How To Prioritize Features For Your Product Roadmap

How To Prioritize Features For Your Product Roadmap
How To Prioritize Features For Your Product Roadmap

Dry Mouth?

Sleepless nights? 

You may be suffering from Product Manager Stress Syndrome (PMSS)? But fear not as The Product Manager’s Toolbox has the cure for PMSS….it’s called learning how to prioritize features for your product roadmap better, and if you read on, we will let you in on our little secret.

In many people’s minds, mainly those of the inexperienced, naive and uninformed, knowing how to prioritize features for your product roadmap is where the product roadmap process starts. You, on the other hand, know better after reading our previous articles about how roadmaps really get made. 

You know that you after getting your arms around identifying and articulating your vision and goals should you begin the next step, the sifting through all of the information gathered about the product and market to begin prioritizing what makes it into your product roadmap in order to paint the story of your product vision

The road to product manager hell is paved with well intentioned feature requests.....

Every Experienced Product Manager Anywhere..... Tweet

The Secret To Prioritizing Roadmap Features

As the Product Manager’s Toolbox prides itself in a straight talking, no nonsense approach to product management, we are gonna let you in on a little secret. The dirty secret of knowing how to prioritize features for your product roadmap is by:

  • Keeping as many items off of it as possible.
  • Forcing executives to make decisions based on ROI

 In short, this is for everyone’s benefit, including (and most importantly) you and your career. The reason has to do with human psychology and a phenomenon called Hofstadler’s Law.

How To Prioritize Features For Your Product Roadmap: Hoftstadlers Law
Douglas Hofstadter: The man who figured out why nothing goes right. Source: Permission:CC-BY-SA-2.0

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law

Douglas Hofstadter

In short, certain humans, often those who fail upwards in to positions of corporate power, tend to exhibit an optimism bias, probably due to a certain “je ne sais quoi” when it comes to understanding the complexity involved with their expectations, leading to the aforementioned Hofstadler’s Law.  Remember this as we will bring it up later in this article and explain why it is relevant. 

So, once you’ve dealt with the political shit show involved in the crafting of your product vision and strategy that passes your stakeholders’ various sniff tests (Or in corporate speak, you’ve distilled your product’s vision, and articulated it in a high-level message that your stakeholders understand) your next challenge is taming the beast that is the litany of product ideas you are about to be buried under.

They will come at you from everyone, teammates, executives, market research, the sales team, dumb luck, shower moments, customer service. At this point, there are a few matters of professional experience you need to know about:

  1. The closer the source of the idea to the actual end user, the more worthwhile it is for consideration in the roadmap.
  2. You will get feature requests for senior executive like the CEO, CFO, etc, that for obvious political and career reasons are difficult to leave off of the roadmap, despite the fact they do not really fit with the overall product strategy.


And this is where the optimism bias and Hofstadler’s law come to bear.  As a product manager with any hope of a sustained career, you need to know that humans are fucking horrible when it comes to prioritizing the use of resources.  If they weren’t there wouldn’t be so many books written on the subject.  You need to have to tools to defend yourself against the repercussions people’s optimism bias and Hofstadler’s law, because as a product manager, you are going to be making decisions regarding the allocation of resources, and if things go south, it may be a resume creating event for you my friend as your product delivery will be some combination of over budget and late.  In other words,  you may end up looking for a new job if you need it spelled out for you.  Optimism bias and Hofstadler’s law practically guarantee this outcome if you do not push back from the start.  

“How do I protect myself?” you might ask.

Using Data: The Secret of How to Prioritize Features for Your Product Roadmap

The secret to managing these two issues as you start gathering the business intelligence needed to build the details of your roadmap is leveraging data and metrics to determine what the new product include, for whom, why, and how it will advance your company’s strategic goals.  In a less long winded answer:

Use data to force stakeholders to make trade offs.

The Product Manager's Toolbox

As we previously alluded to in The Product Roadmap and Corporate Strategy: How To Connect The Dots, managing the data to support the product roadmap development is a task in and of itself, sometimes there is too much, other times not enough and trying to sort through it all to decide what supports your product’s goals and what doesn’t is always challenge. At a high level, you want to lean on the metrics that drive your KPI’s but in some situations you need something more granular. 

Saying No with Data Aikido

Strategic product planning is as much about what you decide to keep out of your product as what you put in. Great product managers say no (and they say it a lot), but awesome product managers leverage data to get people to say no to their own roadmap ideas, call it product roadmap aikido if you will.

Use Data and Leverage toPrioritize Features For Your Product Roadmap
Use data to challenge people's roadmap request the same way Aikido uses an attacker's momentum against themselves. Photo Credit - Sigurd Rage

As a product manager, you’ll get feature requests:

  • That seem like easy wins.
  • From the sales team to close a deal or based on a commitment that was made to a customer.
  • From strong-willed stakeholders with pet ideas.
Product Manager Features

And while sometimes those features will be legitimate and logical, often they’re the result of another agenda — one that runs counter to the product vision and your company’s strategic goals.  Cumulatively,  these features cumulatively add up to “product debt” that needs to be managed.  

Product Manager Feature Requestion
The road to product manager hell is paved with well intentioned feature requests.

There are really only a few legitimate reasons is only only reason to include an item in your product roadmap and that is because it supports your product or company’s strategic goals.  In other words, defend the sanctity of your product roadmap before like your career depends on it.

Before looking at the different data sources you’ll use to prioritize features, you need to know how to use them. While we will get into various models later on, what you need to know before diving into this section is that you need to use data to get rid of the silly functionality requested by those with political power within your organization that do not fit with the product strategy. Of course, if there is data to support its inclusion, then do so.

Use data to get rid of the silly functionality requested by those with political power within your organization if they do not fit with the product strategy.

The real nuggets of ideas often come from those who are least thought of being product people, namely front line, low level employees who often interact with end users on a regular basis. If you need to prioritize listening to ideas from internal sources, listen to these folks.

So, with these provisos out of the way, let’s dive in to different data sources to help you prioritize your roadmap. While we run through different source business intelligence the bedrock of knowing how to prioritize features for your product roadmap rests on metrics and analytics, so lets kick off the process there

Screen All Roadmap Items With Analytics and Metrics

In God We Trust; Others Must Provide Data


Evidence is far more compelling than your opinion — or anyone else’s opinion, for that matter. 

If you have real-world user data on your product — or, if you’re developing a new product, data on similar products you’ve launched in the past — then you already have an excellent source of business intelligence to inform how best to build your product roadmap. Let your own analytics help guide your decisions.

This data could be video of your customers discussing or using your product, user analytics, direct customer quotes or requests, etc. But it needs to be evidence, not speculation.

Use Customer Feedback to Prioritize Product Roadmap Features

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

While everyone has opinions, not all are worth listening to. One of the best sources and most voluminous sources of data on an existing product or a problem that your company could solve is customer (and customer service) feedback, as they are they ones are either using the product or dealing with issues related to the inability to use it. is working, and where it needs work, is with the customers who are actually using it. Having said that, there are some caveats:

Don’t blindly build exactly what your customers demand for a number of reasons:

  1. Customers are biased: Customers are a skewed data set, so don’t rely on your existing customer base as the sole source of information about where your product excels, where it falls short, or what should be included in the next version.  The simple reason being that these are already your users and may not reflect other demographic groups you want to target.
  2. Customers are ignorant: Sometimes customers do not know exactly what they want because they haven’t considered all the possibilities available to them. Keep in mind, most users are not experts in your field, so they do no have the same understanding as you.
  3. Mismatch with product vision: customers’ feature requests do not necessarily align with your product vision. As a product manager, you also need to bring to the table your knowledge of what’s feasible to solve their problem in the best possible way — and that might not match with their initial feature request.

With these warnings out of the way, there are a number of ways you can gather input from your users and customer service reps including:

When looking for market feedback, you will gain considerable insight by tapping into prospective customers who didn’t buy your product, but instead bought a competitor’s. And don’t forget your prospects who haven’t yet made the decision to buy.

Tear Down Other Products

Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

A favorite of Steve Jobs that was probably a misquote of Pablo Picasso who said “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal” – who in turn might be rephrasing Igor Stravinsky, but both sayings may well originate in T. S. Eliot’s dictum: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn.” – A better demonstration of the concept of ipso facto may not exist.

While the creation a unique and valuable product is your goal, you can learn a lot by:

Examining competing products: While it’s possible to identify features you hadn’t thought of, be aware of the danger of using your competitors for inspiration. Simply using your competitors’ feature list for your roadmap is a sure fire way to launch another “me too” product that provides little in the way of competitive differentiation.

Gain valuable competitive intelligence by looking in less-obvious places than within your competitors’ products themselves. For example, check out blog comments or support pages where users are discussing your competitors’ products. This can represent a gold mine of intelligence for you.

Learn what customers like about these products, what they don’t like, and what they wish they had.

Related idea: Do the same with your own product. Spend time regularly reviewing your social media channels and user support sites where your customers are discussing your product, offering each other tips, complaining, etc. There’s gold there, too.

Examining revolutionary products: Don’t limit yourself to examining products just in your niche; look at products that revolutionized their markets, figure out what made them different than the competition and determine if any of the concepts could apply to your situation. 

Beyond styling ideas, what you are looking for in these products are design metaphors; how did these digital product model a physical experience digitally. Think of the “swoosh” sound email programs make when “sending” an email or how we store “digital files” in “folders”. These design metaphors help transition users by making them feel comfortable. Are there any you can take advantage of?

Leverage Human Intelligence: Sales and Customer Service

People like to be asked for their input, particularly in a professional setting where they know they have valuable insights to contribute.

How to Win Friends and Influence People - Product Manager's Version

Consult your sales and customer service teams for their insights in the early stages of your product roadmap development. This will give you better real-world intelligence and will also help to align everyone’s interests across the organization.Your sales reps are your front-line liaisons between your company’s products and the people and organizations that ultimately buy them (or don’t). Your customer service department might spend more time with your customers than any other group in your company.

These teams represent another invaluable source of intelligence about how best to build and update your product roadmaps.

When sales and product management don’t communicate, the business’s bottom line often suffers. If your sales reps know that a certain product or feature upgrade won’t resonate with their customer base, or that they won’t be able to sell it at the price your organization has set, you need to know why.

Similarly, your customer service personnel are on the front lines gathering real-world user feedback. They know what the most common problems are with your product, what features customers most often call to ask for, etc.

As with your customers, you can communicate with and learn from your sales and customer service teams in many ways. Take a sales or customer service rep out to lunch. Create a short online survey and ask these departments strategic questions about their experiences with customers and the company’s products.

Bottom line: Don’t leave your sales and customer service teams out of the product roadmap process. Including their feedback among the valuable information you’ll be gathering from around your organization will give you better real-world intelligence and will also help to better align everyone’s interests across the organization.

Imagine how much more effective you can make your products if you speak first to the people who earn their living selling those products, and the people who field real-world questions and complaints about them.

Geek Out on Third Party Research

Study industry reports about your category of product (from Gartner, Forrester and other analyst firms that cover your industry) to determine what types of products work, with whom, and why.

What’s often useful about these reports is the survey-generated data they gather from your target customers across the landscape. While it is relatively easy to create a survey for your own customers or prospects, it is much more difficult (and costly) to gather a similar set of responses from all of those target customers out there with whom your organization has never communicated and has no relationship.

Roadmap Prioritization

When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

Who knows, who cares.... it is accurate never the less.

As organizations have finite resources, they need to prioritize their efforts; knowing what to prioritize depends on a combination of resource capacity and corporate strategy and vision which is ideally guided by experience. A lack of experience manifests itself in a poorly articulated vision, lack of corporate strategy and inability to prioritize

How do you prioritize initiatives in your roadmap when deluged with features requests, tweaks and updates from every level of the company. Even after goals and strategy is set, this scenario sound familiar? You walk into the office first thing Monday morning and:

  • The sales director corners you in order to tell you about an offhand feature request by a customer.
  • After dodging that conversation, the VP of corporate development, who suffers from a mild case of “shiny ball” syndrome emails you about a great idea they got after exploring their 13 year old’s Tik Tok app
  • Simultaneously you are getting hit on Twitter with critiques of your product from people who don’t even use it.

And it’s not even 11 am yet….

You can’t afford to treat every request as a priority — not even the ones from your longstanding customers, or from your executives. You need to be more strategic about how, when and why to update your product.

Use Themes to Prioritize Features For Your Product Roadmap

Building Themes: Managing The Product Team

Never walk into a senior executive product planning meeting without having done your home work, as this home work is going to be the foundation for how you manage the expectations of senior management.

Now with that caveat, let’s talk about the mechanics of to guide your product team in organizing features into product roadmap themes.  By doing this, you allow the product team to have input on the roadmap so they do not feel they are being dictated to by senior management.

At a high level, the process of building themes involves:

  • Identifying themes
  • Allocating features to those themes
  • Costing the development, which includes some rationale for all your decisions

Theme Identification: Your product’s strategic goals are a good way to identify roadmap themes;  pick a handful of high-level initiatives you want to accomplish — they can be at the product level or identified for the broader organization (such as a platform-oriented initiative).

Themes can be short in duration (spanning one release) or long in duration, spanning multiple releases, rarely feature-specific and should always be based on stakeholders approved corporate/ product strategy and vision.

Feature Allocation: Requires a number of steps, including:

  • Brainstorming opportunities on sticky notes.
  • Group similar items together as they line up against the themes you identified
  • Identify each theme item as one of the following: 
    • Core feature enhancements
    • New features
    • Bug fixes and UI improvements

Development Costing: There are a few ways to go about costing development,  something we refer to as the “Product Finance Dance” later on in the article, but we will discuss some high level details here. The common element is you identify each task’s relative difficulty, and cost  The reality is that you will use a combination of approaches listed below in your corporate political machinations

  • Value versus Complexity: evaluate every opportunity based on its business value and its relative complexity to implement. 
  • Weighted Scoring: uses the Value versus Complexity model, but layers in a scoring method to rank your strategic initiatives and major features against benefit and cost categories; help the team have an objective conversation.
  • Story Mapping: limited to MVP development. first create task-oriented story cards, group them into a workflow and then arrange the cards in priority order for each group. 

If you follow this process, or some version of it, you will see how things cascade from the themes a the top of your roadmap, down to their component features, which are eventually broken into executable tasks.

With this perspective, you, the product manager, are in a good position to make decisions about which initiatives to include, which to exclude, and how to present product themes to senior design makers for final sign off as to what gets included in the roadmap.

Building Themes: Managing Executive Input

Be warned, when given the opportunity, many executive stakeholders will opine on the smallest and least significant of features. A savvy product manager remove this impetus amongst higher ups during product meetings by talking in themes, not individual features.  Your goal is to get the executives to focus on the ROI of various themes and have them makes decisions based on ROI, not features.

Always talk in terms of product themes when engaged in discussions with senior management. Refer to features at your own peril.

Product management
Keep senior management from discussing features by distracting them with high level themes.

While useful from a functional role, themes are a communication management tool as well; they keep your roadmap at a high level, giving you the ability to switch features in and out of the theme without significantly affecting the roadmap and avoiding time wasting conversations with executives.

At this point, it is important to note that when attempting to convey information to people, information is more easily digested as a story, ideally a compelling visual story. It is this feature of human information processing you want to harness in order to illustrate the “why” of your product.

This sort of meeting is not run the same way you run a meeting with your product and dev teams.  If you need some inspiration on how to run it, “imagine” you are presenting you product roadmap to a group of 10 year olds who have lost their Ritalin and have just downed a can or three of Coke.

Skip the format of the typical product meeting with its feature and task list and instead, focus the team on the bigger-picture, by grouping lower level features into “themes”, arranged on the roadmap in a priority hierarchy that you can clearly explain, defending their role in providing customer value — what customers are going to be receiving or the job that you’ll help them accomplish.

Themes might include:

  • Frictionless account creation
  • Improve returning customers’ buying experience
  • Helping customers complete first purchase faster 

Learning to building the product roadmap in a way that conveys vision is an art form you need to master; you master it by grouping initiatives together in value oriented themes, describing the benefits to customers and other stakeholders.

Remember, a product roadmap is not a development backlog, so don’t present it as such. The product roadmap meeting is not a development planning meeting and the audiences is way different.  You want the executives to make decisions based on ROI of various roadmap themes.

Ignore this advice at your own peril. If you don’t follow this strategy, you will find yourself sitting in exceptionally long, sleep inducing meetings where irrelevant people have opportunity to fill your plate with lists of features that more often than are either trivial/obvious or Herculean task that don’t work with the product/corporate strategy.

Product Roadmap Prioritizing: Bangs, Bucks and the Product Finance Dance

Learn how to Do The "Product Finance Dance"

Regardless of the prioritization method you choose, it boils down to how big of a bang do you get for your bucks? Or if you are talking to your CFO, you need to demonstrate how you are maximizing the return on investment (ROI) of the product development activities (HintYou want the ROI to be as high as possible).  This section explains how you go about doing it.   

But be warned, you are going to be spending some time with the poindexters in accounting.

Product management and accounting
You only wish the poindexters in your accounting department were this cool.

How Big Is The Bang?

Alternatively phrased,  how big is your “R” as in “return” in the ROI calculation?  Here is a suggested way to go about figuring out your potential return

  • Assign a customer and monetary value for each initiative.
    • The customer value should be rooted in evidence that you’ve gathered from customers rather than your opinions.
    • Monetary Value: For this you need to know things like (get them from the accounting nerds):
      • Life time customer value
      • Cost of customer acquisition
Product management Bangs
Remember, you need to figure out the bangs for your product investment bucks.

Bang Rule #1: You need context, the full picture as you must understand what the adding of any given feature means in terms of all other jobs you’re weighing for inclusion in the roadmap. 

Bang Rule#2: Balancing the effort across new features, enhancements, usability issues, and so on depends in large part on the goals of the product and organization. A new product may focus on new features, while a mature product may be focused on improving the experience for a new market.

Start Counting The Bucks

Understand the cost of your factors of production by figuring out:

  • How much time will something take to build (Ha Ha….you need to go get an estimate from the developers. Good Luck) .
  • What does your headcount look like?
  • How much do your human resources cost per hour?
  • How do you account for overhead costs?

Knowing your costs and values provide you with the tools you need to prioritize items.

Putting The Bangs and Bucks Together

That feature won't take long.

Almost every software developer ever Tweet

Previously, we discussed the importance of figuring out the potential benefit of our roadmap and assembling some costing information.  The final step in the “product finance dance” is  factoring in the level of effort that each new feature or initiative requires, so you can get the most “Bangs” for the fewest “Bucks” out of your overall roadmap strategy.

The “Bucks“ if you need it spelled out again because your short term memory is shot after a trip too many to “Burning Man” is level of effort, quantified in dollars or your crypto currency/tulip bulb of choice, required for adding a feature and includes :

  • Headcount
  • Overhead
  • Specialty Services
  • Ongoing support
  • QA

It is a basic assumption that the more complex an initiative, the more time (and therefore money) it will take to implement.

After calculating the “Bucks” for each initiative, calculate the related “Bangs“.

Then rank order the potential product roadmap initiatives by their respective “Bangs to Bucks” ratio to figure out the estimated return on your investment in building a particular them on your roadmap.

Remember, no roadmap initiative is added in a vacuum, so you use the “Bangs to Bucks” ratio to edge out competing initiatives.  If you need the above spelled out to you a little more clearly,  you have to weigh each feature addition or bug fix for its value to the product and the business while considering the value against every other possible initiative.

Product management is hard work
Don't forget to ask for a raise.....

You might be thinking to yourself, “Damn, this is a lot of work!!!”

And yes, yes it is, but there are ways to make the task less soul crushing.

  • Limit the number of items you are prioritizing.  In fact, focus on the biggest items themes rather than the details.
    • Do this by grouping initiatives together into strategic themes 
  • Your largest professional challenge here is going to be estimating build/development time frames, which is a whole other matter. The most important thing you can remember when dealing with cost estimates is Hofstadter’s Law (You met him earlier).

Product Finance Dance Moves: Theme Prioritization Techniques

There are a number of techniques you can use to manage prioritization of themes with senior management, each with their strengths and weakness and none perfect as there is a need to balance the qualitative with the quantitative.  Before you do this with the senior management who sign off on the roadmap, figure out your “Bangs” and “Bucks” for each theme, as it will draw attention to the finite nature of resources and force trade offs.

Buy A Theme

The “Buy a Theme” model works as follows:

  • Cost out potential features associated with a theme and assign a “price” to each (based on a relative cost to develop it).
  • Hand out a set amount of cash and then ask participants to buy the themes.
  • Some will place all their money on one particular theme they’re passionate about, while others might spread their cash around.
  • The result is your prioritized theme list
Kano Model

With the Kano model, you can look at themes through the lens of the delight a theme provides to customers versus the  investment to develop it.

  • There are some basic themes that your product simply needs to have in order for you to sell your product. 
  • There are some themes (like performance) that give you a proportionate increase in customer satisfaction as you invest in them.
  • There are some “excitement” themes that yield a disproportionate increase in customer delight. 
Opportunity Scoring

Opportunity Scoring measures and ranks opportunities based on their importance versus customer satisfaction 

To conduct Opportunity Scoring you ask customers to score the importance of each theme and then also score how satisfied they are currently current functionality. You high priority themes are those that are highly important yet have a low satisfaction score.

Essentially you are connecting themes with  “Jobs to Be Done” as it is outcomes/benefits, not features — that motivate purchases and engagement. Using the Opportunity Scoring model you can find innovation areas by plotting the competitors and the customer’s relative satisfaction with features.

Take Away Points: How To Prioritize Features For Your Product Roadmap

If you remember anything from this article, remember this:

  • Features are for the product team to discuss.
  • An effective product manager forces executives to make product focused decision based on expected ROI.
  • Themes are goal-driven: Get executive alignment on the goals, the KPIs used to measure performance and the metric defining success it’s easier to create themes that align with those goals. As part of the process it’s essential to discuss the metrics and KPIs that define whether the goal has been met.
  • Show and Tell: You need to keep control of themes; when it comes to roadmapping products, stakeholders are like cats, they mark their territory by peeing all over everything, and more than willing to tell you what a theme includes, so don’t start product roadmap meetings by soliciting input. This is show and tell, not Q & A.
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