Roadmap poison: Voting for features

Part 1: The importance of collecting and understanding feature requests from your sales teams & prospects

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Voting is frequently used as a method for determining which features & improvements make it into your product roadmap; especially when it comes to understanding demand from your customer base.

In our last software business, we would log improvements & feature requests in a spreadsheet (then Trello). This worked well when we were starting out; when you are small, it’s easy to combine features votes with what you hear from customers & prospects to reach the best way forwards. However, we outgrew this method very quickly and began constantly reaching the limitations of feature votes.

As we scaled, feature votes actually began to damage our product roadmap. The reason for this is “The 3 Ws”.

1 - Feature votes don’t capture WHEN

Customer priorities change all of the time. Are your priorities the same this week as they were a month ago? Probably not…

As soon as a customer hits “+1”, that vote will STICK. Not capturing what is important or how priorities change over time means you are missing out BIG TIME.

You can guarantee that the demands & priorities of new users will be very different to someone who’s been using your product for months. Markets change, circumstances change, customers churn and staff come & go…feature votes don’t capture this.

This is super dangerous when combined with the second W — WHO…

2 -  Feature votes don’t explain WHO

How many free triallers or “bad fit” customers are voting up features? How many people who have never even logged into your product are influencing which features are voted to the top? How many votes are from churned customers?

If you don’t understand who feature demand is coming from, you can’t make smart product decisions.

Because feature votes don’t show who requests have come from, “popular” features can easily worm their way into your product roadmap, soaking up vital development resources and setting you off on a path that isn’t aligned with your company goals.

You aren’t on the X Factor and building the most popular features is a terrible idea when it comes to software.

However, if you do understand who feature demand is coming from, you can align your product decisions with your product & company strategy very easily. Let’s take a look at a small example…

Let’s imagine:

  • I’m running a software company which sells a support tool
  • We have a few Enterprise accounts but SMEs is our sweet spot
  • The company strategy is to grow SME accounts in Europe

Based on features votes only (the most popular), we should consider building the following 5 features:

In contrast, if we look at paying, SME accounts only and fold in priorities, the 5 features at the top of the list are very different to the most popular features:

Churned users, again have different demands. This is a great opportunity to gain insight into why users left; is there a product gap? A missed opportunity? Or were some of these customers a bad fit? You can’t answer these questions properly without having data:

Finally, let’s look at prioritized demand from good fit prospects only (i.e, based in Europe, SME):

The 4 reports are shown together for easier comparison with popular features highlighted to show where demand sits across the segmented groups:

Building the popular features isn’t an optimal use of your resources. Unless you understand priority and who feature votes are coming from, you can easily find yourself committing development resources (and a lot of your own time) building features that don’t align with your product & company strategy. Ouch.

3 - Feature votes don’t tell you WHY

Finally, feature votes don’t give you the “why”. You have to understand why there is demand for certain features. Customers & prospects use the feature request as the currency for describing a pain point.

Demand for a feature might not involve actually building the feature requested! The request could highlight a misunderstanding, gap in help documentation, something you missed in onboarding or a poor piece of UX.

Only build new features when you are solving a real problem for the people that matter the most.

In summary…

Feature votes are OK but you have to understanding their limitations. Use the data as just one input you take into consideration as you build your product roadmap.

“The 3 Ws” highlight why Product Demand Intelligence -  understanding feature demand from your customers, internal teams & prospects is vital for software companies. Feature votes alone simply don’t cut it in 2016 & beyond.

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