Product Marketing
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December 3, 2020

How To Prioritise As A Product Manager

By Aggelos Mouzakitis

As a product manager, how do you prioritise the development of certain features? What should be left out of our MVP? Is there a framework that can be used to efficiently make those decisions? How can you filter out feedback from the product development phase?

In a recent interview with Janna Bastow, co-founder at ProdPad and Mind The Product, we discussed what we see as a product managers’ biggest challenge: strategic prioritization. Janna talked with us about her way of thinking in regards to product manager prioritisation and shares actionable frameworks that can help our thinking process.

Who is Janna Bastow?

Janna Bastow is co-founder of ProdPad, product management and roadmapping software for product people. Mind the product is a community for product managers. “It was originally started because I wanted to meet other product people and learn from them. At the time there was really nothing else out there for product people. And it started off as a little meetup in London and it grew and grew and grew. Today it’s the world’s largest community of product people”.

Janna is also the co-founder of ProdPad, which is software for product managers. “This came out of the fact that I was a product person and I needed something more. I needed tools to do my own job and they just simply did not exist. I started working with another product person, who is also one of the other founders of mine”, she explained. 

Unfortunately, the tools that Janna needed didn’t exist. As Janna told us, “We needed tools to help us figure out what to put on our roadmap and how to articulate that roadmap to our bosses and to our customers and to our team and how to prioritize the feedback that we were getting. It was about figuring out what deserves to go into the roadmap and what deserves to go forward to JIRA or to the development team”.

Today, more than 8 years later, ProdPad is a team of 25 talented people. “We’re a completely bootstrapped company, which we’re really proud of. We’ve got more than a thousand customers around the world using ProdPad”, Janna said.

The Biggest Challenge Facing Product Teams

The biggest challenge facing modern product teams is what to build next, how to prioritize feedback. That’s another challenge that this us found in small businesses, but surprisingly, it’s also found in larger businesses. I was very keen to hear Janna Bastow’s views on this. In a prior conversation, Janna told me that there’s no framework or specific process to fix this. I was curious to see how Janna encourages product managers to prioritize their next release.

In answer to my curiosity, Janna shared my thoughts: “Well, I mean, it’s no surprise that it’s considered to be one of the biggest problems and that it’s still a problem for teams both large and small, because at the end of the day, if you were to boil down what a product team does, it is prioritization. It’s helping the company figure out what kind of things need to be done”. 

“In order to create something of value that is not the piece, like, you know, a lot of other pieces can be automated or can be done by other pieces or can be left out of the process. But, you know, at the end of the day, what does a product team do besides help figure out what needs to be actually done? Along the way in order to do so, there’s a lot of other things that need to happen”.

As Janna told us, “They need to do a lot of things around discovery, discovering what the best problems are in order to make the best decisions about what kind of things get prioritized, understanding what’s technically feasible in order to make good decisions about what things can go really well together as you’re building something to make good technical decisions, understanding your market and understanding your customer, understanding pricing, and packaging and how that’s going to affect the business”.

According to Janna, there are so many pieces that you need to understand in order to start making those prioritization decisions. “At the end of the day, that is the essence of what a product team does. And so, you know, I can understand why it is the biggest problem that companies face, and it’s not going to go away”, she said.

Advising Product Managers On Prioritization

I asked Janna if she could give me an example of how she is advising product managers to do this prioritization. When you have lots of pieces of internal feedback, external feedback, how should we do that? There are lots of different frameworks and models available, but I really didn’t know which of them was the best to use. 

In response, Janna explained, “I talked to a lot of people who asked that question very often because they are wondering as to what sort of framework is going to be best for them for prioritization. The reality is, and you know, you said this based on our previous conversation as well, there is no one framework to rule them all. There is no silver bullet. There is no one answer that’s just going to go and solve this problem for you”.

Janna continued, “Unfortunately, there are also no shortcuts to it, right? There’s no way that you can just plug in a bunch of numbers and magically something, some algorithm or some system is just going to tell you what to build next in your product. There’s no way to shortcut it. There are ways of looking or ways of using frameworks to understand what kind of things are going on in your backlog and understanding the opportunities that are there”.

“In the past, you’ve mentioned a couple that are quite popular. You mentioned the Kano model, which is one way of framing. Your way of looking at things I’m understanding is where the things are. If anybody’s not familiar with the Kano model, I recommend looking up. In essence, what it’s doing is asking you to look at your features and understanding is whether they are basic expectations, like hygiene factors”, Janna said.

Janna likes to use the example of a hotel to explain the Kano model. “The classic example is that if you were building a hotel and you didn’t have hot water, it doesn’t matter whether you have mints on the pillow. If you don’t have hot water, you’re not going to get a fire five-star rating. You’re not even going to get a two-star rating, right? It’s all about basic expectations”.

“For your website, basic expectations. People expect it to be secure. Nowadays people expect it to be reasonably fast. People expect it to be reasonably usable. There are basic expectations that people okay have in place for any sort of web app or any sort of product in general. Um, that’s, better hygiene items”, Janna continued.

The Power Of Delighters & Basic Expectations

On the flip side, there are things that Janna call’s ‘delighters’. “For the amount of effort that you put in that you tend to get more out of it than the effort that you get”. Going back to her example of hotels, “When you arrive at Hotel DoubleTree, they offer you warm cookies, which I think is delightful. But if you think about the cost of providing you with warm cookies…”

“I mean, they’ve got a little microwave going on at the front desk and, you know, you check in and they provide you warm cookies. It costs them nothing, but it’s a ‘delighter’. And this is the type of thing that takes your, you know, four-star rating to a five-star rating. The cost of getting the hot water in there is astronomical, but you don’t get them stars for that”.

“That’s just the basic expectation, but that little delighter costs them nothing. And yet that’s the one that you write home about. That’s the one that you say, Oh, that was something special. And then there are things in that framework that allow you to say, well, these are things that for every piece of effort that we put in, we get a little bit of extra satisfaction from our customers back. So these are considered satisfiers, and that’s one way of looking at things, right”.

“You should be looking at your product and considering whether, you know, you are meeting basic expectations or do you need to do more things that delight your customers. And this depends on whether you are in a highly competitive field. Are you going neck to neck with somebody else who’s got more delighters than you?

“You just need to provide some level of value and prove that your concept is okay. And that’s why even with a really well-established model, like the Kano model, it’s just a way of framing your thinking, but you still have to ask the critical questions yourself and go, is it important for us to think about it this way?”

The Rice Model Quantifying Elements In Your Backlog

The rice model is a way of looking at things in terms of trying to quantify each of the different elements that are in your backlog. As Janna told us, “Looking at things at the impact, the effort, the confidence that you have in each of your ideas or features or solutions, potential experiments in your backlog. And again, it’s a way of looking at your backlog.

One thing that Janna doesn’t like about some of these frameworks is that they often try to get too prescriptive and “bubble up” into a mechanism for scoring. “I like the way that you can take these pieces and use them to add more information to your, so you can understand more about what’s going on in your backlog, and mentor students about your prioritization”. 

Janna continued, “What I don’t like is when you try to then, create some sort of algorithm or scorecard out of it and try to make decisions based on that. Because at that point in time, you’re taking essentially guesstimates that you’ve made and then taking an estimated algorithm, multiplying it all up, which is actually just stacking an assumption on top of assumption”.

The end result that you get is a list of assumptions. “I’m an example of this. I’ve seen some people come to me with some spreadsheets that will have all sorts of things, right? Whether it’s risk, impact, effort, confidence, you know, revenue. Cost of delay is a popular one. All these different metrics, all these different things that they might measure an idea by. I’m going to press the button. And then it’s going to tell me, this is the first thing to work on. This is the second. This is the third. This is the fourth”.

Janna has never yet seen it work well because inevitably you simply just get a list of things to do. “You’ll look at that list and either you’ll end up having that list used against you because the things probably aren’t the best things to work on because that algorithm is never going to be perfect. And the scores that went into it are never going to be perfect and you end up building the wrong product, which is very, very bad”.

Final Thoughts

We hope that you have enjoyed learning about how product managers can prioritise the development of certain features. Janna Bastow discussed several different ways in which you can approach the prioritisation of product features. I was particularly interested in the concept of prioritising product features that ‘delight’ users. I’m sure Janna’s thoughts have given you some ideas on how to strategically prioritise product development.

Aggelos Mouzakitis

Aggelos is the founder and Growth Product Manager of Growth Sandwich. He is among the first Customer-led experts in the world, leveraging advanced, Jobs-to-be-done customer research to orchestrate and guide Growth for B2B SaaS companies. A- and B- series SaaS are hiring him to organise, design and execute programs that infuse the whole company with qualitative data, empathy and the necessary knowledge to address any growth dilemma. In the last 4 years, he has worked with more than 100 SaaS companies and trained literally, thousands through my physical and online courses.