Waste is the biggest impediment to efficient mobile and web software development. This waste comes in many forms — time due to scope confusion, effort due to building the wrong features and even having too many cooks in the kitchen weighing in on development priorities.
At the root of that waste is misalignment. When project stakeholders aren’t in agreement about the purpose of development, its intended audience, how the solution will further key business drivers and how those factors influence the capabilities and feature set of the final project, it creates a ripple — read: tidal wave — felt through the entire project.
Before that tidal wave crashes disrupting processes and the purposeful flow of work, calm the waters. It starts with the equivalent of a collective breath in and out called — feature prioritization.
What Is Feature Prioritization?
Feature prioritization is the process of identifying business goals and using a matrix to weight their value, score their priority and inform the development roadmap. Best used to align stakeholders balancing diverse departmental perspectives, feature prioritization helps teams to prioritize X feature over Y using a more scientific method than voices raised loudly in a conference for hours on end, or a series of increasingly urgent emails full of exclamation points.
The principle goal of feature prioritization is consensus.
Who Needs Feature Prioritization?
Feature prioritization isn’t necessarily for the entrepreneur communicating solely with their development team one or two strong. Feature prioritization is for a large team of stakeholders grappling with complex decisions that must balance multiple disparate perspectives. They must collectively decide how to best satisfy the most pressing objectives to drive business. Each department head may have a very different idea about the features best able to accomplish this. The process is particularly useful when looking to prioritize a long list of dozens, or even hundreds of features.
How Feature Prioritization Benefits Strategy and Product Teams
Each year in the United States more than $250 billion is spent on IT application development to produce or enhance 175,000 projects, according to The Standish Group Chaos Report. The average cost per project differs for large and small companies. Nationwide a development project for a larger organization averages $2,322,000. For a smaller organization, it’s $434,000.
Feature prioritization can help companies prioritize their investment and make the most of it. How?
- It’s like a marriage counselor for department heads. Feature prioritization brings stakeholders together to make decisions removed from intuition or emotion. Instead, it implements a standard process to determine what business value looks like as a result of the development and how each feature delivers on that value. Using a matrix, features in consideration are scored based on several relevant business criteria and sorted. It diminishes the frustration some stakeholders may feel if other features (they disagree with) are prioritized for development with no clear explanation why. Instead with feature prioritization, the group decides collaboratively and avoids the analysis paralysis that plagues so many large organizations with twelve people informing the development team of its priorities so no real work is completed.
- Feature prioritization amplifies the business value of development. Building any software solution is complex and expensive. Any research that can be completed in advance to inform the features being considered is inexpensive by comparison. Beyond the discovery, feature prioritization necessitates, it clearly defines work needed by the development team eliminating the potential for repetition, possible if the development team and stakeholders aren’t insync.
- Feature prioritization smooths conflict in high-stress scenarios. The process preserves or improves on the existing team dynamic by facilitating collaborative not combative decision-making. It centers the conversation around business value of the development rather than whose idea sounds most innovative or will make the more impact for a high profile department within the business.
The A, B, C’s of Feature Prioritization
A — Ask. Get clarity on the business problem, goals and intended users of the solution being considered for development.
Ask yourself these six clarifying questions before you embark on a feature prioritization exercise. Better yet — email them to the stakeholders who will be participating in your prioritization meeting. Ask them to come to the meeting with answers identified. Let that serve as a springboard for your discussion.
- What is the criteria to assess the value?
- What are the business goals of the application/solution?
- How are you going to monetize it?
- What is your user base?
- What are the size and demographics of the user base?
- What’s the business problem you’re trying to solve?
Know that you may have other questions more appropriate to your specific business problem. Don’t be afraid to add your own or adapt the list. For example, asking, “What’s your user base?” might not be valid if you are creating firmware or an automatic backup capability — anything users don’t interact with directly.
B — Be vocal. The most successful feature prioritization meetings aren’t the start of the conversation. They are a continuation. Talk with prospective users or customers before conceptualizing features for a new solution or improvements to an existing solutions. Understand their processes, needs or pain points.
Focus groups or surveys are a great way to gauge needs and understand existing inefficiencies.
C — Cull other existing metrics. If you are making improvements to an existing app, review app store ratings and reviews. A competitive, market or sales win/loss analysis can also provide input on gaps currently being filled by competitors or differentiators that are helping your business stand out in the market place. These are things that can be expanded upon or highlighted in the technology to increase mind share and its numbers of users.
Running the Feature Prioritization Meeting
Once you’ve gathered your stakeholders together, appoint a moderator. This person will facilitate the discussion, watch time and ultimately mark the score for each of the business criteria identified for each feature in the prioritization matrix.
Compile the feature set. In running the meeting, the moderator first asks stakeholders to identify features for consideration. For example, imagine an artists’ cooperative has decided to create a mobile app to better communicate with and understand their membership along with the art lovers they serve in a large metropolitan area. Let’s call it New York.
The cooperative has both studio and pop-up retail locations around the city. They host events at these locations and also hope their app can facilitate better connection between artists and art appreciators. They identify the following features:
- Feedback system for events
- Simple, beautiful UX
- Adjust settings for color or font size
- Built-in analytics
- Messaging from event hosts within the app
- Accumulation of points for events attended within a predetermined tier system
- Push notifications
- In-app scheduling to meet with artist in studio space
- Social media integration with Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram
- One touch contact
- Integration with email system like My Emma or MailChimp
- In-app coupons
Determine development goals. Next the moderator asks the attendees to identify key business drivers. In our hypothetical, the artists’ cooperative identified the following:
- Increase engagement with users
- Disseminate information
- Promote the cooperative
- Gain users
- Establish a strong brand identity
Weight your assessment criteria. Following identification the business drivers are weighted. The higher you weight the priority of each driver the more heavily it will assign importance to related features.
Read the weights. According to the weights assigned in the chart, business drivers for the cooperative in order of importance are: Disseminate information, increase engagement with users, promote the cooperative with gaining users and establishing a strong brand identity tied for least important.
Score the feature list. Next the moderator starts at the top of the feature list and asks the feature’s sponsor (the individual who proposed it) to rate each of the business criteria for the given feature on a scale of 1 to 5. Business criteria ranked 1 mean the feature will minimally impact it. Criteria ranked 5 for the given feature will 5 have a high impact. Then, the moderator asks the remainder of the stakeholders whether they agree, or why they feel the score should be adjusted.
Once consensus has been gained, the scores are entered into the matrix.
It’s important to keep the meeting moving allowing only 2-3 minutes for the discussion of each score. Often 100 or more features will be submitted for consideration. By forcing yourself to go fast, you avoid the temptation to get bogged down wasting time by discussing any one feature for too long.
All Together Now
Bottom line: The feature prioritization matrix and process introduces a more scientific method to a process marked by elevated opinions and elevated stakes. It enables a rapid means to achieve consensus and move forward. The process can be revisiting monthly or quarterly depending on the release cycle for your solution.
Photo courtesy of Cartoonresource.