How to Make Sense of the Firehose of Ideas for Your Product

As your company’s central hub for your products, you probably receive feature requests, product ideas and other feedback on a regular basis, from a wide range of constituents. Customers, prospects, your executives, sales reps, engineers, the marketing department — it can seem as though everyone has feedback about your products and ideas for what they need.

And when people know you’re setting out to update your product or develop a new one, the feedback can really flood in.

Strategic Product Management Means Being Proactive, Not Reactive

But as a product manager, you are not simply an order taker. You’re responsible for executing your product’s strategy. So when it’s time to begin gathering all of the ideas, data and business intelligence you’ll need to develop the best product you can — a product that successfully meets the strategy you’ve set for it — you want to be proactive in compiling, analyzing and prioritizing the firehose of ideas.

This intelligence is what will ultimately lead to the details of your roadmap: What the new product (or a new version of the existing product) will include, for whom, why, and how it will advance your company’s strategic goals.

Which means you can’t afford to prioritize a specific set of feedback just because it appears urgent (e.g., a sales rep telling you a prospect won’t buy unless you build a new feature into the next release), or because the person requesting it has power (e.g., an executive asking you to prioritize features that is a pet-feature, at best, a nice-to-have).

Read Feature-less Roadmaps: Unlock Your Product's Strategic Potential➜

Always Ask: Does Including This in My Roadmap Advance My Product’s Strategy?

So how do you make sense of the firehose of ideas in the early stages of crafting your product roadmap? One useful way to approach this is to put every new input through a simple test: Ask yourself if implementing the suggestion or feedback will advance your product’s strategy.

When it’s time to proactively seek ideas and other business intelligence to help you determine what to build into your product roadmap, here are some useful places to start. Of course, you will need to weigh your product decisions based on customer value versus effort.

Customer Feedback

Obviously one of the best sources of feedback on how your product is working, and where it needs work, is with the customers who are actually using it.

Use whatever methods of communicating with your customer base will work best for you. That could be phone calls to specific customers for detailed interviews, online surveys, hosting user groups, or even asking your customer service teams.

But keep this in mind: Your customers represent a skewed set of data. They, after all, have purchased and are using your product. Don’t fall into the trap of relying on your existing customer base as the sole source of information about where your product excels, where it falls short, or what should be included in the next version.

And more importantly, don’t build exactly what your customers ask. Sometimes customers’ feature requests do not necessarily align with your product vision. As a product manager, you also need to bring to the table your knowledge of what’s feasible to solve their problem in the best possible way — and that might not match with their feature request.

When looking for market feedback, consider all of the prospective customers who didn’t buy your product, but instead bought a competitor’s. And don’t forget your prospects who haven’t yet made the decision to buy. A caveat: Although you want to solicit feedback from the sales team, you do not want to have sales drive the roadmap, as their goals may or may not align with the product goals.

Read the Essential Feature Kickoff Checklist ➜

Competitive Landscape

Your goal, of course, is to create a unique product in the market place. However, you can learn a great deal about the landscape by reviewing your competitors’ products.

If you and your competitors build software, sign up for their free trial, or even the full-featured product. If it’s a physical product or service, order that too. Learn from your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses and identify features you hadn’t thought of.

You can also gain valuable competitive intelligence by looking in less-obvious places than within your competitors’ products themselves. For example, check out blog comments or support pages where users are discussing your competitors’ products. This can represent a gold mine of intelligence for you. You can learn what customers like about these products, what they don’t like, and what they wish the products had.

Related idea: Do the same with your own product. Spend time regularly reviewing your social media channels and user support sites where your customers are discussing your product, offering each other tips, complaining, etc. There’s gold there, too. And if your company doesn’t have a support community for your users to connect with each other, create it.

Sales and Customer Service

Your sales reps are your front-line liaisons between your company’s products and the people and organizations that ultimately buy them (or don’t). Your customer service department might spend more time with your customers than any other group in your company.

These teams represent another invaluable source of intelligence about how best to build and update your product roadmaps. When sales and product management don’t communicate, the business’s bottom line often suffers.

In its 2014 State of Product Management and Marketing report, Pragmatic Marketing found that 25% of product managers say their sales teams consciously avoid selling certain products in their company’s portfolio. If your sales reps know that a certain product or feature upgrade won’t resonate with their customer base, or that they won’t be able to sell it at the price your organization has set, you need to know why.

Similarly, your customer service personnel are on the front lines gathering real-world user feedback. They know what the most common problems are with your product, what features customers most often call to ask for, etc.

As with your customers, you can communicate with and learn from your sales and customer service teams in many ways. Take a sales or customer service rep out to lunch. Create a short online survey and ask these departments strategic questions about their experiences with customers and the company’s products.

Bottom line: Don’t leave your sales and customer service teams out of the product roadmap process. Including their feedback among the valuable information, you’ll be gathering from around your organization will give you better real-world intelligence and will also help to better align everyone’s interests across the organization.

People like to be asked for their input, particularly in a professional setting where they know they have valuable insights to contribute.

Imagine how much more effective you can make your products if you speak first to the people who earn their living selling those products, and the people who field real-world questions and complaints about them.

Analyst Research

Study industry reports about your category of product (from Gartner, Forrester and other analyst firms that cover your industry) to determine what types of products work, with whom, and why.

What’s often useful about these reports is the survey-generated data they gather from your target customers across the landscape. While it is relatively easy to create a survey for your own customers or prospects, it is much more difficult (and costly) to gather a similar set of responses from all of those target customers out there with whom your organization has never communicated and has no relationship. And remember: Studying only your own customers will give you a skewed picture of your products.

Analytics and Metrics

Evidence is far more compelling than your opinion — or anyone else’s opinion, for that matter. Your executive stakeholders and your other product roadmap constituents will be less interested in what you think or what your gut tells you than in what you’ve proven.

If you have real-world user data on your product — or, if you’re developing a new product, data on similar products you’ve launched in the past — then you already have an excellent source of business intelligence to inform how best to build your product roadmap. Let your own analytics help guide your decisions. The point is, you need evidence, not speculation.

Don’t Stand in Front of the Idea Firehose: Seek Out Inputs That Advance Your Product Strategy

You have limited resources, and every decision you make about what to include in your product will have an opportunity cost. If you reactively include too many constituents’ ideas and suggestions without vetting those inputs against the value they bring to your product’s strategy, they could ultimately undermine your ability to deliver the product you need.

So you can’t afford to simply stand in front of the firehose of ideas coming at you from all of the constituents who want a say in the new product. Make a proactive plan to seek out and allow into your roadmap only those items that advance the product strategy.