Creating a prototype, an MVP or an early product version is often the first step in the typical startup journey. This first release is great for validating assumptions and for learning more about target audiences.
But to grow a product, it’s necessary to increase the value that it provides to it’s customer base. This is not only for the sake of enticing new customers, but also for the retention of existing ones. We then come to the question of what part of the product should we enhance, improve and optimise, and in what order.
This is where the process of feature prioritisation comes into play. Knowing where to put your limited resources to their most effective use is critical in the quest for the success of any product development team.
Let’s learn some practical ways to prioritise enhancements wisely.
The ground work
Before we dive into the process of prioritisation, we need to first do some ground work. We need to ensure we have an up-to-date and complete list of enhancements at hand. We also need to gather as much information from our existing customers as possible relating to these proposed enhancements. Lastly, we need to do some initial categorisation of our enhancements.
Compiling our list
At this point you may have written down on a note somewhere the few features that you have been meaning to integrate into your product for a while. This is a good start but these features may not translate well into what your customers actually desire. So, the first step is to get them involved.
Sending out an email to your mailing list is a good start – ask for suggestions of features which they think will make their experience with the product better. Ask your cofounders and team members for suggestions also, there may be internal enhancements that can be made which will improve your operations and workflow. This is important as it may free up some of your team’s time to focus on other improvements moving forward.
Gather your data
Having created your list of potential enhancements, it’s time to gather some information. The information we want to capture is the popularity of each of the proposed enhancements. This can be done in two ways.
Asking your customers directly for their opinions is the first way. Surveys and direct conversations are great for this. Create a survey and send it out to your mailing list. Let your customers vote on which feature they think will add the most value to them. If you have some customers who are happy to chat with you directly, talk to them and try gain insights into what they like best and why.
The second part of information gathering is more technical. Although your customers have told you what they want, sometimes customers aren’t entirely sure what they want. According to research by statisticians Thomas D. Cook and Donald T. Campbell, when customers respond to surveys, they “tend to report what they believe the researcher expects to see”.
You need to look at the data to validate their requests and opinions. Look at how your customers are setting up and using their accounts. What are their main concerns? Does their usage habits back this? Or are they potentially looking for something else? Useful tools for gathering the data to determine this are analytics platforms Google Analytics, Piwik, Heap Analytics and others.
Theme your enhancements
Choice paralysis is a real thing. Having too many options can make prioritisation difficult, so allocating your enhancements to “themes” is a good way to break up your feature set into meaningful buckets.
For example, you may have features that tie in directly to your product roadmap, you may have others that relate to onboarding, reporting, interface improvements etc… Which of these themes is most critical to your business? Probably the roadmap, so it may be a better idea to add some extra weight towards these when it comes to prioritising.
At this point it will be a good idea to create post-it notes for each feature and stick them on a whiteboard, or use an online platform which can simulate this process. Having your feature set laid out in front of you and your team will make it easy to look at the set with a clear and objective mindset.
Feasibility, Desirability and Viability
It’s time to drill down into each feature and consider three important aspects; feasibility, desirability and viability.
The feasibility of a feature examines the likeliness of being able to implement a given feature with the limited resources that you have available. Some items might be likely to pull in your whole team for a matter of weeks, others might only take a few hours. In these cases, the former would be considered to have a low degree of feasibility, and the latter would have a high degree.
On a side-note, if a task is deemed highly unfeasible, it may be a good idea to break it up into smaller parts.
Desirability is answering the question of how much your customers actually want a feature. A lot of time has been wasted over time from businesses rolling out features that nobody wants, so answering this question accurately is critical to keeping your business alive. Having done your ground-work, you should be able to draw on your data and answer this question effectively.
When we examine viability, we are looking at how well a feature fits in the master plan of your business. Although some experimentation is necessary, you will not want to stray too far from your business model. The characteristic of viability must be considered in the context of business direction and sustainability, and what will need to the greatest growth in the long-term.
Consider these three characteristics for each item in your list of enhancements. Note the results of your analysis against the enhancement card, we will use this in the next step.
The Effort/Impact Matrix
The Effort/Impact Matrix is a 4-quadrant chart which you can use to further categorise your enhancements. The bottom section of the scale is considered low impact in terms of value generation, whereas the top section is considered high impact. The right section of the matrix is considered to require a high level of effort from the team, whereas the left section is considered low effort.
Quick wins are our preferred items, they require fewer time and resources to implement, and provide a high level of value. Major projects also provide a high level of value, but are costly to implement, so these must be rolled out as larger development tasks. Fill in jobs are low effort, but also low impact, and so these can be worked on when there’s not much else to do. Thankless tasks require a high degree of effort and provide little value, so it’s unlikely that you will want to work on these any time soon.
Drawing on the analysis we have gathered on our enhancements thus far, we can begin to map out our enhancements on the matrix. As you and your team move cards around the matrix, the prioritisation of your enhancements should become clear. An added bonus is that you will be able to discuss and clarify your product roadmap and align your thoughts for near and future enhancements.
Feature prioritisation is an important and fundamental aspect of product development. Performing this task effectively and as a single business unit is critical in steering your product to success. With increased competition and audiences that are spoilt for choice, selecting the right enhancements can make or break your product.
There are other methods of prioritising product enhancements not discussed in this article, such as; Story Mapping, Priority Scorecard, KANO and more. We feel this article provides a clear and concise strategy to follow that is suitable for most product-centric online businesses and startups.