Lessons on How to Prioritize Product Ideas

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Introduction

Your resources are limited, and even if you have money at your disposal, you don’t have infinite time. You can’t and shouldn’t build all your ideas, choose one, and execute well. I know this is easy to say but hard to do. This article is a summary of what I learned about the art of prioritizing products, and it is a work in progress that I hope to update as I gain more knowledge.

If you don’t have many ideas, I would highly recommend you to read this article first and come up with a list of a handful of ideas before thinking about prioritization or execution.

The first lesson: Don’t fall in love with your ideas

This was the hardest lesson I had to learn during my career as an engineer and Startup founder: Falling in love with your idea can be extremely dangerous if you fall for the wrong idea. Sometimes product creators behave like teenagers that are dating someone clearly bad for them but refuse to acknowledge it at all costs.

How can we make steps so that we can at least avoid this kind of myopia more often than we fall for it? I have some personal recipes that I use from time to time.

The first is to come up with as many ideas as possible so that I can become more detached from them individually. If you only have one idea, it has a disproportional amount of weight on your mind by having many ideas, and you can shrink the individual weight they have.

Another way is to not invest too much on an idea without external feedback, the more you invest on an idea more you will become attached to it, by constantly seeking external feedback you can reduce your delusions as long as you are open to listening.

Second Lesson: Avoid the shining object syndrome

Our new ideas tend to look better than they really are to us. Have you ever met a person that jumps from one business idea to the other each week? This jumping around making it impossible to make any real progress towards a successful product.

Humans have a tendency to value new over the old. Your new ideas will look better because your brain is wired to like new things. Another reason why the recently formed ideas will seem brilliant compared to what you are working on now is that you have a better understanding of the problems of your current idea than the problems of the new one.

A common consequence of this new idea is a loss of motivation for working on the old one. Fantasizing about how the new idea would be a great success or easier than the current one is a dangerous path and lead to procrastination and failure.

I use some tricks to at least decrease the level of damage this tendency has on my own work:

The first is to have my own “dream sessions” where I do some really low-resolution version of the ideas that are exciting me right now but are not related to my current projects and goals. I do this by sketching and drawing diagrams, screens, equations, algorithms in pseudocode, descriptions, etc. I use a dedicated notebook (I am trying an iPad for this now) for this “dream sessions”.

The second way is to pick your own idea apart mercilessly. Think about how everything that could go wrong will. Take every hypothesis and think about how it doesn’t make sense.

The third way is similar to the second, but instead of you criticizing the idea, ask a trusted friend to by the devil’s advocate and try to show how this is the most stupid idea in the world.

I have used all tree with success multiple times to cool down my moments of creative prepotency, thus avoiding to fall prey to the shining object syndrome.

Third Lesson: Use standards to make decisions

Using standards to make your decisions will help you have a clear picture of your options. Without some kind of standard to judge your ideas, you can easily fall prey to wishful thinking or become paralyzed by the sheer number of choices. Your prioritization standards will be nothing more than the way you will choose to rank your ideas. A good prioritization standard will make clear what ideas are good and the ones that are not so good considering the level of information you have at the moment.

In my search for a processual way to find a good process to prioritize my own ideas I came across a handful interesting techniques but one, in particular, made me fall in love: RICE scoring which is calculated by the formula:

Reach x Impact x Confidence รท Effort

To use this formula, you need to understand first what each of the components means:

Reach: the number of users that will be impacted by this product.

Impact: how much the users will be impacted or care about this in terms of minimal, low, medium, high, massive.
Confidence: A 0% to 100% score of how confident we are in the other scores.

Effort: estimated as a number of “person-months” (the work that one team member can do in a month)

Using the RICE score means basically scoring all your ideas on each of the four components and applying the formula to get a single number and then picking the ideas with the highest score.

This framework is beautifully explained in detail by the folks at Intercom in this article.

Forth Lesson: Don’t forget yourself

This lesson should be obvious by definition; however, it wasn’t to me when I started prioritizing my product ideas. I started using the RICE framework described above, but I was not feeling happy about it. When I was looking at the ranked list, something seemed to be missing, but I didn’t know what. After many iterations of thinking, I came to the conclusion that prioritizing features of an existing product is qualitatively different from doing the same for new project ideas. The biggest factor in play here is the size of the commitment. When you commit to starting a new project, you are deciding to put a lot of effort into it. You will spend your most valuable asset: your time.

There stories about successful weekend projects for sure, but this is an exception, and it’s because it’s an exception we will see a lot of attention on the news flowing to it. It’s the same with the successful young entrepreneur, the teenager that created an app and is now a millionaire. This is news because it’s not supposed to happen, not because it’s the norm. Creating a successful project requires time and commitment.

What the feature prioritization frameworks like RICE leave out is one important peace: You. This type of framework is great in terms of thinking about how to get the best bet in generating value; however, they leave out your personal values. To an engineer by training like me, this sounds like subjective bullshit, and I struggle with the concept of accounting for my only feelings, goals, and desires.

Considering the big personal investment involved in creating a new product, I have decided to account for my own values while prioritizing ideas. The two most important personal criteria I use are Improvement and Passion.

Think about what is important to you and define at least one personal criteria to combine with more traditional prioritizing techniques.

My Implementation

After many iterations, I ended up creating my own system for prioritizing ideas.

I use four main values as guides to decide on what to work on. You can use this as an example to build your own. These are the values I am currently using:

Value means how much value this would generate to users if your hypothesis is correct. You can use a score like big, medium, small, or use some sort of metrics like the number of users or addressable market. This is an estimation exercise, and you won’t get it entirely right, but the act of thinking about this is valuable for its own sake.

Improvement: I always enjoyed learning new things and have decided that this is an important value for my life. If I don’t feel motivated if I am not learning, I have optimized every step of my career for maximum personal growth. Project ideas will have different potential for teaching me. This is deeply personal because the same project that would help me learn new interesting things would deliver almost nothing to some other individual.

Passion: Life is short, and then you die. I think having fun while working is one of the biggest privileges you can have in your life. Choosing projects that will maximize fun improves my motivation and generates excitement, don’t underestimate these feelings. If I’m excited about a project, I will be more confident talking about it, and this is contagious, making it easier to attract talent, customers, and investors.

Effort: I measure this on the basis of the time I would use to make the idea happen. It’s hard to make a good prediction, but I tend to use ballpark categories like hours, days, weeks, and months. This helps me sort out projects that are on a completely different order of magnitude of effort.

Resources: Most projects can’t be executed by a single person, and even if it’s possible, you will need other resources besides your time. Measure how much money you will need to spend with services (like freelancers), software, hosting, assets, travel, etc. If you are in the context of a larger company, try to calculate how many hours of other company employees, it will be necessary to make this project happen.

Conclusion

One of the key concepts I have in mind when I think about startup ideas is that ideas are multipliers on execution. A lot of startup advice focuses on the fact that without execution, your ideas are worthless. A well-executed idea is better than a great idea not executed. However, you don’t need to choose between executing well and choosing a good idea to execute. Great founders do both.

Contradictorium

This session is an effort that I make to be more intellectually honest. Here I try to list how everything that I just told you could be wrong.

  1. Using a system to prioritize ideas could be the level of subjectivity on some of the criteria I’m proposing in this essay. It’s too easy to end up tweaking the scores just to do your current favorite pet project.
  2. The discipline required to do all this calculating and sorting can make it hard to stick to it so that doing this is not practical.
  3. It can be a distraction from executing, and you can get busy just organizing and playing with your prioritization parameter and never actually start doing a real project.
  4. It can lead to analyses paralyzes due to the six levels of freedom in the model.

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