It's prioritization decisions all the way down

November 25, 2014 Greg Gentschev

There are lots of useful ways to make prioritization decisions, and you’ve probably read about many of them. It occurred to me during a recent product office hours session here at Pivotal Labs how important it is to consider various levels of prioritization, from a big picture vision down to individual features. Let’s walk through them to understand how this mental model can help you make better product decisions.


30,000 feet – What’s our product vision?

A great deal of ink has been spilled on strategy and vision, so I won’t go into it in depth. Let’s just say that it should be based on a viable business model. But we do need a vision:

  • Organize the world’s knowledge

Wait, maybe that’s a little too general (and already taken). Let’s get a little more detailed and think of a product vision that will help us focus.

  • Organize the world’s GIFs

Great, we’re starting to get some more definition. It’s important to have constraints on your strategy and know what you’re not doing.

10,000 feet – Who’s our target customer?

We’re still pretty far from thinking about features. Before we get to that, we should figure out who we’re organizing GIFs for.

  • People who make animated GIFs?
  • People who collect GIFs for their own enjoyment?
  • People who send or post GIFs to others?
  • Tumblr users?
  • Imgur users?
  • Children who send each other GIFs?
  • Corporate GIF users (e.g., for social marketing)?

Each of these user types will have pretty different needs. To maximize our chances of success, we should focus on making one well-defined type of user happy, then expand to other use cases. If we try to satisfy everyone, we’ll end up with a product that’s perfect for no one.

5,000 feet – What’s the user’s “job to be done?”

Let’s say our target market is corporate GIF users. That helps us focus, but it’s not obvious that we know their needs or how to prioritize them. Here are a few things our GIF users in big marketing departments might want help with.

  • How to avoid over-using the same GIFs and getting stale
  • Creating content faster for topical, time-driven events
  • Understanding and tracking how audiences respond to different GIFs
  • Broadcasting GIF marketing across many channels more effectively
  • Internationalizing GIFs for global marketing

Once again, each of these ideas would lead us to consider a very different set of features. Just knowing your user isn’t enough. You have to know what you want to help them achieve.

1,000 feet – How should we do the job?

Ok, let’s say we want to help people understand audience response to GIFs better. You might think we’re ready to prioritize features, but we’re not quite there yet. There’s still more than one way to get there. We could create a dashboard that integrates with tools like Google Analytics, or we could track social activity like retweets and mentions, or we could survey users about which GIFs they liked the best. For an early stage product, we should explore how well each one satisfies user needs and how feasible it is before we start attacking all of them.

100 feet – Prioritizing individual features

Now we’re finally ready to think about individual features. A common approach is putting features on a 2×2 matrix with axes that represent value to the user and cost to develop, and then focusing on features that are both high-value and perhaps low-cost. That’s a great start. You should also consider how often a feature gets used, and by what percentage of your user base.

Another good framework is having your team fund product features with a simulated budget. If not enough people believe in a feature, it won’t get funded.

So many levels!

This thought process may feel like a lot of work, but it’s worth it. The clearer your up-front decisions are, the less work you’ll waste in design and development on ideas that don’t hang together. It’s many orders of magnitudes cheaper to think through ideas more carefully than it is to build them and see what happens. That’s not to say that your prioritization will always pop out the “best” feature idea, but if you document the assumptions you made, it’ll be easier to notice (or even better, gather) new information that confirms or disproves those assumptions.

It’s natural for there to be some feedback loops through these levels of focus. If you get down to the individual feature level and find that they’re all hard to build, you may need to go up several levels and come up with a revised product vision that requires less work to generate value.

How does this framework map to your product decision-making process? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

About the Author


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