Managing feature requests: Enter the “Big List”

October 24, 2008

If you are a product company, and you have users, feature requests can become overwhelming. Folks write on our forums all the time, coming up with great suggestions for how to improve FreshBooks. It’s a key part of our business to have this sort of consistent ongoing feedback from our customers.

But as we’ve grown, the pace of incoming requests has far outstripped our ability to execute on them, and so folks are being presented again and again with the standard reply: “We’ll pass that on to our developers.”

I know that sounds like, “Shut up and go away,” but when Grace or Randy or whoever say that to you, they’re actually doing what they say, and I thought you’d appreciate seeing how that works.

We’ve built a custom tool to help us manage feature reqeusts, which is kind of weird since it’s a problem virtually every software company runs into, but nobody has a tool that does just what we wanted done.

What we wanted done was to track incoming requests and be able to accurately assess how many people are asking for them through ALL our communication channels. This is where a lot of “crowd-sourcing” tools fall down — they focus on just one channel. But we wanted to be able to track phone calls, forum posts and emails, as well as our own staff votes for particular items. So now we have such a tool. I’m not always super-imaginative about this sort of stuff and it was my project, so I’ve called it The Big List.

The Big List is just what it sounds like — an enormous list of feature requests, prioritized by two things: how many people ask for them and by how important we think they are. We only implemented the big list a few weeks ago and it’s pretty cool. Here’s a peek at a typical feature: a request to manage partial payments on FreshBooks invoices:

The Big List

You can see on the right hand side that this entry records nine forum posts about this issue (I know there’s more out there; we haven’t finished entering all the information for this entry yet), no phone calls and thirteen “RT” tickets (yeah, presently we use RT for support issue tracking), and that no staff members have yet voted for it yet. Nine plus none plus thirteen plus none equals twenty-two, which is what the big number twenty-two on the other side of the screen means.

You can also see Myleen added a helpful comment — it tells us that this request is being worked on and that link goes to our work tracking system. (NOTE: we actually rolled this out last week) So if somebody wants to check in with the developer who’s working on this item, they can just follow that link and see the progress. Myleen’s helpful; that’s just one reason we love her so much.

Up in the top right you can see a cheerful button that says “Bump!” — folks can use that to arbitrarily adjust the priority value (currently 22) for the entry. Sometimes we know the priority for a request is high but we don’t have the time to comb through the forums and emails to find references, so this lets us pop something up quickly.

You can see the actual content here is pretty simple; this is a record of stuff folks are asking for, not a complete development spec. If we decide to implement this, there’s a ton of design work we’ll have to do, but we’re not worrying about that now. We don’t need that much detail to know how to prioritize this, and that’s what this stage of the game is all about.

I hope that makes it a little easier to hear “We’ll pass that on to our developers,” and I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse “behind the curtain” to see how we get things done here at FreshBooks.

about the author

FreshBooks is the #1 accounting software in the cloud designed to make billing painless for small businesses and their teams. Today, over 10 million small businesses use FreshBooks to effortlessly send professional looking invoices, organize expenses and track their billable time.