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How To Define Features in Agile Methodology?

19th Feb, 2024
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    How To Define Features in Agile Methodology?

    Agile projects are known for their simple, iterative approach to cutting through the complexity. Even the most ambitious of Agile projects is taken one step at a time and break down complex work packages and tasks into low-level subtasks. Features and capabilities that are needed in the finished product are listed out and then broken down into manageable chunks, which are taken up and completed, one at a time.

    In this article, we will talk about Features in an Agile project, what are the characteristics of features and how they are applied. The best Agile certifications will help you get experiential learning.

    What is a Feature in Agile Methodology?

    A feature is a service or function of the product that delivers business value and fulfils the customer’s need. Each feature is broken down into several user stories, as it is usually too big to be worked on directly. 

    A user story is an informal, short description of a part of a software feature that is written from the user’s perspective and talks about how this particular bit of the feature will offer something of value.

    Why Use Features in Scrum and Not Only User Stories?

    A feature is something that is sizeable enough to deliver measurable value to customers and creates a large chunk of functionality. Features are used to describe the functionality at a macro level, and they are required to create schedules and plan the high-level release of the product.

    Scrum works on the premise of short development cycles called Sprints, which usually last between 2 weeks and a month but not longer. One feature is typically completed over several sprints. In one sprint, only several user stories can be completed and not, perhaps, an entire feature.

    What’s the Difference Between Features and Epics in Agile?

    What’s the difference between features and epics in Agile

    The product backlog is usually detailed into three levels of complexity with respect to tasks. 

    • Epics are large quantities of related work that can be broken down into features. 
    • A feature, as we have seen, is a service or function that delivers value to the end user. 
    • Each feature is broken down into a number of smaller and simpler tasks known as user stories. 

    Do note that for a smaller project, with only around 8 to 10 people on the team, the product backlog may be divided into just features and user stories. Epics come into the picture for large projects with multiple teams who are working over a duration of several years.

    Who Writes Features in Scrum, and what are the Steps Involved?

    The Scrum Guide, considered to be the Bible for all things Scrum, does not lay out any guidelines for the use of features.

    However, Scaled Agile, Inc. indicates that the Product Manager is the owner of the Features, which is to say, he or she finally decides what goes into the feature and what is its priority on the Backlog. The features are not necessarily written by the Product Manager, however, and this could be done by others on the team. Going for the professional Scrum Master certification training will help you crack PSM exam on the first go. 

    How To Write Features

    There are several steps in the definition and writing of features. 

    1. Define the WHY, or the benefit hypothesis: What is the functionality that the users gain from the feature? What are the benefits to be gained from implementing this feature? 
    2. Calculate the business value: Keep in mind the number of users, how often each of them uses the feature, what is the timeframe within which the feature must be released for it to be useful, and how much effort goes into developing this feature. All these together will help to determine the ROI of the feature and ultimately whether it is worth the effort and cost. Features that bring in the most benefit at least cost will be prioritised. 
    3. Describe the feature: What is the context and how will it be used? What is the need for the feature? Try to include technical details and any information that is important from the Product Manager’s point of view. 
    4. Write down the acceptance criteria: What are the conditions under which the feature can be deemed to be done? This will help to reduce any ambiguity and mark work progress. 

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    How Big Should the Product Features be?

    While there is no hard and fast rule on this, and it is left largely to the convenience of project teams, it is generally agreed that it should be possible to complete a feature within a maximum of three months. 

    When using SAFe, a feature is released in one single program increment. 

    Teams that are working with investor funding and are getting the funds at regular cycles should be able to showcase a completed feature during each investment cycle, in order to demonstrate that they are progressing on track. 

    What are Feature Points?

    Feature points represent the amount of work complexity, effort taken, and knowledge required to complete one feature. They are the same as story points, but in the context of a feature rather than a user story.

    What are Features Called in Different Agile Methodologies?

    A feature, while essentially having the exact definition, could be called by different terms in different Agile methodologies.

    • In Scrum, a feature is often referred to as a Backlog Item.  
    • In XP, features are called Stories.
    • DSDM terms a feature as a requirement. This could club together several system features.
    • Agile UP defines features in the form of requirements and use cases.

    What are the Characteristics of Features?

    To be effective, a feature should always

    • Offer measurable business value,  
    • Contain enough information to allow for estimation of the work involved,
    • Be small enough to be completed within a program increment or maximum of three months,  
    • Be testable by the scrum team and the product management team.

    How to Write Features? [Step-by-Step] 

    Writing Agile features requires a user-focused, iterative approach. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to write Agile features:

    How to write Features?
    Guidelines for Writing Features in Agile

    In Agile, features are functional components that provide substantial business value and satisfy a stakeholder's requirement. Features are sizable pieces of value that customers can measure and generally make up a large part of the product's functionality.

    Know the "Why"

    Always go back to your product mission and customer journey to ensure that you deliver the most value. Determine your benefit hypothesis and consider what gain users can get from the feature.

    Evaluate your Business Value

    Consider the number of users, how often they'll use the feature, the timing of your release, and the development effort required. With all these elements, you can quickly determine the return on investment from the feature.

    Describe the features

    Focus on how the users will utilize the feature, rather than what they need it for. Describe what necessity the features satisfy instead of the implementation. Keep the descriptions concise and use language that is easy for everyone to understand.

    Note the acceptance criteria

    Including acceptance criteria ensures that all stakeholders have a shared understanding of what must be delivered for a given feature to be considered complete. It can save time and frustration during development when mismatched expectations could otherwise lead to problems.

    • Formulate Benefit Hypothesis- Specify how the functionality will provide advantages to users.

    For example- As a Product Manager, I noticed a problem: many customers prefer calling to rent a service instead of using our website. They do this because they want someone to help them choose the right service. This is causing issues for our team and limiting the number of customers we can reach. That's why I want our system to be able to recommend the best service for customers based on their needs. This change will make things easier for customers and our team. It's like having a helpful guide built into our system. This information is crucial for the team to understand why we're making this feature and how it will improve things for everyone.

    • Evaluate Business Value- Determine the business value through various methods, considering user volume, feature usage frequency, release timing, and development effort.

    I did a quick study to see how helpful it could be. For a week, we asked people who booked a service over the phone if they'd rather do it on the website with personalized advice on services. Surprisingly, 68% said yes because it saves time, and 32% feel better talking to someone to learn about services. I also checked with the marketing team to see how long people spend reading about services and if they book afterward. Turns out, if we add this new feature, we could sell 25% more of the basic services online in a month. It would also save 10% of the support team's time, giving them room for other important tasks. I shared all this info in the feature report because it's vital to decide which features to work on first—those that give us the most benefits without too much effort.

    • Description- Articulate the feature's context and user interactions, emphasizing the necessity rather than the technical implementation.

    To describe new feature, I've listed the questions that people often ask our Support team when they book a basic service. These are things they should be able to find on our website. I've also suggested a plan for how users will move through the feature, but we'll talk more about it with the team. The description has important stuff from my view as the Product Manager and techie details that the team, especially the scrum team, will figure out to make the feature work smoothly.

    • Establish Acceptance Criteria/DoD - Clearly define the conditions that signify the completion of a feature. Similar to acceptance criteria for user stories, features serve definition of done as key criteria and checkpoints for gauging progress in product development.

    In my case, I checked if a user submitting for a specific service on the website can retrieve the correct results, ensuring personalization they are looking for. Here, the acceptance criteria do not relate to how features are being implemented but depends on functionality. 

    Best Practices for Defining Agile Features

    According to me, following best practices will leave less room for mistakes. Taking care of the following best practices while using features, will bring more fruitful results.

    • Prioritize a user-cantered approach by focusing on the needs, preferences, and challenges of end-users.
    • Collaborate with stakeholders to prioritize features based on their value to users and overall business goals.
    • Embrace the iterative nature of Agile development, regularly reviewing and adapting features based on feedback, changing market conditions, and evolving project requirements for continuous improvement.
    • Foster collaboration among cross-functional teams, including developers, testers, and product owners, to ensure a shared understanding of features for smoother implementation and reduced miscommunication.
    • Clearly define acceptance criteria for each feature to establish measurable benchmarks for completion, enhancing transparency and reducing ambiguity.
    • Utilize prototyping and mock-ups to visualize feature implementations, clarify requirements, validate design decisions, and ensure a common understanding among team members and stakeholders.

    Features vs. Epics in Agile 

    In Agile development, features and epics are terms used to describe work units, but they differ in scope and complexity. Here's a breakdown of the distinctions between features and epics.

    Smaller, focused on a group of user stories
    Larger, encompassing multiple features
    Relatively small and granular
    Larger and more complex
    Developed within a short timeframe
    May span multiple sprints or releases
    User Stories
    Composed of one or more user stories
    Consisting of multiple features and stories
    Short-term goals, prioritized for immediate value to users
    Long-term strategic planning, prioritized based on broader business objectives
    Task Prioritization feature in a project management tool
    Enhance Task Management epic in the same project management tool, encompassing features like task prioritization, categorization, and dependencies

    Feature Breakdown Structure (FBS)

    The Feature Breakdown Structure (FBS) is a project management tool used to decompose and organize features into user stories within a product or project. Like a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS), which breaks down project tasks, the FBS focuses specifically on features. It provides a hierarchical representation of features, breaking them into smaller, more manageable components.

    Feature Breakdown Structure

    At the top level, the FBS outlines the significant features essential for the project's success. Each feature is further detailed as you descend through the hierarchy, often into sub-features or user stories. This breakdown aids in a more comprehensive understanding of the project scope, allowing for effective planning, prioritization, and resource allocation.

    The FBS is a visual and organizational tool fostering clear communication among team members, stakeholders, and product owners. It helps identify dependencies, estimate efforts, and ensure that the project team aligns with the project objectives. The FBS is particularly valuable in Agile environments, facilitating iterative development and adaptability as the project progresses, ensuring that the delivered features meet user needs and align with project goals.

    Building an Initial Feature List

    At the very start, before the release planning and iteration planning can happen, the team must sit together and list out as many potential features for the system as possible at this stage. Feature requests can come from many sources, and one person should be allocated to collate all these requests. While this could be the product manager, it could also be a customer proxy, a business analyst or someone who is responsible and accountable to the team. 

    The team should refine these requirements, weeding out duplicate items, features that are not possible to implement, and requests that are very vague. As the features are identified, they are added to the list so that they can become a part of the planning processes. 

    This initial feature list can be considered to be a preliminary outline that can be used as input to chart out the release and first iteration. It is not required to wait until all features are defined before getting started on the actual work, and it is also understood that the original list, descriptions, and priorities will evolve over time. 

    Instead of waiting for everything to get detailed out at the outset, the team can get to work with the initial list without wasting any valuable time. As new features which could be critical get identified, they are simply added into the evolving release plan and will get delivered during a subsequent iteration. As the project progresses, the work adapts itself to accommodate new priorities, additional information from stakeholders, and the changing industry dynamics.

     Agile Methodologies - Steps

    Advantages of Breaking Down Features into Smaller User Stories

    User stories, as we have learned, represent smaller chunks of work while features represent fully formed functionalities of the product. There are many advantages to breaking down the features into functionalities, and the main ones are these:

    • Stories narrow down the focus: Stories are small, doable portions of the work that do not overwhelm the developer. They represent an entire piece of functionality, however small it is, and so can measure incremental progress.
    • Stories fit into a sprint: Features are too large to be completed within a sprint, but stories can be finished within this duration. This allows more efficient scheduling and planning of sprint tasks.
    • Stories capture both intent and outcome: A product manager (who is not required to be technically fluent) can easily describe the outcome of a story to the developer, so that he or she can understand the intent.
    • Stories mitigate the risk: As big stories come with a lot more complexity, they also involve more risk. When features are broken down into smaller stories, this risk is mitigated. Anny erroneous assumptions can be curtailed within a few days rather than several weeks into development. 

    Feature vs Task Planning

    Features come into play at a macro level of planning, and it is essential that at a later point they will need to be broken down into tasks and estimated. This is done during sprint planning and release planning.

    Feature planning and estimates help to schedule releases and iterations. Task planning and estimates help to allocate resources and plan the tasks within an iteration.

    Since the nature of agile project plans is always fluid and not very precise, feature estimates need not exactly map to a number of task estimates, but there should be a rough approximation between the two.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    1How are features different from user stories in Agile?

    In Agile, features are higher-level functionalities that encompass multiple user stories. Features provide a broader perspective, while user stories break down specific functionalities within features, offering more granular details.

    2How are features tracked and monitored in Agile projects?

    Features are tracked in Agile through visual tools like Kanban boards or project management software. Progress is monitored by tracking the completion status of individual user stories within features. Regular team meetings and sprint reviews further ensure effective monitoring.

    3How are features estimated in Agile?

    Estimating features in Agile involves assigning story points or relative sizing. Teams collectively evaluate the complexity and effort required for each feature during sprint planning, fostering a shared understanding and aiding in prioritization.


    Lindy Quick

    Blog Author

    Lindy Quick, SPCT, is a dynamic Transformation Architect and Senior Business Agility Consultant with a proven track record of success in driving agile transformations. With expertise in multiple agile frameworks, including SAFe, Scrum, and Kanban, Lindy has led impactful transformations across diverse industries such as manufacturing, defense, insurance/financial, and federal government. Lindy's exceptional communication, leadership, and problem-solving skills have earned her a reputation as a trusted advisor. Currently associated with KnowledgeHut and upGrad, Lindy fosters Lean-Agile principles and mindset through coaching, training, and successful execution of transformations. With a passion for effective value delivery, Lindy is a sought-after expert in the field.

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