Prioritising work to build strong products Prioritising work: to build or not to build
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Woman writing checking a priority list.

Prioritising work to build strong products

  • 28 September 2018

Prioritising work is the cornerstone of product development. It is the process of articulating ideas - namely in the creation of a product backlog - and subsequently grouping or ranking these product backlog items (PBIs) into priority order. Simple, right? Not always. A multitude of factors come into play during the prioritisation process, from user value to stakeholder priorities, technical effort to market changes. In reality, prioritisation is a delicate balancing game; a game that the best tech companies are winning.

Why prioritise?

When it comes to building digital products, it’s easy to want everything immediately. Prioritisation is designed to determine what to build, and when. The process is also vital in recognising both user and business value, validating assumptions and contemplating the technical effort associated with the implementation of features. Put simply, no matter how many good ideas there are in the backlog, you can’t build everything at once. Prioritisation is about identifying where the value really lies and what to build next.

How to prioritise?

Prioritisation is not about putting all of your best, most exciting ideas at the top of the backlog. There are many models used for prioritisation, such as the Eisenhower Matrix, Cost of Delay and Opportunity Scoring. One of the best known prioritisation techniques, the Kano model advocates a system whereby each software release has a balance of high, medium and low excitement features, also known as attractive, performance and must-be features. Over time, the value of these features diminishes, meaning continual innovation is necessary to satisfy users. Looking at this pragmatically, we can say that a good product has all the expected and basic functionality (low excitement), features that are satisfying for a user to interact with (medium excitement) and of course the surprise and delight moments (high excitement).

As the product continues to evolve, this value mix must be maintained. It is key to recognise that without strong foundations, it won’t be easy to surprise or delight anyone - yet, in practise it can be hard to prioritise seemingly uninspiring user stories over so many exciting features. It is precisely this delicate balance that is so difficult to strike.

When working to tight timings, it’s also important to consider the value-effort ratio when making decisions about priority. Identifying high-value, low-effort items can help businesses release quick wins sooner, while allowing them to make better informed decisions when deciding whether to build high-effort high-value features. Above all else, though, prioritisation should be an informed process. The prioritisation criteria should be based on data and subject matter expertise, not gut feel. Determining value and excitement levels is challenging in itself, and it’s vital that concepts are validated by users as early in the process as possible.

Drawing on Lean principles, we can better comprehend the benefits of early stage user research and testing. Preliminary testing of concepts with end users minimises waste by ensuring effort is not directed towards less valuable ideas lest they reach development - or worse, production. It can also aid with the identification of pain points and to mitigate stakeholder blind spots. This test and learn cycle is essential to truly understanding value, and it means businesses can have much greater confidence in their product decisions. Data itself can be collected in a variety of ways, from product analytics and competitor analysis to quantitative and qualitative research. Combine evidence-based decision making with a thorough understanding of value mix, and you’re well on your way to a well prioritised backlog.

Woman writing checking a priority list.

When to prioritise?

In Scrum, the Product Owner must be empowered by the business to make decisions, acting as the voice of value throughout product development. At Kin + Carta, our Product Owners consult with client Product Owners to guide the prioritisation process. As subject matter experts, those on the business side are best placed to make decisions with stakeholders and business objectives in mind. As Kin + Carta Product Owners, we use our expertise to drive best practice, coach business representatives and champion user-first thinking.

Helpful tips for effective prioritisation

  • Work analog. Digital tools are great for providing structure, but when lateral thought and flexibility are required, it’s important for your materials to promote that mindset. Moving pieces of paper around encourages fluid thought and forces you not to be precious about ideas.
  • Work fast. Of course, data should drive your prioritisation, but when you are starting with a backlog with hundreds of items, gathering data on each one is not an effective use of time. Using existing knowledge and expertise, you can prioritise quickly with card sorting. Try grouping your ideas into three high-level values, e.g. ‘now, next and later’ or ‘must have, should have and nice to have’. Depending on the size of these groupings, you can use these priorities to inform release plans or high-level feature roadmaps.
  • Work slow. Think of prioritisation as a funnel. The higher the priority - and the closer items are to the top of the backlog - the more consideration they warrant. You might have three buckets of ‘now, next and later’ priorities, but when it comes to interrogating the ‘now’ ideas, it’s important to consider a greater range of factors, from data points (e.g. qualitative user testing, product analytics and competitor research) to desired business outcomes. Once you’ve refined the highest priority group of ideas, you should have clarity on what to build next, whether that’s the next set of user stories planned for a sprint or the ‘to do’ column on your Kanban board.
  • Work iteratively. When building new functionality, whether for an existing or new product, feature scaling is an effective way to deliver value quickly. By breaking down a concept by either complexity or value, you can prioritise the essential part of the feature, later iterating to adding value incrementally. You will often hear this referred to as ‘MVP thinking’ and it is a key element of effective prioritisation.
  • Work tough. If you’re having a difficult time prioritising, there are techniques you can use to force decisions. You can pick two items from the backlog at a time and decide which out of each is higher (essentially, asking yourself ‘this’ or ‘that’?), then start to refine the pile of higher priority items. You can also use innovation games like ‘Buy a Feature’ to help make difficult decisions.

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