3 Prioritization Techniques All Product Managers Should Know

One of the most challenging aspects of Product Management is prioritization. If you’ve transitioned to product from another discipline, or have spent years working in any office-based role, you might already think you know how do it. You choose which task to work on first, which deadline needs to be met above all others, and what order to answer your emails in.

Priorities, right? Wrong!

In product, prioritization is on a whole other level! You’ve got a list of unprioritized features and tasks splayed out in front of you. The engineers are telling you that Feature A will be really cool and will take you to the next level. But a key stakeholder is gently suggesting that Feature B be included in V1. Finally your Data Analyst is convinced that Feature B is completely unnecessary, and that users are crying out for Feature C.

Who decides what gets worked on? You.

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Prioritization is absolutely essential for product teams and to product development. Choosing the right high priority can feel daunting. But for a successful launch, it has to be done.

Luckily, a whole community of product experts have come before you. They’ve built great things, and built even greater prioritization frameworks!

Here, we’ll show you the top three methods that all Product Managers should know; MoSCow, RICE, and Kano. We’ll then show you some A* advice on the prioritization process of top product people.

(PS Keep reading till the end for a special talk from Mariano Capezzani on The Art of Making Impossible Product Decisions.)

1. The MoSCoW Method

Known as the MoSCoW Prioritization Technique or MoSCoW Analysis, MoSCoW is a method commonly used in Agile PM to understand what’s important and what’s not.

It’s a particularly useful tool for communicating to stakeholders what you’re working on and why.

The name is an acronym of four prioritization categories: Must have, Should have, Could have, and Won’t have.

MoSCoW method prioritization method

Let’s take a closer look at what these categories really mean:

Must have

‘Must have’ represents the features that you absolutely should not launch without.

This could be for legal reasons, safety concerns, or business reasons. If it’s something that has been promised to your users and is a huge driver for the buzz around your upcoming release, it would be a terrible idea to launch without it.

To work out if something qualifies as ‘Must have’ think about the worst and best-case scenarios for not including it. If you can’t picture success without it, it’s a Must have!

Should have

‘Should have’ is for things that would be better to include, but you’re not destined for disaster without them.

Could have

‘Could have’ things would be nice to include if you have the resources, but aren’t necessary for success. The line between ‘Could have’ and ‘Should have’ can seem very thin.

To work out what belongs where, think of how each requirement (or lack thereof) will affect customer experience. The lesser the impact, the further down the priority list the requirement goes!

Won’t have

Many seasoned Product Managers have said “we’ll include it in V2!” When we say ‘Won’t have’ we don’t mean ‘this requirement is trash and it will NEVER be included’, we just mean ‘not this time.’

It could be for a variety of reasons, like a lack of resources or time. In any case, it helps you and your stakeholders agree what won’t make it in your next release, which greatly helps to manage their expectations.

You might also be interested in: How I Created A B2B Customer Lead Prioritization Model

2. RICE Scoring

RICE scoring prioritization method

Another key prioritization methodology is the RICE scoring system, which again has four categories to help assess priority; Reach, Impact, Confidence, and Effort.

Reach

To start, Reach helps us bring the focus back to the customers by thinking about how many people will be impacted by a feature or release. You can measure this in number of people in a certain period of time. So you can ask yourself, “how many customers will this impact per month?”

As with all things in Product, make sure your answers are backed up by data and not just off the top of your head.

Impact

Now that you’ve thought about how many people you’ll reach, it’s time to think about how they’ll be affected as individuals. To do this, think about the goal you’re trying to reach. It could be to delight customers (measured in positive reviews and referrals) or reduce abandonment.

There’s no real scientific method for measuring impact. Intercom recommends a multiple-choice scale:

  • 3 = massive impact
  • 2 = high impact
  • 1 = medium impact
  • 0.5 = low impact
  • 0.25 = minimal impact
intercom rice prioritization

Confidence

So much of Product Management has to be unscientific. Although data should be used as much as possible, sometimes you have no choice but to rely on intuition and gut-feeling.

A confidence percentage will help you with that. You can give your estimates a percentage to boost its priority-level when you’re lacking the data to prove its importance. You can also use it to help de-prioritize things you’d rather not take a risk on.

Generally, anything above 80% is considered a high confidence score, and anything below 50% is pretty much unqualified.

Effort

You’ll need information from everyone involved (designers, engineers, etc) to calculate effort.

In an ideal world, everything would be high-impact/low-effort. Although this is so rarely the case, it’s what we should be aiming for.

Think about the amount of work one team member can do in a month, which will naturally be different across teams. Estimate how much work it’ll take each team member working on the project. The more time allotted to a project, the higher the reach, impact, and confidence will need to be to make it worth the effort.

Calculating a RICE Score

Now you should have four numbers representing each of the 4 categories. To calculate your score, simply multiply Reach by Impact, and then by Confidence. Then divide by Effort.

Your final score represents ‘total impact per time worked.’ The higher the number, the closer you are to high impact/low effort.

You might also be interested in: How to Use OKRs for Roadmap Prioritization and Planning

3. Kano Model

The Kano model is best represented by a graph:

Kano model prioritization
Image credit: Dan Olsen
  • Delighters: The features that customers will perceive as going ‘above and beyond’ their expectations. These are the things that will differentiate you from your competition.
  • Performance features: Customers respond well to high investments in performance features.
  • Basic features: The minimum expected by customers to solve their problems. Without these, the product is basically useless to them.

The main idea behind the Kano model, is that if you focus on the features that come under these three brackets, the higher your level of customer satisfaction will be.

To find out how customers value certain features, use questionnaires asking how their experience of your product would change with or without them.

As time goes along, you may find that features which used to be delighters move down closer towards ‘Basic Features’ as technology catches up and customers have come to expect them, so it’s important to reassess periodically.

You can find out more about how Kano applies to PM in Dan Olsen’s The Lean Product Playbook

Women asking questions

Which Model Should I Use?

Knowing which prioritization framework to use is tough! The Kano model is useful for making customer-centric decisions and focus on delight, but it can take time to carry out all the questionnaires needed for your insights to be accurate and fair.

Many people like the RICE scoring system as it takes confidence into account in a qualitative way, but there are still a lot of uncertainties.

MoSCoW focuses on what matters to both customer and stakeholders, which is particularly useful for Product Managers who struggle with managing stakeholder expectations. It’s also the simplest to understand for non-technical stakeholders. However, there’s nothing stopping you from putting too many things into ‘Must have’ and overextending your resources.

Of course, these aren’t the only three methods out there, and many talented PMs have their own ways of doing things. All you can do is test, test, and test again! A Product Management career is long and full of adventures, you’ll have plenty of time to find what works for you.

How Product Experts Prioritize

Microsoft: Applying The Eisenhower Matrix to a busy inbox

Microsoft Product Manager, Anusha Bahtnagar, a prioritization technique called The Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize what comes into her inbox. As a PM working with cross-continental teams, it’s common to wake up to a full inbox.

Our gut instinct when we get an email from someone higher-up, is to drop everything we’re working on and focus solely on that. But this might not be the best thing for our prioritization!

The Eisenhower Matrix effectively sorts your tasks/emails into four categories, and presents a solution.

  1. Important and Urgent: Top priority tasks that require your urgent attention (eg, crisis management tasks.)
  2. Urgent and Not Important: Time sensitive tasks that could be handled by someone else. Delegate these tasks.
  3. Important and Not Urgent: Tasks that you definitely need to do, but they can wait. Schedule these for the future.
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent: Declutter and eliminate tasks.

Amazon and Google: Making customer-focused prioritization decisions

A common theme across many companies, is that the customer comes first. The same goes for prioritization.

Asal Elleuch, a Senior Product Manager for Amazon Prime, calls prioritization “a never-ending and iterative process.”

It is constant if you are committed to delivering value. I make decisions on priority based on the impact to customer experience (am I solving a problem and if yes, how big is this for the customer?), the impact to key business metrics, and the level of effort or cost of getting this done.

Focusing on the customer gives you an incredibly useful yardstick for prioritization. After all, your company’s values should already be customer focused. And most of your stakeholders should also be aligned on The Why. The Product vision should also be heavily influenced by customer needs.

Being customer-focused in your prioritization will help keep your decisions aligned with everything else. Like one big customer-centric puzzle!

Google product teams achieve this by using North Star Metrics.

Your North Star Metric can be any metric or action which provides the most value to the customer. For instance, Spotify’s North Star Metric might be clicking ‘play’ on a song. Google Search’s North Star Metric might be clicking on a search result.

You can then base your prioritization decisions around that metric. Whatever updates/features/bug fixes will have a greater impact on that metric become high priority.

HSBC: The Art of Making Impossible Product Decisions

To help make decisions, with so many outside influences and interlocking web of things to consider, Mariano Capezzani came up with his own prioritization system.

Broken down into 4 steps, it gives you a solid footing for making quality prioritization decisions.

  1. Know the context. Understand things like how this task/feature fits with the KPIs of the company, the market trends, and related upcoming regulations.
  2. Understand the need. Learn to differentiate between what customers are asking for, and what they really need.
  3. Consider the execution. Are you aware of the intricate network of dependencies and their interlock that are needed to deliver something?
  4. Arrange the sequence. Apply a quick acid test to ensure it fits your criteria (contributes to company goals, benefits a market, etc.)

To learn more about this technique, check out Mariano’s awesome talk from #ProductCon London in 2019. We know you’ll love it!

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