It’s no secret that every software company has a different way of working out what feature they’ll build next. Despite countless tools, books, blog posts*, and interview questions on the subject there isn’t – yet – consensus in the product management community on which product prioritization method gives the best results for customers and the business.
I surveyed 50 product managers** on how they prioritize features. The highlights are summarized below.
1. Product Managers Aren’t the CEO of the Product
In 46% of respondents’ companies the leadership team or head of product decide what will be built next. Only 13% of product managers have the authority to decide themselves.
This supports what most practising PMs already know: Product managers are not the CEO of the product.
Martin Eriksson has written a neat post that expands on this: Product Managers- you are not the CEO of anything.
Who decides what will be built next?
2. Data isn’t yet King
Software companies may claim that they’re data driven, but just two survey respondents use only product data to make decisions.
Being data informed is closer to the truth, with 60% to 70% of respondents listing product data and/or customer feedback as a data source. Gut feel and CEO preference are still important, each being listed by about 43% respondents.
An honorary mention goes to sales, which was mentioned by 6% of respondents.
What data sources do you use to help prioritize your backlog?
3. Not Everyone Prioritizes
64% of respondents spend at least a few hours prioritizing each week. Perhaps what’s more surprising is that 7% spend no time at all on prioritization.
How much time do you spend on prioritization each week?
4. Spreadsheets and Jira Dominate
Tools such as ProdPad, Product Board, and Aha have features which try to bring some logic and process to prioritization. According to the survey these tools aren’t widely used, however, with only 2% to 6% respondents selecting each.
Example prioritization matrix from aha.io
Spreadsheets (continuing the trend of “Excel is our biggest competitor”) and Jira (the product everyone loves to hate) were overwhelmingly popular, each being used by almost 50% of respondents. These tools don’t specialize in prioritization beyond cut-and-paste or drag-and-drop.
Trello (10%) and Post-It notes (8%) are also worth a mention (though, based on my own experience, I expected Post-It notes to be much more popular) and 70% respondents use more than one tool.
22 different products were mentioned in total, ranging from home-grown to using no products at all. As discussed at many product meetups, every product manager thinks they can build a better Jira, but no one’s yet cracked it.
What tools do you use to help with prioritization?
5. Product Prioritization Gives OK-ish Results
Product managers aren’t ecstatic about their prioritization process, but they also don’t think it’s terrible.
There isn’t (yet?) proof that process, data or gut feel leads to success, so it’s not surprising that product managers are “ok-ish” with their process: it’s hard to say that what you’re doing is bad when you’re not sure if the alternative would be better.
Do you think your prioritization process gives the best result for customers and the business?
6. … but PMs Would Love More Data and Process
PMs may not think their product prioritization process is terrible, but they can see ways it could improve. There’s a clear trend towards wanting more data and process:
“Data doesn’t drive our decisions – it’s whoever yells loudest.”
“Stakeholders do not tend to bring data, they tend to only bring passion. This can lead to frustration on both sides where someone thinks a feature used by less than 1% of customers is critical.”
The desire for more transparency was also a common theme:
“Get less distracted by shiny things. Stick to a stronger vision. Make it more transparent.”
“Often times it’s not clear why certain projects are worked on first.”
Those who commented positively on their product prioritization process liked that it was clear, flexible and centralized:
“Everything is in one place”
“Highest value gets delivered first”
“It is less orientated on someone’s gut feeling and more about data and user needs”
What would you improve about your prioritization process?
Larger words = high frequency in responses.
So What Next?
There’s a perception that product managers have it all sorted out: that their A/B tests, customer insights and spidey sense tell them exactly what to build next and why. The truth – according to this survey and based on my own experience – is that product prioritization is much more of an art than a science, and one which product managers don’t have much control over.
Over time I believe that product management will become more of a practice with recognized tools and techniques. Until then, these steps may help overcome the frustrations expressed in the survey:
1. Approach prioritization as a product: experiment and iterate
There are many different prioritization methods and product management tools. Experiment with different techniques, sign up for free trials, record your learnings and see what sticks.
Daniel Zacarias has written a great summary of 20 product prioritization techniques. I’ve listed further articles at the end of this post.
2. Polish your communication and persuasion skills
The leadership team are the ones making the product decisions, so learn what makes them tick and shape your research and recommendations around that.
If data is required, focus on gathering data to support your case; if satisfying the largest customer is more important, make sure you include that customer if your research.
3. Make time for metrics
When product teams are in a time crunch the first things to go are research and analytics, and despite best intentions there’s never time to go back to them later.
Don’t try to measure everything, but make sure you are measuring what matters. Decide on your business goals and measure success against those goals with every feature and release.
Even if the rest of the business doesn’t care about the metrics right now, they will be invaluable in future strategy discussions (not to mention being helpful if you need to defend your team or prove you’ve made an impact).
Thank you to all of you who completed the survey, and Casper Sermsuksan and Eira Hayward for reviewing the summary.
* Further reading on Prioritization
- What are the best ways to prioritize a list of product features?
- 20 Product Prioritization techniques
- Guide to product planning
- The ultimate guide to product prioritization
- What is the best tool to help manage and prioritize day to day tasks?
- Prioritization- making best use of your time and resources
- Tools I Love: Prioritization grid for overcoming task overwhelm
- Enter the matrix- lean prioritisation
- What is your general framework and/ or process for prioritizing product features
** Survey reach
The survey was posted to, amongst other places:
- Product Management LinkedIn group
- Mind The Product Slack group
- Women In Product Facebook group
- Product School Slack group
There were 46 respondents.
Note: as with any survey, the results are a snapshot in time and of a small segment. It’s possible to draw some conclusions from them but those conclusions should be seen as limited: surveys often surface more questions than answers.