The ultimate product question: How do you know what’s important?

Ryan Singer wrote a very clear and succinct definition of Product Management in Advice for product managers:

“Managing the product” means deciding what we do to the product and then making it happen.

When you unpack that, it involves strategy (what is important to do?), resources (how much time can we spend on it?), managing development (what do we need to build in order to do it?), managing experience (how will it look and work, how does it integrate into what we already have?). And all of it with regard to the bottom line of the business. Given a strategy, resources we have, a user experience bar to uphold “” given all that, what can we do and why is it worth doing?

It’s a great primer for anyone who wants to understand what PM’s do – especially for people who are considering making a career change to Product Management. There’s one part I’d like to unpack a little more, and that is prioritization. Ryan touches on it as follows in a section entitled “Deciding what to do”:

I try to lead every decision with user experience. What is the user-facing situation we want to change? Or if the motivation isn’t because of a user benefit, but a pure business reason “” what is the impact on the user, and how can we align incentives so this at minimum makes sense to the user? This is critical.

He advocates for “leading with design”, which is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with. But how does this work in practice, particularly in large organizations with a variety of product lines and a gazillion stakeholders? We’ve spent a lot of time trying out different ways to solve the problem of prioritization, so I naturally gravitated towards that section in Ryan’s piece, and hoped for a little more detail. Ryan, if you’re listening – I’d love to see a follow-up post where you explain your process a bit more.

This is important because I believe the hardest part of a Product Manager’s job is answering the strategy question that Ryan uses in his definition: What is important to do? Once you know what to do, the how isn’t necessarily easy, but you’ve at least started the race and you know what you’re running towards. You’ll work with developers to understand technical requirements. You’ll work with designers and guide them through a user-centered design process. Running the race is the fun part. Deciding which race to run is the excruciating part, and it makes or breaks a product.

How others prioritize

There are many established processes for product prioritization, and we’ve tried most of them on the various teams I’ve worked with. I’m particularly interested in methods that can be used on an ongoing (daily/weekly) basis – not ones that are used every few months for long-term planning. The KJ-Method has a lot going for it:

The KJ-Method is a fascinating mix of independent brainstorming, group dynamics, and democracy. It allows a team to be creative and critical in a productive manner, where strong personalities and politics play second fiddle to the independent perspectives and experience of the team.

Jared Spool claims that he can do this process in under an hour with a team, but my theory is that he can only do that because he is superhuman. I find the 8-step process a little too heavy and time-intensive for day-to-day use. It’s great for longer-term strategic planning though.

The Kano Model is another great technique for prioritization:

The easiest way to think of the model is on a two-dimensional grid.

The horizontal axis represents the investment the organization makes. As investment increases, the organization spends more resources on improving the quality or adding new capabilities.

The vertical dimension represents the satisfaction of the user, moving from an extreme negative of frustration to an extreme positive of delight.

As much as I like this model, it suffers the same downside as the KJ-method – it’s too time-intensive for ongoing prioritization. And then there is Amazon’s approach, which is based on the following principle:

Prioritize themes, not projects – Create a list of themes for your product or business. Examples might be customer acquisition, activation, retention, avg revenue per user, avg visits per user, etc. Pick ~3 that are the most important for your product given its stage.

The gist is that they prioritize based on a project’s potential impact vs. cost:

Look for the projects with the greatest projected impact with the least cost, and do these ones first, quickly. Then move on to the next projects, or the next phases of the early projects that had a greater than expected impact.

How we prioritize

I’ve found a stripped-down version of the Amazon method most effective and realistic in our organization. As much as I agree with the principles of each of the three approaches mentioned above, they tend to be unrealistic in the context of ongoing prioritization. So here is the extremely simple process we’ve used on an ongoing basis, with good results:

  1. Have a white board with a permanent two-by-two matrix on it. The horizontal axis represents Business impact (which includes user needs and technical considerations), and the vertical axis represents Level of effort to implement (which includes people and their time commitment).
  2. Write product requests and ideas on sticky notes as they come up, have a quick discussion with relevant people to ascertain business value and level of effort, and then put the sticky note on the two-by-two matrix.
  3. Write prioritization numbers next to each of the features/themes, starting with those that have the highest business value. I like a 70/30 split between high effort / low effort features, but that’s a theory for a different post.
  4. Every week or so, check your roadmap to make sure you’re still working on the right things, and make adustments as needed.

Product prioritization

It’s a simple method, and it’s far from perfect. But it has a few things going for it:

  • It’s detailed enough to ensure constant prioritization based on what’s important.
  • It’s light enough to make it practical for everyday use.

PM’s should spend most of their time managing experience and managing development – two of the activities Ryan points out in his post. I’m sure they don’t skip over the prioritization part at 37signals, but I wanted to give some more context around that because it’s something I struggle with a lot, and I guess I hope I’m not alone. Actually, I know I’m not alone. If we all knew what was important to work on, there would be no failed products.