The Quick and the Dead of Prioritization

I’ve often felt like one of my natural talents or superpowers is how I prioritize features for products. Now, I know it is easy for anyone to feel that way, but there is a very sharp contrast between the backlogs I create and what most others create.

For starters, most folks will take over a year to complete, minimum. Mine will take 3-6 months. That means my scope gets to market in half the time.

Another difference comes in what I keep in my backlog and what I jettison or put into a grave of low priority, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

There are so many prioritization methods out there for product folks to use. They range from techniques requiring math and spreadsheets to the output of group games. Yet, when I’ve read them, they never claim that they have any real impact on a product.

In fact, there was a talk I went to once that compared prioritization methods’ efficacy based on a model of development. They found that purely random prioritization outperformed almost every popular method.

So, should we give up? Probably not; as inflammatory as the above statement is, you’d really have to understand the model and setup to draw any useful conclusions.

Let me instead tell you about how I categorize and prioritize product work with clients. It’s simple, and I’ve brought numerous products to market doing this and created new lines of revenue for clients doing this.

The way to start is to talk about how I categorize work. I’ve never formally written about this, so these categories are getting their first names here. These categories are:

  • Core
  • Quality of Life
  • Retention
  • Additional

Core items are ones that, if you’re missing them, you’re going to miss your targeted customer. These items are never optional. If you don’t have them, you don’t have a product.

Quality of Life items make those core items easier, simpler, and more delightful to use. This can quickly get unhealthy and out of hand because as you’re building a product, you’ll see so much to fix up later, but most of those items don’t make a difference. Quality of Life items are best built by how directly they improve the core experience, and when that’s done, add other things like Dark mode.

Retention items are items that create a cycle of use. Lots of products that I see are built with a model of discreet transactions like getting cash from an ATM. Really high-use products, on the other hand, offer features that, if you use them, create more use in the core of the product. This can be a virtuous product cycle. Facebook’s posts and social interaction create this cycle. You can imagine what would happen if there were only posts and no interaction. Retention items can be dangerous as they also are very easy to twist into dark patterns. Dark patterns are all about coercing specific actions at the user’s expense.

The final category is all additional things people think are neat that don’t fit anywhere else. The analogy here would be all the buttons that exist in Word that 70% of people don’t use.

Operational, security, infrastructure, and so on are missing from these categories. I don’t consider these to need a category. Just get them done.

So, given these categories, how do I typically wind up creating an initial product for the market? In general, my breakdown of priority will be this:

  • Core: 80%
  • Quality of Life: 15%
  • Retention: 5%

Now, this breakdown means that of all the prioritized items, 80% will be pure core items. This creates the backbone of the product, and remember, core items cause you to gain customers or lose them, not make them happy. The next 15% are all about making those bare-bones core items somewhat tolerable. The last 5% is about finding ways to create those re-enforcing cycles of use and putting just the smallest one in.

How does this compare to what I find other folks doing? It’s hard to generalize, but here’s an example of a product I saw:

  • Core: 20%
  • Quality of Life: 40%
  • Retention: 20%
  • Additional: 20%

The product went live after a year of development. It struggled for over a year to get any adoption and abandoned its revenue model as it couldn’t target any customers. They went through multiple designs and even built a mobile app. They built tons of notifications for that retention, but nobody wanted to use it, so it was annoying.

I’m not claiming I’ve figured this out, but this model has worked well for me. I’d love to know what you think of it!