Product Management: Prioritizing Features in a Road Map

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(B) Better, faster, cheaper. That was the three words that were written on the white board of a senior product manager working with me in my first Silicon Valley start-up. Below those three words were written:”Pick only two”. A better product with more capabilities can certainly be faster but not cheaper. And a better product that is cheaper is unlikely to be faster. While a faster and cheaper product will not be better. Life is always full of trade-offs!

So how do product managers and their product development organizations decide to prioritize the product features through the multiple releases of a product? And ensure a better and faster product, a better and cheaper product or a faster and cheaper product, in particular, for High-Tech products that are always the result of market and technology changes.

Success in developing a road map lies in establishing a product vision that is shaped by major release milestones. A road map generally defines the product evolution over 3 to 5 years with significant details for the next 18 months. Releases must be scheduled over a given period, on average every 2 weeks for a mobile app or a Web front-end service, 6 months for an infrastructure or back-end software product, and 18 months for a hardware product.

For each product release, the product manager must develop the requirements of all feature candidates and prioritize the ones that will be developed and marketed in the release.

 The Secret Sauce of Product Feature Prioritization

Every development organization is challenged through the product life cycle to prioritize the features for a new product release. When developing version 1.0 of a new product, all features are new. After the first release, some features will be new while more and more development will be spent on enhancing previous features developed.

The first “secret sauce” of product feature prioritization is in the balancing act of creating new features while at the same time enhancing the existing ones. That process can end for market reasons such as the product target market or application has changed. Or it can end for technical reasons such as the product underlying architecture and technology is becoming obsolete and not cost effective anymore.

The second “secret sauce” of product feature prioritization is in the second level of prioritization that is prioritizing among themselves the new features and the enhancement of the existing ones.

 Product Feature Creation

Following are some guidelines to prioritize new features.

Trading versus Investing

In finance, there is two kind of investors: the trader who has a short-term outlook and the investor who has a long-term outlook. While traders succeed by focusing on the next market moves, long-term investors succeed by rightly allocating their capital to diversified assets.

When prioritizing features, product managers need to be both traders and investors at the same time. Like traders, they need to focus on the short-term and assessing which features are needed to enable successful customer sales in the coming quarters. Like investors, they need to focus on their long-term vision and built over each release the product capability that is required to achieve that vision in the marketplace.

Prioritizing features is always a difficult balance between trading or short-term sales requirements and investing or long-term product vision requirements.

User versus Architecture

Simply put, there are always two product layers: a layer that is offering the features to the user, and a layer that is providing the architecture for the product. The temptation for every release is to privilege user functions versus architecture functions since the business case is much easier to establish for the former. However, if too much effort is spent on providing user features over the medium term, the product architecture will reach a limit in supporting the breadth and depth of those user features.

Prioritizing features is always a difficult balance between user features and architecture functions.

Market versus Customer

Junior product managers make that mistake all the time and do not necessarily realize the difference between a market feature versus a customer feature. Any product features must be foreseen without the specific application or environment of a customer. Ideally, a road map aims in its early phase to target a well-defined market segment and from that position to expand to other market segments. A market feature appeals to all customers of the targeted market while a customer feature can be sold only to a set of customers.

Specific customer features cannot be part of the overall feature prioritization and must be considered as a separate business case than the underlying one of the product.

Leading versus Reacting

Feature prioritization must take into account the competitive environment. Core product features position the “Sweet Spot” of the product target market or application. Products lead in the marketplace where they shine the best. Enhancing or at least maintaining the product features that establish the leadership of the product is always a must. However, competitive products have strengths that are generally targeting the weaknesses of the leading products or might come up with new features that are more innovative than the leading product.

Prioritizing features is always a difficult balance between building on the strengths and intellectual property of the product in order to lead while reacting to the product weaknesses and innovations leveraged by the competition.

 Product Feature Enhancement

Following are some guidelines to improve existing features. All those enhancements need to be prioritized over multiple releases.

Usability, Deployment, and Configuration

First, products must be doing what they are supposed to do with the highest level of usability.

Products must be simple to deploy in particular products that interface with a range of other products. Products must be easy to configure. Product configuration should be automated as much as possible in order to leave only the options that are required to have a needed customization.

Never forget the product deployment and configuration and its usability from end-to-end (not only the user interface) when prioritizing product features.

Resiliency, Availability, and Scalability

Every product must be resilient and offering capabilities that mitigate the risk of a failure, Every product feature must be available and working according to the product use case. Most network-based or product that does have a function in a given network must scale as well to large traffic flows, a large number of client devices. a large number of end users or subscribers and so on.

Initial product architecture must be improved over every release to increase the resiliency, availability, and scalability of the product.

From Release 1.0 to Release 3.0

Successful new ventures are started with “passion”, and grow with “experience”. The same is true for products. The 1.0 product release is the most creative and the most challenging. The 2.0 release is generally a release to fix the many bugs of the 1.0. It is only at the third release that most products achieve their complete maturity and as a consequence their market leadership.

Initial product features for the 1.0 release are built with passion. But overtime for the 3.0 release, enhance them with the experience that has been acquired through the development process.

Leverage Customer Product Experience

Most product managers will tell you that the initial product positioning of the product is not what it ends to be or its final “sweet spot” in the marketplace. Customers are like kids who never read the product documentation and use the product in many ways other than the one that the product was supposed to serve initially. Build a critical feedback channel in order to integrate the voice of the customers and make sense of that feedback that will dictate the best features for the best use case of the product.

The customer experience of a product is never the one from the lab designer. Over time, product features can be significantly enhanced with the imagination of the user.

Horizontal, Vertical and Geographical Segments

Market opportunities to grow a product line must be investigated beyond the existing target segment such as new horizontal, vertical or geographical segment. Horizontal product features must be used across a large population of customers while vertical product features are used by a limited population of customers defined by key attributes such as demographics, industry or application specific and so on. If they do exist, products must be localized to the local requirements of their geographical use.

Ideally, product features should be prioritized for a horizontal market segment, expanded later to multiple vertical market segments and across geographies.

 In Summary

Every product starts with a small number of features. To grow into success, product managers need to expand the suite of their product features. The challenge for every product team is to master the process of prioritizing those features in order to create new ones while improving the existing ones.

Creating a product road map is definitely an Art!

Note 1: A lot of the secret sauce described above can also be applied to non-high products in particular consumer and industrial products.

Note 2: The picture above is The Venus Genetrix, a First Century Roman Marble.

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