Hi, I'm Dave Mulder. This is my website, where I write about user experience and product design.

Originally Published: September 2, 2014

A sales-oriented decision framework for product managers

Among a few roles I have with Conferences i/o, I am our team’s primary Product Manager. This means that it is my responsibility to determine what the Product Team should be working on, in our long-term mission to make our core product even better for customers.

Like all product managers, I regularly face an important question: what should we be working on next?

And again, like all product managers, I generally use a simple decision framework — what we will be working on next will be what’s most important.

Important, though, is a slippery word. What’s important to someone else is not necessarily what’s important to me. (This is as true in product management as it is all aspects of life.)

Here are some of the more common mechanisms product managers use to ascertain the importance of various features and functionality:

  • The CEO has directed Feature X as our top priority.
  • To meet our product vision, we need Feature X.
  • We’ve received a lot of customer feedback about improving Feature Y.
  • Our marketing group thinks we can generate more interest if we overhaul Feature Z.
  • Our sales team has heard that Feature W would be nice to have.
  • A competitor just introduced Feature H and we need to add the same thing.
  • An influencer in our space says that our Feature J is underwhelming, and we need to fix this.

Unfortunately, there’s no clear hierarchy among these mechanisms, with the lone exception that your company’s CEO can probably trump any decision you make. So, aside from your CEO, whose voice should we be listening to with rapt attention?

Here’s a framework that might make this easier: focus on what generates sales.

In the pursuit of sales, everything you could possibly work on falls into one of these three buckets.

Bucket #1: Needle-movers
When we talk about moving the needle, we’re talking about sales, the lifeblood of businesses. Needle-movers are the small set of core benefits that are the reasons why people purchase or use your product.

For example, needle-movers for Conferences i/o include improvements to our core engagement features, like polling and Q&A. Other needle-movers include things we can add to streamline the management of live audience engagement at larger events and conferences.

Bucket #2: Dealbreakers
Even if a potential customer acknowledges the needle-moving benefits of your product, there may be some specific reason that they can’t move forward.

For example, with Conferences i/o, prospective customers might love our live audience engagement benefits, but their meeting venue doesn’t offer wi-fi or has very poor cellular service. Those dealbreakers mean that the purchase doesn’t make sense for them.

Bucket #3: Everything Else (AKA the “Backlog”)
Anything that’s not a needle-mover, and not a dealbreaker, can reasonably find a home in your product’s backlog. You know something is destined for the backlog if the best descriptor for it is “that would be nice to have.”

With those buckets in mind, let’s consider a real-world example. Imagine for a moment that you’re the Chief Product Officer, the big enchilada of Product Managers, for Dropbox. Dropbox, as you know, provides an exceptional cloud-based file backup service.

What are Dropbox’s needle-moving benefits?

  • Reliability and security of backups.
  • Ease of sharing files with others.
  • Interoperability (works on most platforms).

Now, what are some potential dealbreakers for Dropbox?

  • Poor offline support on iPad and iPhone.
  • Poor support for large teams/groups.
  • Lack of configurable syncing; everything is synced by default.

What are some features that might exist in the backlog?

  • Editing documents (like Word and Excel) directly in Dropbox.
  • Webhooks when files are added/modified/deleted.

Based on this list, as the Chief Product Officer for Dropbox, you should prioritize any features and improvements that will meaningfully promote the service’s core benefits. When those core areas are in a good place, you can pursue the elimination of dealbreakers. And your backlog at Dropbox should be absolutely overflowing.

Forging ahead

Most potential features and improvements that you consider for development aren’t needle-movers, and they aren’t dealbreakers either. Almost everything falls into that third bucket, the catch-all backlog. But, backlog work is a distraction from the most valuable work that pushes our products forward.

We can’t be great at everything. We can only be great at a few things. So the few things that we can be great at should be things that move the needle with our customers.

Netflix dominates the streaming content space because it nails its core benefits (lots of available content, some high quality original programming, and smooth playback). A lot of Netflix’s content is staggeringly mediocre, but as long as the company maintains those core benefits, people will gladly pay.

Mint does well in the financial app space thanks to its core benefit — helping people monitor their many financial accounts. The process of connecting accounts into Mint isn’t always easy, and Mint’s recommendations for credit cards are rarely helpful, but in spite of those limitations the core benefit is enough to keep people engaged with the service.

If you’re a fellow Product Manager, and if you find yourself struggling at times to decide what your team should work on next, think about what moves the needle for your company, and put your energy into making that as good as it can be.