Buy-a-Feature Prioritization Model

Buy-a-Feature is one of many prioritization frameworks product managers can use. It’s commonly used to help organizations identify the features that customers and key stakeholders value the most. Product managers can leverage Buy-a-Feature to directly engage stakeholders and even customers to help shape their products, and to prioritize features based on their expected value return.

What is the Buy-a-Feature Prioritization Model?

Buy-a-Feature is an approach to prioritizing a product’s development in which the product team works directly with a group of customers or other stakeholders to learn what features or enhancements to the product those participants would value the most.

As the name suggests, the mechanism for determining customers’ favored features is to give them each a fixed amount of play money for the exercise (denominated in poker chips, jelly beans, Monopoly money, etc.), and let them spend that money on the proposed products—each of which will have its own price tag based on its estimated development costs.

How the Buy-a-Feature Prioritization Model Works

There are a number of ways to structure and facilitate a Buy-a-Feature exercise. Generally, though, it’s best to do the activity in-person rather than online. An in-person activity gives you an opportunity to capture candid feedback, observe participants during their own decision-making process, and facilitate broader conversations about the results.

Conducting this game includes four broad steps:

1. Make a list of initiatives you’d like to prioritize and assign “prices” to each.

Although this framework is called Buy-a-Feature, your list of proposed product updates could include fixes, performance enhancements, and any other initiatives you need to prioritize. You want to keep the length of the list manageable so as not to overwhelm your participants. So select only the initiatives which you need collaborative input on prioritizing.

During this stage, you will also need to assign a price to all items on the list. Generally it’s best to assign the price based on the relative development costs they entail. But you can also assign prices based on complexity, risk, effort required, or any combination of factors.

2. Give your participants a budget and send them shopping.

Once you’ve assembled your group of participants and explained the items on your list to them, you can hand out a fixed amount of play money to each participant and send them shopping.

Suggestion: According to Luke Hohmann, author of the book Innovation Games (which discusses Buy-a-Feature in detail), you should price at least one of the items on your list high enough that no single participant will have enough money to buy it. This will encourage customers to work together to buy your features, which will also help your team learn more about your customers’ true priorities and thought processes when it comes to your products.

3. Observe and learn as participants discuss, negotiate, and buy.

This is the stage where your product team can uncover valuable learnings about your group’s priorities and needs. Their discussions, collaboration efforts, and debates will all provide important clues as to what aspects of your product your market deems most important, and why.

Your product team (and any other facilitators in the room) can also jump in and join the discussion at any time. You might find, for example, that your participants have reached an impasse on a particular feature, and that is preventing them from moving on to address the other items on your list (and spending the rest of their money). If that happens, you can either help guide the discussion, or simply give each customer a few more units of play money so they can move past that debate and refocus on the rest of your available features.

4. Review your participants’ purchases, and let them explain their decisions to you.

When your customers have spent all of their play money, it’s time to dig in and discuss their decisions as a group.

This is where you’ll uncover another layer of important learnings about your market, as you listen to your participants explain their decisions—both individually and as a group. Why did they choose one item over another? Why were customers #1 and #4 willing to forgo buying an item they both initially deemed important to pool that money with customer #7 and buy your list’s most expensive feature? What was their thought process?

These are the types of discussion points that will help you learn a great deal about what your customers think about your product.

When to Use Buy-a-Feature to Prioritize Issues

The Buy-a-Feature prioritization approach can help a product team that is struggling with a complicated feature “wish list” and limited development resources. Buy-a-Feature activities can help put these limited resources into perspective for stakeholders who seem to want everything all at once.

It can also make strategic sense to use this approach if your team has already attempted other means of market research—say, conducting customer surveys—but found that the respondents to those inquiries seemed to want everything, and all of it now.

Structuring a Buy-a-Feature exercise can be an effective way to steer a sample group of your market into actually prioritizing their wish lists for your product because they—like your own team—will have to select their priorities using limited resources.

Conclusion

The Buy-a-Feature prioritization method can help product teams get a richer understanding of their stakeholders’ and customers’ wants, needs, and priorities. It can also be a lot of fun.

To learn about other agile prioritization frameworks, download our free book: The Product Manager’s Complete Guide to Prioritization.