My company has been shifting to Scrum teams for all of our products. Previously well-established Kanban processes are changing, allowing new opportunities to analyze and improve how things are being done.

One particular focus has been prioritizing backlog items. Previously, products and features were prioritized by executives, looking at perceived business values and potential efforts. Annual roadmaps were established to serve as a guide for development.

This seems like a good process, but there were many flaws. First off, the “annual” roadmap was not really annual; it would be established in March or April. While it would show from January to December, it has been typically a rush to fit most of our items into the last 9 months of the year.

The second problem is we do not always follow the roadmap. Items get removed or new products get added throughout the year. It’s good to revisit roadmaps throughout the year, but often the decisions to add or cull products were made without much warning or apparent discussion. As a product owner, gearing up to build an exciting new app to have it suddenly shuffled off to a “research” status is disappointing.

Lastly, estimates of when projects will start and how long they will take are often wrong. A project everyone thinks should take 2 months ends up taking 4 due to a variety of reasons, e.g. unforeseen complexity or resource scarcity.

Our move to Scrum and Lean Startup style methods has led us to revisit how we prioritize our backlog. I previously wrote a post on how a team could order a set of features. I have found a few new tools product teams can use to determine what work should be done first.

Value-Effort Plot

One method involves using a “value-effort” coordinate plane. Similar to an x-y axes we probably all remember from high school algebra, this plane lays out if an item is high or low value to the customer, while looking at the same time if it will take a lot or a little effort to deliver.

Illustration by Andy Wicks

Each quadrant represents priority. “High value, low effort” items should be done immediately. These features are big impact while taking little work. They should be a no-brainer. “Low value, high effort” features should be placed on the back burner while you tackle bigger items. The other quadrants have features that could provide your product a bigger bang for your effort buck.

Kano Model

In addition to looking at the effort and value, you can also look at features in a third way called the Kano model. This was a tool created by Noriaka Kano that looked at quality and customer satisfaction. His model uses a similar grid but maps out features to show if it’s one of three options: a delighter, satisfier or a basic expectation.

Illustration by Martin Eriksson

Basic expectations are features that everyone would expect from a product. An example would be a car having an engine and wheels. You would expect a car to travel from one place to another.

Delighters are features that really wows the users. For instance, a smartphone that can also act as a VR headset is a pretty cool feature. It adds extra value and makes the product unique.

Eventually, delighters become common in the market. Their value diminishes over time. These features become satisfiers. The value they provide is roughly equal to the effort needed to build the feature. Over enough time, satisfiers will become basic expectations.

A great example of this transition would be cameras on cell phones. At first, they were great features to have and helped set a cell phone apart from its competitors, especially if it took decent quality photos. Over time, these cameras on phones became more commonplace. The value they added wasn’t the same. Now these cameras are basic expectations. Can you imagine if Apple launched the new iPhone without a camera?

Things to Consider

  1. Re-balance your value-effort estimates after your first pass. Each quadrant should have roughly equal amount of features. Despite the team’s thoughts, not everything is high value!
  2. Don’t forget the basic expectations! They might not have a high value but they are what the customer expects from your product.
  3. Revisit your estimates at least once or twice a year. Priorities can change over time as you gain new insights and information from the market, competitors, customers, and your own business.

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