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Understanding product features and how to prioritize them

PostsDesign & UX
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

July 07, 2023

In the world of product development, terms like ‘product features’, ‘benefits’, ‘user stories’, ‘requirements’, and ‘epics’ are thrown around like leaves in the wind. And while these phrases are essential when it comes to definitions, their meanings can sometimes blur, leading to confusion within teams.

In this article, we’re going to define the term ‘product features’, then look at some common term mix-ups, followed by tips on how to identify, prioritize and incorporate features like a pro. Let’s get started! 

What are product features?

Product features are the characteristics of your product. This could include things like color and design, specific functionalities like one-click checkout, or real-time updates. For example, if you’re selling a smartphone, its features might include a high-res camera, a long battery life, or a certain screen size.

Product features provide factual, objective details about what your product is and what it does. Combined, they make up your product and distinguish it from others in the marketplace. By clearly defining your product’s features, you help customers work out what your product does and how it can help them.

But remember — product features are just one side of the coin, the other side being product benefits. While features describe what a product does or its attributes, benefits communicate why these features are important or valuable to the user. But we’ll get more into the nuances of features versus benefits later.

For now, let’s stick with understanding features. They’re the meat and veg of your product — the tangible specifics that make your product what it is. Understanding them well is the first step in building a solid product strategy.

The difference between features and benefits 

Product features are the tangible, concrete characteristics of your product — the ‘what’ in the equation. But while features provide critical information, they don’t always directly convey the value they bring to the user. That’s where benefits come in.

Benefits represent the ‘why’. They communicate the value or advantage that the product’s features give to the user. Essentially, benefits answer the critical question every customer has: ‘What’s in it for me?’ 

Demonstrating how the product can solve a problem, make life easier, or provide enjoyment is how you show this to the customer.

There’s an old advertising adage that says, ‘sell the sizzle, not the steak’, meaning people buy the outcome of something, not the thing itself. In this context, your features are the steak and your benefits are the sizzle. You can’t have one without the other — but when it comes to talking to your customers, it’s the sizzle they want. 

Let’s take a typical laptop feature for example: it’s lightweight. That’s a clear, factual attribute of the product. But what does that really mean for your customers? Well, being lightweight makes the laptop easy to carry, which is a benefit for people who are always on the go or who value portability.

So, while both features and benefits describe the product, they do so from different perspectives. Features focus on the physical product, while benefits focus on the user experience. Both are important, but they fulfill different roles.

User stories vs requirements vs epics

User stories are a crucial part of agile software development. They’re short, simple descriptions of a feature, told from the perspective of the person who wants a new capability — usually a user or a customer of the system.

A well-written user story typically follows a simple template: ‘As a [type of user], I want [some goal] so that [some reason].’ This format keeps the focus on the user and their needs, and it ties these needs directly to an outcome.

Here’s an example. If you’re developing an e-commerce website, a user story might be, ‘as a shopper, I want to be able to filter products by size and color so that I can find items that I like and that fit me’.

In this case, ‘shopper’ is the type of user, the ability to filter products by size and color is the goal, and finding suitable items faster is the reason. This user story gives a clear understanding of what the shopper needs and why they need it, giving the development team context and guidance for building this feature.

User stories are not detailed specifications, though. They’re more like conversation starters. The details come later, in conversations between the development team, product managers, and stakeholders, and through user interface designs, tests, and other forms of requirements.

User stories encourage the team to think about the product from the end user’s perspective. They also play a vital role in planning and prioritization. (In agile development, user stories are often written on sticky notes and arranged on a board. The team can then move them around to prioritize them, group them into related sets, and plan for iterative development).

The difference between user stories and requirements 

User stories are a critical link between the user’s experience and the technical implementation of our product. But where do requirements come in?

Requirements are the technical and business necessities that a product needs to meet to fulfill user stories and, ultimately, to be successful. They are usually more detailed and granular than user stories, providing the guidelines developers and designers follow when building a feature. So if user stories are the ‘why’ and the ‘what,’ requirements are the ‘how.’

To come back to our e-commerce site example, a requirement might be: ‘the product filtering function must allow users to select multiple sizes and colors at once, and it must update the list of products instantly after each selection is made.’ This requirement provides specific details on how to implement the feature described in the user story.

The difference between user stories and requirements 

Analogy time. If user stories are short tales and requirements are plot details, then epics are the overarching saga.

Epics are large-scale features or goals that encompass multiple user stories. They are significant chunks of work that are broken down into a collection of related user stories to make them more manageable.

To return to our e-commerce website. Let’s say there’s an epic labeled ‘Improve Shopping Experience.’ This epic might include user stories like the product filtering feature we mentioned earlier, plus others like ‘as a shopper, I want to compare products side-by-side so I can make better purchase decisions’. Or ‘as a shopper, I want to save items to a wishlist so that I can review and buy them later.’

In essence, epics, user stories, and requirements form a hierarchy in product development, with each level offering a different perspective and level of detail. They help ensure every piece of work feeds into the overall goals of the product and that everyone on the team understands the purpose and value of the features they’re working on.

What’s a product roadmap? 

The product roadmap visually illustrates the evolution of a product over a given timeframe. It’s the blueprint of your product’s journey, showing everyone what you’re planning to build, why you’re building it, and how you’ll get there.

A product roadmap communicates the ‘what’, ‘why’, and ‘how’ behind your product to various stakeholders, including your team and customers. It also includes features, priorities, milestones, and deadlines. 

Here’s a little more detail on the components of a product roadmap:

  1. Vision: This is a summary of what you want to achieve in the long term. It forms the foundation of your roadmap.
  2. Goals: These are the strategic objectives that help you achieve your vision. They are the ‘why’ behind your product.
  3. Features and enhancements: These are the tangible elements of your product — the ones that deliver value to the user. They’re usually the most visible parts of your roadmap.
  4. Timeframes: A roadmap typically has timeframes, which give a rough estimate of when different features or enhancements will be complete. This helps you manage expectations and keep everyone on the same path.
  5. Dependencies and risks: This includes anything that could delay or derail your project, including dependencies, or external factors like suppliers and logistics.

Where do product features belong on the product roadmap?

In a perfect world, every feature you dream up would find its way to your product roadmap. But resources like time, budget, and personnel are often limited, making it necessary to prioritize. So, when should a feature make the cut? 

  1. Strategic alignment: First and foremost, a feature should align with your business strategy. If it doesn’t, it might not be the best use of your resources. A good litmus test is to ask, ‘How does this feature help us achieve our goal?’
  2. Customer value: Consider the potential value a feature can bring to your customers. If it can solve a problem or improve their experience, it deserves a spot on your roadmap.
  3. Market differentiation: Features that differentiate your product in the market are also strong contenders for the roadmap. 
  4. Feasibility: Even the most attractive feature might not be feasible due to various limitations. Before a feature can make its way onto the roadmap, check to see whether you can realistically do it. 
  5. Stakeholder input: Lastly, but no less important, is the input from your stakeholders. This can include your customers (user feedback and requests), your team (technical insights), your company leadership (strategic direction), and even market trends (industry developments).

How to identify product features 

Identifying product features is about translating your users’ needs, market dynamics, and business goals into specific features. There are a few ways to do this. 

  • User feedback: Unsurprisingly, users can give you insight into what your users want — specifically their needs and preferences. Surveys, interviews, user testing, contextual inquiries, and analyzing user behavior within your product are all great ways to harvest this information.
  • Competitor analysis: Studying competitors’ offerings will help you spot gaps in the market or features that users value. But it’s essential not to copy blindly. Instead, aim to offer something better or different.
  • Market trends: Keeping an eye on emerging trends in your industry can help you locate features that could be relevant to your users.
  • Stakeholder input: Stakeholders, including team members, leadership, and external partners, can all offer useful perspectives and ideas for potential features.

How to create product features

Once you’ve got a list of potential features, the next step is to define and design them. This is where your vision starts coming to life! 

  • Writing user stories and requirements: This is where the initial ideas are translated into a language the product development team understands. User stories capture the feature from the user’s perspective, while requirements outline the technical specs.
  • Design and prototyping: Designers use user stories and requirements to create user interfaces and interactive prototypes.
  • Technical implementation: Developers build the feature according to the requirements and designs. This usually involves several cycles of coding, testing, and refining (as part of the continuous delivery lifecycle). 

How to prioritize product features 

This involves deciding which features to focus on first, based on their impact and effort.

There are a few frameworks to help you work this out, including the RICE model (Reach, Impact, Confidence, Effort) and the MoSCoW method (Must-have, Should-have, Could-have, Won’t-have).

To put it simply, the features that offer the most value should appear at the top of your priority list, as well as the quick wins. Those that offer less value for the time/resources required belong nearer the bottom.

Identifying, creating, and prioritizing product features is a crucial part of product management. This is no mean feat. It involves a delicate balance of strategic thinking, user understanding, technical knowledge, and project management. But when you get it right, it raises your chances of a product that truly answers the needs of your users. 

How to incorporate features into product planning 

The product plan is your roadmap to achieving your goals. And the features? They’re the building blocks that will shape your product. So, how do you go about incorporating these building blocks into your product planning? Here’s how. 

Understand your users

I know, I know, we’ve hammered this point quite a bit already. But it’s worth repeating: understanding your users is the cornerstone of any successful product plan. Conduct user research, solicit feedback, and study user behavior. All of this gives you invaluable insights that guide the selection and design of your product features.

Align features with product goals and objectives

Every feature you plan to include in your product should tie back to your product’s overall goals and objectives. A random flashy feature might sound exciting, but if it doesn’t serve your product’s purpose or help achieve its objectives, it’s best left on the cutting room floor.

Prioritize ruthlessly

Product people often have more ideas than they can realistically implement. And that’s okay! The key is to prioritize ruthlessly. Think about the impact of each feature, the effort required to build it, and how it fits with your overall product strategy. This will help you decide which features to focus on first.

Plan for flexibility

The product development landscape is dynamic, and the ability to adapt is crucial. Be prepared to revise your feature priorities as you gather more information, receive user feedback, or encounter unexpected challenges. Your product plan should be flexible enough to accommodate these shifts. 

For this reason, we recommend investing in a good project management tool, which helps everyone stay on top of the latest developments via things like virtual Kanban boards and real-time notifications. (Backlog has an interactive one that’s super easy to use!) 

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Keep everyone in the loop — your team, and your internal and external stakeholders. Clearly articulating your planned features, their purpose, and their status helps ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction. 

Incorporating features into your product planning might seem like a puzzle at first, but with these strategies in your toolkit, you’ll be all set to create a product plan that drives your team to the finish line. 

Final thoughts

Whether it’s user-friendly interfaces or customizable options, the right set of features can empower customers, solve their pain points, and provide immense value. By recognizing the pivotal role these features play in influencing consumer decisions, you can make informed decisions about the functionalities to include in your products.

It is crucial to conduct thorough market research and identify the pain points and desires of the target audience to ensure that the features align with their needs. Moreover, you must also strike a balance between innovation and practicality, creating features that are both exciting and user-friendly.

By incorporating valuable and unique functionalities, keeping an eye on emerging trends, and studying your users, you can differentiate your products in a competitive landscape and capture the attention of your consumers.



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