing the right feature without any biases.
Figure out how technically feasible it is to develop the feature—given your team’s expertise and bandwidth. Talk to your technical team members—back-end engineers, UI developers, and front-end developers—to determine what’s doable and within what time frame. If something is implausible or impossible beyond the scope of feasibility, trim the unnecessary ideas down to a rational level.
How much does a feature score on the scale of desirability? Do you need to run research to test a feature’s estimated popularity with the end users? Use different methods to determine the importance the new feature holds for its intended users. Share snippets of key aspects of conversations with customers and share them with stakeholders internally.
Don’t stop with speaking only to customers and prospects. Also talk to your product experts, UX designers, marketing, and sales to understand what customer insights they have about the feature’s desirability.
Find out how the feature will help your product in its broader strategy and market penetration. Discuss with the leadership team and other high-level strategists to see how the feature fits into a larger ecosystem—both for your company as well as in the market (e.g., competition, regulations, legal issues).
3. Use the effort impact matrix to identify top features
With your features mainly laid out and confirmed, it's time to choose which ones to focus on first. An often-cited method among the product teams is to project the feature lists on an effort impact matrix.
This decision-making technique uses a 2x2 grid, with each square representing a different degree of work put into developing the feature and its possible impact.
This technique's primary purpose is to identify the features that will have the biggest impact on your customers and your business. By concentrating on the impact, you ensure that your users get to use the features that they genuinely need in their lives. Similarly, you can use the matrix to determine the amount of effort it takes for you to build a new feature.
We recommend performing this as a group activity. Make a sticky note for each feature suggestion and construct your matrix on a virtual whiteboard. Gather a moderated group of experts who are closer to the product and the customers and let them put up a sticky note one at a time, describe its significance, and talk about the effort it will take to develop it.
Of course, the product team will (and should) have the final control over which features will get the priority treatment. However, this activity allows you to rapidly obtain feedback from a broad set of people on your team.
4. Score and prioritize features using the RICE method
Sometimes, launching a new feature is a complex decision and requires more detailed prioritization than a basic grid can provide. In such situations, the RICE method is an excellent strategy for ranking priorities.
RICE is an abbreviation for Reach, Impact, Confidence, and Effort. It’s a grading system created by the Intercom team to primarily help product teams prioritize ideas in the perspective of an existing product roadmap.
Each component in the RICE methodology is assigned a score to assess what would need the most effort, reach the most people, have the greatest impact, and how sure we are about all of this. The RICE method encourages teams to assess their priorities regarding available resources, audience, and return on capital.
5. Use the Kano technique to rank features based on delight
When prioritizing features, the final aim is usually to build something that your consumers will enjoy—sometimes, at the cost of business profit. The Kano model ranks features according to their potential to please and excite users.
The technique compares the "cost" of introducing a new feature against the anticipated consumer happiness. For instance—after creating a list of potential new features, you divide them into three categories:
- Attractive Need: The features that activate a sense of satisfaction and great joy. However, consumers are not unsatisfied if they don’t have these features.
- Performance Need: When these features are present, they cause joy among the end users. When consumers don’t have these, it leads them to become unhappy. Performance Needs are very one-dimensional in nature and depend on excellent execution to be appreciated by consumers.
- Basic Need: These are absolute must-have features that your customers demand to have. Not giving them these features makes them unsatisfied, but the ROI of upgrading them is short-lived.
It’s a good idea to test a feature’s purported desirability by surveying your customers for their comments and feedback, preferably by mapping the attributes on a Kano graph.
Here’s how the graph looks:
The X-axis represents the implementation costs or implementation level and the Y-axis stands for customer satisfaction.
Regardless of what technique you choose to prioritize your product features, it’s important to remember that the customers—and the user experience—are at the heart of the entire process. You will never be able to improve your product if you don’t understand your customer expectations deeply, their everyday use cases, and their likes and dislikes.
Your business strategy must always be at the front and center—overarching your product roadmap—as you go through your priority list of new features. Don't let an intriguing idea make you lose sight of your company’s long-term goals and strategies.
Also make sure to re-prioritize your product’s features regularly. Business requirements shift, markets shift, and leadership shifts every now and then. And despite all of your efforts to prioritize new features, those priorities too will shift. Therefore, set aside some time to talk to your customers, look through your priority list, and make sure that they align to your central vision.