New product managers will find themselves asking this question a lot: “How do we build a prioritized product roadmap so that we have the best chance of making something people want?”

In order to achieve our goals, we need to be clear about what the purpose of prioritizing product features is. There are two approaches to prioritizing product features:

  1. You prioritize the features and initiatives that you, your team, or your stakeholders think would be a good idea—and hope that it works out.
  2. You start by figuring out which features have the highest engagement and which ones don’t get used. Then you identify which steps in your workflow cause the biggest drop-offs—where users are getting stuck. And finally, seek to understand your users’ needs, their sources of hesitation, and the conversations going on in their minds.

This should be a no-brainer. You have a much better chance of making things people want if you understand what the market needs are, and if you focus on fixing the areas where your product has the biggest leaks.

But many product teams still operate using the first approach—they make decisions based on their own opinions, rather than data-informed, educated hypotheses. ProductPlan’s co-founder Jim Semick talks to a lot of product leaders in his line of work. And in one of his recent webinars, he mentions that even large, well-known companies struggle with:

  • Decisions not being tied to strategic goals
  • Stakeholders questioning prioritization
  • Priorities being driven by the loudest executives or the latest sales prospects

Clearly these organizations are doing something well, otherwise, they wouldn’t be well-known. But the wasted opportunity is huge. Companies that build products based on internal opinions will eventually get beaten by the competition.

So how do you make sure you’re newly prioritized product roadmap includes features and initiatives that will really move the needle?

What you need is a process for generating ideas, prioritizing which ones to focus on, and getting buy-in from key stakeholders. In the following sections, I’m going to break down a step-by-step framework—originally pioneered by conversion optimization expert Peep Laja—to help you do just that.

Step 1: Gather Actionable Data

Like we talked about earlier, rather than creating a prioritized product roadmap based solely on our opinion, we’re going to use a data-informed approach.

So how do we go about gathering data?

There are 5 steps (followed by creating a master list of all the issues you found that we will then turn into potential product features, fixes, and action items):

  1. Product analytics — Identify specific steps in your product workflow where users are getting stuck and leaving instead of taking the action you want them to take.
  2. Mouse tracking analysis — This lets you record what people do with their mouse, and this can give you insights into where users are paying attention to your product.
  3. On-page surveys — If you want to find out what’s stopping people from performing a specific action, put Qualaroo on your page and ask them.
  4. Support transcripts — Dig into your customer support transcripts to find out why people are reaching out and asking for help. They usually reach out with frustrations and confusion, and that can give you insight into things you can fix.
  5. User testing — Observe current users and potential users as they interact with your product while they speak their thought process out loud. User session is also great because they anonymously record videos of your users as they use your product, allowing you to see everything they do.

As you analyze the results of your research, make a list of all the places where users get stuck or frustrated, where people aren’t doing what you want them to do, and where you see things that need to be improved. If you want a more detailed explanation of how to execute each of these research methods, go check out this article.

Step 2: Identify the Highest Value Initiatives

Okay, so you’ve generated all of this quantitative and qualitative data… what now?

Well, at this point you’ll have identified a big list of product issues and feature ideas. The next step is to figure out which initiatives are worth working on, and weeding out the ones that aren’t.

First, start by thinking through each of these potential opportunities and plotting them on the matrix below.

The y-axis represents value that each initiative delivers to either the company (e.g. gets you more sign-ups) or the customer (e.g. saves them time). And the x-axis represents how much effort, time, money, and other resources each initiative will take to implement (e.g. development hours).

Identify the Highest Value Initiatives

For example, let’s say ‘Item B’ is a redesign of one of your current features. It’s not going to take much effort, and it’s going to deliver high business value.

Once you’ve plotted all the initiatives you identified in your initial research, the next step is to prioritize the highest value items and figure out which ones to say “no” to. To help you make this decision, start by overlaying this grid on your matrix:

Values vs complexity model for creating a prioritized product roadmap

As you can see, the initiatives in the upper-left side of this graph provide high business value and require low effort—this is the low-hanging fruit that you want to start with. The items that fall into the upper-right quadrant will also deliver a lot of value, but they’re more complex and require more effort to implement. These are important but should get done after the items from the first quadrant.

Some of the ideas in the lower-left section may be able to deliver some quick wins, but since they provide low business value you need to seriously question whether they’re worth prioritizing. And finally, you definitely shouldn’t consider any of the ideas that are high-effort & low-value.

Step 3: Score Your Initiatives

Now that you’ve weeded out all the potential opportunities that don’t provide strategic value, the next step is to score your remaining initiatives.

Think through the benefits that your organization will receive and costs it will require to implement, and then rank each factor on a scale of 1 – 5 (1 being low benefit/cost and 5 being high benefit/cost).

Using the Planning Board in ProductPlan to create a prioritized product roadmap

You can either use tools like ProductPlan for your scoring model, or you can create your own process using a spreadsheet.

And of course, this scoring model isn’t the only factor that goes into deciding which features to prioritize—you also need to take your competition, market, and customers into consideration. But this analysis can be critical for getting stakeholder buy-in.

Step 4: Get Stakeholder Buy-In on Your Newly Prioritized Product Roadmap

Creating alignment with your product strategy and getting buy-in from executives and managers can be tricky. But you can make it less of a challenge by proactively addressing a few of their key concerns.

Our first recommendation is that you walk your stakeholders through the process you used to create your prioritized product roadmap. Demonstrating that you used a structured thought process to evaluate opportunities—rather than just going by your gut or your opinion—is an effective way to get stakeholders on board.

Second, bring customer evidence to the table. This is where the data you gathered in step 1 comes into play. You’ve gathered real evidence about your product from both existing and potential customers, and this sort of data is more compelling to executives and managers than your opinion. So back up your decision with hard data. Use the metrics you gathered from your analytics tool to show them what users are doing. And then use video clips of users interacting with your product, and direct quotes from your customers to explain why.

And finally, always tie your priorities back to the organization’s strategic business goals. Doing this right off the bat will help answer the question in everyone’s mind of “Why are you doing this instead of something else?”

Rather than just talking about what a new feature will do, tell them how it’s going to impact the bottom line and move the needle on the KPIs that your stakeholders care about most. For example, the data shows that we’re killing it when it comes to user acquisition, but we struggle to get those users to come back over the long-term. So we’re implementing this initiative in order to improve our retention rate.

The Final Word

Whether you’re using a scoring model or some other kind of model to evaluate and prioritize opportunities, the technique you’re using is ultimately less important than the conversation that you’re having with your stakeholders.

Regardless of the tools and techniques you use, it’s important that you’re transparent with your stakeholders, and that you give them some insight into the process you used to create your prioritized product roadmap.

By addressing their concerns and objections proactively, you make it much less likely that you’ll get pushback. And the best way to do that is to show them that you used a systematic process, you based your decisions on hard data (not your opinion), and that your priorities are aligned with the strategic goals of the organization.

What do you think? What process do you use to make sure you’re prioritizing the right initiatives and building things people want? Share your thoughts on building a prioritized product roadmap in the comments below!


About the Guest Author:

Spencer Lanoue is a marketer at UserTesting, where he helps UX designers, PMs, and marketers create great experiences. Follow him at @slanoue.