Prioritizing Features

You have just completed a week of brainstorming and created the ultimate list of necessary future features for your product. It is a monster of a list — at least a year of development work. So, what’s the next step? Prioritization. This article suggests the business criteria for determining essential features and the timeline for their development.

Ideally, you want to have a product release at least once per quarter. This enables you to get new features to customers quickly as well as receive feedback regularly from your evolving market.

To map your features into regular releases, you need to define the prioritization criteria. The product team and senior management should define these criteria. This will greatly decrease the amount of work involved in getting buy-in for your road map when you are done.

Business Criteria

Customer value. Conceptually, the idea of including features important to customers is obvious. The hard part is measuring which ones are critical versus those that are nice to have. Ideally, you should do some research or at least have a few beta customers help you set the relative priority of features based on their needs.

Differentiation. For a product to succeed in a competitive market, it is important to first release the most differentiated features. These features may give you an edge in closing sales or label your organization with first-mover status.

Supporting the hype. Marketing and management have been known to hype product features to the market before they are even on a development schedule. If your company has set market expectations, you may need to consider this in your prioritization process.

Already sold. Has your sales team been selling vaporware? Has it promised or sold features that are not ready for prime time? Rather than having a bunch of cranky customers, you might want to increase the priority of these features. Be careful, however, not to send the message to sales that they can set your priorities simply by selling the features they want.

Revenue. Revenue is often tied directly to customer value, especially if pricing is value based. Other variables, however, influence pricing and sales volume that, in turn, impact revenue. Revenue is the bottom line, so make sure to weight it accordingly.

Operational savings. Try to quantify how much savings a feature will provide. For example, look at how many fewer finance resources you will need if you provide automated payment functionality. It isn’t revenue, but savings can be almost as good.

Operational readiness. Some new features may require hiring additional staff or making major changes to how your company operates on a daily basis. Time your features so that they coincide with new hires and organizational changes required to make them successful.

Development Criteria

Development time. The first step in the prioritization process is to define the projected development time required to build each feature. This will give you not only a sense of how long it will take to get all the features done but also a means for allocating the right number of features for each release.

Scheduling features is like the 1980’s video game Tetris. You have a ton of different “blocks” coming at you that you need to maneuver so they efficiently fill all the available spaces. If a feature is going to take two weeks, you need to look at your schedule and see where you have an appropriate slot for the project.

Development tracks. Some features require more than a fiscal quarter to develop due to their scope. This is most common with infrastructure features or a 1.0 release that has a minimum set of requirements that simply takes more than three months to build.

To address this issue, it often makes sense to have two development tracks. One track is for smaller scale development that can fit into your quarterly schedule. The other track runs concurrently and is for the larger projects.

To minimize the marketing and testing work involved in a release, you should still try to have the larger projects launch on the same date as the regular releases. This may not be feasible, but you should still make it a goal.

Buying technology. Some of the functionality you may need could be purchased from another firm. This would still require some integration work but would enable you to release some features faster.

Prerequisites. Features that require other features to already be in place need to be lower on the priority list. This can be due to technical prerequisites or customers needs.

User interface design. Ideally, you should design the rough user interface (UI) for your product with all of the features before you start development on the first feature. Then you can determine what changes need to be made to the final UI as you add features. In this process, you may find that it will be a lot easier to develop the UI if you launch certain features first.

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