How to Prioritize Ideas for Prototyping

Amy Weinrieb

Product Manager

Connector dot voting on sticky notes

Decision making comes in all shapes and sizes. Some can be made almost automatically, while others take time, frameworks, and tough questions. When I need to choose an icecream flavour amongst the overwhelming and equally delicious choices presented to me on a board, I can usually whittle it down after 2-3 samples. Ask me to choose between a morning heavy meeting day, or an afternoon one, I can say without any hesitation, mornings are always preferred. Now ask me how to guide a team to take 100+ ideas (none of which have been vetted yet) and choose which of those are the most strategic to prototype, and I’ll say… keep reading!

This article will equip you with:

  • An understanding of convergent thinking
  • Frameworks and templates to help get clarity on which ideas to prototype 
  • A feeling of comfort in knowing that this type of work often creates a sense of tension due to its ambiguous nature, and that’s totally normal!

We Diverge to Converge

Taking a few steps back, 100+ ideas don’t just miraculously appear. They are most likely a result of divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is all about making choices, and is often done through ideation (aka brainstorming) activities. Only when you’ve got ample ideas to choose from do you start convergent thinking. 

Another way to think about the divergent/convergent thinking approach is to look at divergent thinking as a set of activities to help generate as many solutions as possible. With divergent thinking, you’re not looking to evaluate or judge the impact of these ideas. That’s where convergent thinking comes in. 

With convergent thinking activities, we synthesize and prioritize the many ideas with the goal to evaluate and select which group of concepts move forward to the prototyping phase.

Synthesize to prioritize

Convergent thinking requires both synthesis and prioritization. Before I go into outlining the different frameworks you can apply to help make the right decision, I’d like to pause for alignment and share a few disclaimers. Pro tip: Knowing when to pause for alignment is a critical skill for great convergent thinking. 

Within the context of UX frameworks, synthesis is crucial. Without it, you’ve got too much ambiguity and no clear way to uncover trends or themes. Synthesis is the sensemaking that happens between design phases and it’s the process of turning ambiguity into meaningful insights. You can synthesize many things—data, survey results, qualitative research—but for the purpose of this article, we’ll be focusing on synthesising ideas. 

It’s important to acknowledge that prioritization is an art. It can be accomplished via answering a set of questions, or applying specific evaluation criteria to your plethora of options. The goal is to uncover what to tackle first, and what follows. Within the context of product development, the “art” piece comes into play via juggling multiple stakeholder inputs, resource constraints, timelines, and technical feasibility.

Stage one: Synthesis

Affinity Mapping: The organizational process of discerning explicit and implicit relationships between data. An attempt to identify patterns by combining and grouping data either by logic or intuition. 

Affinity mapping is my go-to method for idea synthesis. It’s extremely flexible, intuitive, relies on collaboration, and it reminds me of the pattern recognition activities that kindergarteners use, where there’s a square, circle, square and you need to choose what comes next. That being said, I’ve also conducted affinity mapping sessions, only to find myself spiraling in an infinite doom of self doubt, in which I keep questioning if we’re just going in circles, and not distilling clear themes. So let’s help you avoid the latter. The key to successful mapping is to determine the type of insights or categories you want to group your ideas into before you start mapping.

For example you can group your ideas into categories such as: 

  • Themes (Sharing, Saving, Discovering) 
  • Insights (Sharing to be helpful, Sharing to feel validated, Sharing as self expression)
  • Jobs/Pains/Gains (Peers think I’m knowledgeable, Increases knowledge)
  • Points along the customer journey. **Technically journey mapping is it’s own framework, but it can be used as a category for grouping. (Onboarding, Content discovery, Content sharing)

Another thing that’s helpful to keep in mind is that it’s completely normal to be overwhelmed during the first 30-60 minutes of the mapping session. As you and your team scan through all the ideas, looking for similarities, it takes time and familiarity with the ideas before you really get into the flow of knowing where and how to group them. Just trust the process. To get a detailed breakdown of what you need to conduct an affinity mapping session check out this resource. I’ve also found a ton of helpful tips here!

sticky notes being synthesized on a whiteboard organized into categories

Stage two: Prioritization

Impact Effort Matrix: A method used to prioritize a list of ideas for their potential to create Product Impact (desirability, project relevance) and the effort it would take to build/launch (technical feasibility, business viability).

This method is most helpful when you’ve got two pieces of criteria that are of somewhat similar importance. Impact and effort are just one example of the matrix labels. I’ve also used risk and value, or even time. In either case, it’s important to pick prioritization factors that can be quantified. There doesn’t need to be a numeric value assigned to each idea, but you need to be able to make the case for why one would have more perceived value over another.

impact effort matrix

Dot-voting: A method to make decisions as a group and narrow ideas down from many to a few.

This method can be used in combination with others to help narrow down choices and converge upon an agreed solution. You can dot-vote before running another prioritization exercise if you’ve got a good hunch that most of your concepts are on a level playing field, or dot vote after, once you’ve gone through an initial evaluation. You might also want to dot-vote first if you’re choosing to run a prioritization exercise that has a limit on the number of concepts (like Buy-a-feature). 

With dot-voting, you’re able to provide voting criteria to guide alignment, and even give greater weight to the input of certain stakeholders/decision makers by giving them more votes. With remote working constraints, I’ve had a ton of success running voting sessions via Miro. Their vote feature helps to combat some of the drawbacks of this method, such a group or persuaded voting.

Scorecard: A method to evaluate ideas based on multiple criteria, but usually targeting to somewhat validate the Desirability, Feasibility, and Business Viability of the product concepts.

The scorecard method is best for when there are more than two factors you want to measure against (Otherwise, I’d suggest the matrix approach above). RICE is a common set of factors used to evaluate your concepts, but you should adapt and include the evaluation criteria that works best for your context. 

There are two reasons why I like this method. For starters, you can add a weight to a specific criteria that need to be emphasized. It’s also one of the more standardized approaches. Using a scorecard applies a quantitative lens on criteria that is often measured qualitatively. The score assigned to each concept as the output of this method makes decision making more objective.

Buy-a-Feature: A prioritization framework where participants are given a fixed amount of play money to spend on proposed ideas/products/features. Resulting in a list of initiatives that users/client value most.

This framework helps make decisions when perspective is a little fuzzy and there are limited resources at play. It’s a nice reminder that you can’t have it all at once. With buy-a-feature, you need to determine the “price” of each concept prior to your shopping spree. The price is typically made up of the concept’s perceived cost, complexity, and risk. 

One of the added bonuses of this framework is that it can be played both individually, where you give your stakeholders their own budgets, or collectively as a group, where the team needs to negotiate and align on how they want to spend their pooled money. The price you assign to each concept is dependent on which option you go with.

Now that you’ve converged on what you’re going to prototype, celebrate! Alignment is a journey filled with ambiguity and friction. It’s worth pausing to recognize (and document) all your efforts to get to that sweet spot, before moving onto the fun task of building and validating your prototype!

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