What is a Product Roadmap?
A product roadmap gives a broad overview of all aspects of an upcoming product: goals, timeline, features, resources, etc. The roadmap indicates what a development team is building, the problem the technology or software will solve, and the business goals the new product will achieve. But an effective roadmap will also serve as a project management tool in two main ways: 1) it is a strategic tool where you can make forward-looking objectives and rough timelines for your product, and 2) it can improve communication by providing a place where multiple stakeholders can weigh in on product goals and progress.
Product roadmaps give internal teams and other stakeholders (senior executives, upper management, marketing and sales teams, and/or investors) insight into a product’s current state. Additionally, the roadmap should also set clear expectations for how your product will develop in future months. The product owner creates the roadmap and should take existing technology trends, market conditions, engineering constraints, and the organization’s value proposition into consideration.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of building a product roadmap is nailing down the core elements that make it effective. In the next section, we’ve outlined the five steps for creating a product roadmap and the essential elements to include.
I have talked about how to build a product roadmap in another post. Here I like to share some best practices and tools to help you with refining your product roadmap.
Product Roadmap Best Practices
Best Practice #1: Get Clear On “Why”
This is a big one. Set some goals and determine the big bodies of work that will help you reach them. You need to really understand not only the customers but also the product and the market. Of course, this is hard when you are just getting up to speed. That is why you must make strategy the foundation of your roadmap. Everything else — your goals, your initiatives, the work — must serve your strategy.
Best Practice #2: Set Some Themes
Group your initiatives into some high-level product themes to tell the story behind your plan. These product themes connect your plan to real customer benefit. They give the organization key concepts to rally around without getting buried in the weeds. Themes also help serve as guardrails for planning work ahead.
Best Practice #3: Present a Visual Product Roadmap
An effective product roadmap will do more than “tell,” it will also present a simple, realistic visual representation of your vision and how it is tied to the company’s goals. Additionally, your roadmap should be easy to understand and persuasive. PowerPoint and spreadsheets are widely used, but there are also many popular software options that make it easier to create visually compelling product roadmaps. For these reasons, many PMs prefer flexible task management tools like Trello, Jira, or Asana. Features such as swimlane views, drag-and-drop editors, movable cards, and other interactive features prevent presentations from coming off clunky.
Best Practice #4: Have Different Versions of Your Product Roadmap
If a sales team and dev team use the same roadmap, Sales might commit to a feature in order to close a deal without consulting the developers on timing or probability. This is just one of many problems that can occur if there is one party making changes or if you don’t have a way to track who is making changes.
Remember, your roadmap helps you gain buy-in. Because each internal department has a unique role in helping make your product successful, each department will also care about something different. For example, marketing departments typically want to understand how product features will look and behave, while Sales wants details about when the product will be ready for customers to purchase it. To avoid publishing hard dates that could change, speak in terms of quarters or months.
Don’t fall into the trap of specifying dates for anything that’s not already a work-in-progress or that isn’t well defined and well understood. Any attempt to set a date for something that’s outside the 1-3 month time horizon is not only a mistake but is bound to fail.
External product roadmaps are usually shared with company investors, industry analysts, customers, and the media. Even so, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. For internal roadmaps that you intend to share with customers, you want your product roadmap to reflect sufficient details without tipping your hand to any specific strategies that you’re considering. For an external roadmap that you plan to share with investors, you should convey your strategic thinking and be structured in a way that presents confidence but still leaves doors open for innovation and agile responsiveness, without jeopardizing your financing rounds.
Below is an example of an external roadmap format:
Best Practice #5: Share Your Product Roadmap
The primary reason we want the product roadmap to be visible to anyone in the organization is that product roadmaps represent the plan of execution against the company vision and strategy. Product roadmaps organize and communicate a lot of information: what your development team is building, the problem the product will fix, as well as the business goals your product aspires to achieve. This means that your roadmap has the opportunity to speak directly to external or internal concerns and paint a clear picture of your intentions.
To executives, the roadmap validates your product’s usefulness to a market that aligns with the organization’s strategic direction, and also proves that it enhances the company’s position. To your development team, your roadmap demonstrates progress and fosters inspiration. And to other internal departments—sales and marketing—your product roadmap sets expectations about product benefits, its comparisons to other similar products, and the potential for conversions.
To external customers, a product roadmap shows that you value their input and care about their needs. By sharing a roadmap externally, you signal that their awareness is a crucial part of your product’s success, which increases the likelihood of purchase. Additionally, it’s an opportunity to engage with customers and to emphasize your brand story.
When the roadmap is hidden, the narratives about where the product is going, when, and why, are now outside of the control of the product manager and directly in the hands of the rumor mill and office grapevine.
Best Practice #6: Create a Flexible Roadmap
Your product roadmap should be “SUBJECT TO CHANGE.” Maintaining flexibility in your timeline and deliverables will enable your team to react calmly to roadblocks, and to adapt your plan to fit changing needs. However, keep in mind that a product roadmap should have a single owner – this individual is the only person with the authority to add and remove items.
Best Practice #7: Involve Your Stakeholder Community in Regular Intervals
Product roadmaps are created with the intention to be shared with internal development teams and others who have a role in the product’s success. Rather than being static, your roadmap should function like a reader board that gives a current snapshot of project status. So, in order for your product roadmap to do its job well, it needs consistent input from the product owner. This means updating your roadmap daily to capture any market changes, new planning directions, added resources, or changes in priorities. By regularly updating your roadmap, you help your constituents understand factors that account for your product’s progress or delays.
Best Practice #8: Organize and Prioritize
Keep goals and initiatives in focus every step of the way. Organize all those feature requests and ideas into backlogs associated with your themes. Quantify using objective scorecards so that the “why” behind those priorities is transparent. Work with colleagues in engineering to create high-level estimates so that you can measure effort required against potential impact.
Tools for Creating Product Roadmaps
While you can certainly create a physical product roadmap that outlines your product goals and strategy, there are several online tools designed to ease the process. Online tools can save time and increase efficiency in several ways: live, shareable documents allow for collaboration, and also make it easier to track history and versioning. Additionally, many programs offer pre-built templates that you can use to get started.
Here is a list of some of the most popular roadmapping tools:
- Aha! – provides an array of modules that help you manage a product through its entire lifecycle.
- Craft helps you build epics and stories and translate those into a visual roadmap.
- Lucidchart offers real-time collaboration, with a simple user interface.
- Onedesk helps you identify and prioritize requirements
- ProductPlan includes drag and drop features, enables you to view several roadmaps in a master plan.
- TrendsRadius analyzes aggregated customer data from your different channels then transforms that feedback into actionable insights.
- Smartsheet offers a Gantt chart with various views, customization features such as color and symbols, and real-time collaboration.
I hope this post has helped you and you are in a better place with your product roadmap and strategy. I love to hear from you, don’t forget to leave a comment below!