The word backlog has kept every product manager up at night. In the early days of creating and operating your company, you most likely try to solve every problem that comes up immediately. As you mature, you deepen your knowledge of your industry, your processes, your users, and their problems. Meeting their needs without losing focus can be challenging, and failing to meet their requirements can result in losing them. So what to do? Paul Graham used to say that, in a sense, there's only one mistake that kills startups: avoiding doing what users want.
This doesn't mean, however, that you have to suddenly solve all problems immediately. In fact, you probably can't build everything right away and on the fly. Unless you have an army of developers and designers on your list.
As a product manager, you can easily lose sight of the bigger picture and prioritize the wrong features. Especially when you're bombarded with feature requests and tasked with prioritizing an overflowing backlog. Worse, even your project management tool can't handle them. And when you get feature prioritization wrong, a huge chunk of your resources get eaten up, and customers will leave you for a competing product that matches their requirements.
How then to prioritize the right features? Check out:
Mind the Vision
There are two types of products - those that take a certain attitude and those that try to please everyone.
In times when people are looking for instant gratification, it's easy to give in to short-term goals and try to satisfy customer demands in hopes of keeping them. However, this will only lead to chaos.
When you try to build a product that tries to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one, including your own team. It's hard to understand what the product does, how to use it, or even where certain buttons are. Your marketing team will struggle to come up with a story, your analytics team won't track the right metrics, and your design team will need a vacation to fit the next amazing feature into the product. That's why a product manager is so important on the team.
Worst of all, the customer for the very reason you built all those low-hanging features will get frustrated and most likely stop using your product altogether. A good example of how not to go crazy is Apple known for not allowing its users to download files to their phones since the first iPhone was released in 2007. Growing companies have to learn to deal with feature requests that don't fit the product vision. If you want to build a product that stands out, you'll have to make tough decisions and say no, even if it means accepting a fair amount of criticism.
Stay true to the product vision, even if it means saying no to the highest paying customer.
Where are your users on their journey to your product
In an ideal world, most of your active users will yell at you for not building a specific set of features. In reality, prioritizing features is not that simple. When you look at the feature backlog, you'll likely see it change from "simple addition of image filters" to the more complex "engagement report of all uploaded images".
The various feature requests make you wonder why users with similar profiles have needs that have nothing to do with each other. Take a step back and look at where users are on the product journey.
A user goes through various stages before becoming an engaged user of your product. Every feature you build should help him make a smooth transition to the next stage so he can quickly achieve his goals with your product.
When a user uses your product, they generally fall into one of the following segments:
Before you even start exploring a feature, run an analytics tool and think about assessing where most users are. The feeling of a user who has just signed up and performed a few actions will be different from a user who has been actively using your product for six months.
If, for example, you plan to build a reporting feature to help users see the big picture of what they've accomplished, consider whether users have performed enough basic actions to see value in the report your product generates.
Create features to move most users to the next phase of their lifecycle.
The impact of a feature
Not all features have the same impact on your product. There are those that will make your users a superhero. And there are features that a well-paying customer will need, but in reality they are just another set of nice-to-have, but not essential, conveniences. To build a feature that is actually essential, it's a good idea to put it on a chart. It will compare the frequency of its use with the number of people who end up using it. The idea is to focus first on those that will be used by all users every time. The more you deviate from this pattern, the greater the danger of building features that only certain users will use.
Functions should be prioritized based on their importance and impact. Not by how much the customer pays.
Effort and complexity
Want to make sure you've prioritized well within the backlog and will satisfy the customer? Also consider how much effort (time) it will take to provide them with finished solutions.
After all, every time you develop a new feature, the project team will have to spend time researching and interviewing customers. The engineering team, on the other hand, will need to think through the technical complexities and gain knowledge of new technologies. This is critical because it involves your most limited resource - time.
After determining the effort required to build the features in the backlog, you can map all your features to values according to a 2x2 effort matrix.
Your objects will be mapped into four parts:
Left top corner - high value, low effort - this feature category should scream: Why aren't we doing exactly that! Because these are features that provide high value to users and can be built with minimal effort.
Upper right corner - high value, high effort - the functions categorized within this quadrant are those that you would like to ignore because of the high effort required to perform them, but you can't. This is because these are features that will add value to your product. Consider breaking them down into small, executable modules that you can re-map to a 2x2 matrix and re-prioritize.
Bottom right - low value, high effort - these are the features you shouldn't be working on right now unless you've exhausted the entire list of feature requests and bugs in the backlog. You're more likely to bring more value to users by focusing on the other quadrants.
Create features that provide maximum value with minimum cost/effort
Product managers have an overall picture in their mind and will turn it into further actionable steps. With the right priorities, they can turn a struggling product into a product that customers can't live without. What may seem simple from the outside, however, requires thinking from different angles.
With a long-term vision in mind, think about where the user is in the product lifecycle. Consider how many users will use a feature. Do an analysis of the effort that needs to be spent on the functionality. Once you've gone through this process and prioritized the requirements, pass the comments along to your team - then everything will go according to plan.
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