Product leaders are responsible for continuously improving and leveling up their product using information from a wide variety of sources. Input comes from prospects and customers, listening to feedback from stakeholders, and good old-fashioned dreaming. With information coming in from all sides, one of the hardest steps can be determining what should be acted on immediately and what can wait.
A must-have to one audience might be a yawn to another, and having the objectivity, vision, and strategic thinking to determine appropriate priorities is key to the product management role. Product managers, or those playing a product vision role in a startup, are responsible for corralling ideas, evaluating them, and putting them in their place.
That place is the backlog. There are generally hundreds of ideas, but only a handful can be acted on at any one time. Your backlog is the home for all of your potential product features, and if you’re managing it correctly, it’s a nicely ordered and prioritized home. It seems like a simple concept, and it is. Creating a backlog is easy; prioritizing it can be hard.
Creating a backlog is easy; prioritizing it can be hard.
So, the million dollar question: How do you prioritize your product backlog?
Ask Questions to Filter out Non-Strategic Items
First and foremost, it’s important to fully understand your business goals, target markets, product strategy, and overall R&D budget and time constraints. You should then validate features against these foundational components. An easy way to do this is by filtering the feature ideas through these questions:
- Does this feature align with our business goals?
- Will it resonate with the target market we’re aiming to serve?
- Will it address our target user’s pains?
- Is this feature worth the time and money it will take to build?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, set it aside. Put it at the bottom of the backlog. It may go to die there, or it may re-surface at another time if your business priorities change.
Prioritize in buckets first
The end goal is to have a stacked rank list of features, with the highest priority items at the top of the list, and the lowest priority items at the bottom. Before you try to stack rank individual items in your backlog, it can be helpful to group the features into priority buckets. What are your must-haves, should-haves, and nice-to-haves?
- Must-haves: Features that are critical to the success of your product in market. No-brainers.
- Should-haves: Features that will make your product better and improve usability, but those that users could live without for awhile.
- Nice-to-haves: Cool ideas, not necessary for user success.
Assess Size and Impact
It’s important to understand the size, and therefore the effort level and amount of time that will go into bringing a feature to life. Get input from development when sizing features. T-shirt sizes generally work fine — no need to fully bake out feature requirements at this stage. This information alone is helpful in making prioritization decisions.
Understanding a feature’s impact takes your decision-making abilities to another level. A low-effort, high-impact feature equals a quick win, and one that often moves to the top of the backlog. A high-effort, low-impact item will generally be de-prioritized. The combination of understanding effort and impact is critical when making prioritization decisions. At the end of the day, you do not want to waste money building things that don’t matter.
Once you have a sense for your priority buckets (must have, should have, nice to have) coupled with effort and impact assessments, you’re in a great spot to start stack ranking your backlog and making the tough decisions of what comes 1st, 2nd, 3rd…and 50th in your product backlog.
Starting with the must-haves and prioritizing this focused bucket of features into a single, ordered list is a great place to start. Then move to the should-haves, and finally the nice-to-haves. Depending on the effort and impact, some should-have items may get bumped higher in priority than some must-have items. It’s not an exact science. Gut comes into play, balanced by your knowledge of buyer and user perspectives.
Your backlog is one of the most important tools when building your digital product. It’s a key framework for smart decision-making around what should be built, when, and why. By asking questions to filter out non-strategic items, prioritizing in buckets, and assessing size and impact, you can be sure you’re set up with a compelling set of features that will resonate with customers and positively impact your business.