A Comprehensive Guide: How to build a product roadmap

Product roadmapping is essential for any start-up company regardless of their stage in their journey. As a product manager, this is one thing you want to take very seriously because it gives every stakeholder in the project the opportunity to be fully aware of the direction in which the product should go. Investors, co-founders, partners, board members, engineers, and even customers sometimes like to be carried along on the objectives and vision, and roadmapping presents a perfect opportunity to do just that. That aside, in the process of developing the roadmap itself, you can permanently shed light on what it takes to take current and future products to the next level and, of course, identify which tradeoffs are necessary.

Introduction

Product roadmapping is essential for any start-up company regardless of their stage in their journey. As a product manager, this is one thing you want to take very seriously because it gives every stakeholder in the project the opportunity to be fully aware of the direction in which the product should go. Investors, co-founders, partners, board members, engineers, and even customers sometimes like to be carried along on the objectives and vision, and roadmapping presents a perfect opportunity to do just that. That aside, in the process of developing the roadmap itself, you can permanently shed light on what it takes to take current and future products to the next level and, of course, identify which tradeoffs are necessary.

As everyone knows, software development can be pretty costly. Thus, you can allocate resources where it matters most with a robust roadmap.

What is a product roadmap?

A product roadmap is a shared source of truth that outlines the strategy, vision, and direction over time. A product roadmap represents a plan of action for how a product or solution evolves. Product owners use roadmaps to outline future product functionality and release new features. When used in agile development, a roadmap provides crucial context for the team's everyday work and should be responsive to shifts in the competitive landscape.

A product roadmap is essential to communicating how short-term efforts match long-term business goals. Understanding the role of a roadmap—and how to create a great one—is critical for keeping everyone on your team headed in the same direction.

While it's common for the roadmap to show what you're building, it's just as important to show why. Items on the roadmap should be linked to your product strategy, and your roadmap should be responsive to changes in customer feedback and the competitive landscape.
Product owners use roadmaps to collaborate with their teams and build consensus on how a product will grow and shift over time. Likewise, agile teams turn to the roadmap to keep everyone on the same page and gain context for their everyday work and future direction.

One of the critical benefits of roadmapping is prioritization. Prioritization is crucial because if we're honest with ourselves, we do not have the resources required to work on every idea we come up with. It thus becomes necessary to put what we have in order of priority. This creates a clear path and allows for smooth communication across the board, which everyone can key into. With a soft touch and a clear roadmap, work is easier for everyone.

The best way to create a roadmap is to begin by seeing it as the big picture. Like an amusement park that points us towards every ride we want to go on. For the product manager, the destination is represented by three key pieces.

Without a product roadmap, you can work on your product vision, but you lessen the likelihood of getting lost along the way with a product roadmap.

More often than not, the lack of a roadmap encourages you to do too many things not as well – Anthony Accardi, CEO of Rue La La

There are specific inputs required to plan the perfect product roadmap. They include.

Define the problem and the solution

The first question to ask yourself is, why do I need this? Do you know what you're doing and what value it's likely to yield? The answers to these questions are essential to the process of product roadmapping.

To better understand the importance of a feature, it is advisable to use the 5 Whys Strategy. This strategy helps you go beyond the surface level of the problem and tackle the more profound issues connected to why your feature would work as planned.

Ask yourself why you need the part, note the first answer, then keep asking why with each answer four more times. Make sure you note down all the answers, then use them all to develop a comprehensive justification for the given feature.

Know your user needs

Why exactly is this feature important to your users? To create the perfect product roadmap, you have to empathize with your users, put yourself in their shoes and understand and anticipate what their needs are.

Understand user expectations

Your product is most likely a solution to a problem your users are experiencing. But you need to ask yourself, what methods are they now soft employing to solve these problems? This must be visualized to be fully understood. Only then can you be sure of creating a superior solution that will be widely accepted.

Organize the pieces of your strategy

For your strategy to work, it has to be organized in a way that it is no longer a puzzle. When you look at your strategy, you want it to be as straightforward as possible. To do this, you need to do the following:

Define your company vision

A vision statement describes what a company desires to achieve in the long run, generally in a time frame of five to ten years, or sometimes even longer. It depicts a vision of what the company will look like in the future and sets a defined direction for the planning and executing corporate-level strategies. Here's what a template of a company vision looks like:

  • When? "At a time when….", e.g., At a time when travel is frequent, but travelers plan less...
  • What? "Our product is the only….", e.g., TripAdvisor has the only international restaurant recommendation engine…
  • How? "That does….", e.g., That gives immediate recommendations based on location and reviews…
  • Who? "For…", e.g., For the everyday traveler….
  • Where? "In…",e.g., From countries all over the world….
  • Why? "Who", e.g., Who needs to save time and energy on finding local eateries.

Define business goals

Business goals are goals that a business anticipates accomplishing within a set period. You can set business goals for your company in general and particular departments, employees, managers, and customers.

Goals typically represent a company's larger purpose and establish an end goal for employees to work toward. Business goals do not have to be specific or have clearly defined actions. Instead, business goals are broad outcomes that the company wishes to achieve.

  • To create your business goals document, list not more than five strategic objectives. I am using a food delivery service as an example; here a couple of business goals.
  • Expand the customer base to other neighborhoods close to our current delivery routes.
  • Create a collection of customized food packages for special occasions like birthdays etc. This will help grow the market and increase brand awareness.
  • Build partnership with local stores for supplies to build community and increase social consciousness.

Business goals are vital for the roadmapping process. It gives you clarity of purpose and makes the task ahead of you simpler and less cumbersome.

User goals

Your customer knowledge is fundamental to the solution you create for their problems. The key is to map out the customer experience, even if that is done loosely.

Mapping out the customer experience helps you effectively tell the story of their interactions with products and services. With the customer experience journey comes a list of goals the customer could have in mind. Again, let's take the food delivery service as an example. Their customer's goals could include:

  • Find a food delivery service that delivers quality food promptly to my neighborhood.
  • Make sure it's not a service that will leave a hole in my pocket.
  • They should be a socially responsible organization.

Once you can understand the customer's goals, your product roadmapping journey becomes more evident

Product goals

Your product goals should be straightforward solutions to the user's problems. To explain it better, understanding the user's pains, needs or desires should point you towards what the perfect solutions would be. Still staying with our food delivery service, product goals could be something like:

  • Target your food delivery ads to a neighborhood audience, redirect them to your website. Get on the local listing.
  • Research the average spending power of neighborhood residents, then create different packages for different prospects. List prices next to each food delivery packages on the website.
  • Show proof of your partnership with the local supplies store on the website.

Prioritization

The only thing more than knowing how to prioritize is learning how not to prioritize your strategic goals be activities. You should be able to know what filters to use and which you shouldn't use. For example, you should know better than to put your instant reaction to a feature at the top of your priority list.

This isn't even about how smart or insightful you are, but just like everyone else, their subjective opinions are informed mainly by personal bias. In the same vein, you shouldn't rush to prioritize requests or complaints collected by your sales or support team from a couple of users.

In such situations, you want to check for consistency across your more broad audience. Imagine the number of disruptions to your workflow you'll have to endure if you decide to promote every request or complaint given by every user.

Another set of people you should be wary of are industry analysts. More often than not, these analysts, though knowledgeable in their rights, often base their conclusions and suggestions on historical data.

This is not precisely the best way to predict the future of a narrow market like yours. Of course, this isn't about discrediting specific sources, it's more about knowing that they can't be heavily relied on or always taken at face value or in isolation.

To get your prioritization right and on point, it's best to do it using the following criteria:

Feasibility

You'll need your technical team on this one, as it is a technical consideration. In the startup ecosystem, product leaders rarely care about opinions and face value suggestions. Instead, and it’s they look out for the technical plausibility of your idea, in short, can it be built, and whether it is a solution that will solve your user's problems.

Desirability

This part of your analysis is user-centered. This is the part where you consider what their needs are, their interactions with the product, affordance, and how you plan to market them. Desirability is key to your product roadmapping and should be treated as such.

Viability

This insight is expected to be provided by the product manager/s involved in the project and relevant execs. Viability is a function of the business as a whole in relationship with the project under consideration.

Activation

To utilize your feature, there are specific vital steps a user must follow. Take, for example, the popular networking app Instagram. The activation steps for an Instagram user could be something like Create An Account — Follow People You Know — Make A Post — React To Other Posts. Of course, the critical steps of each product will differ from the next, but the important thing is to define it from the start. Your key steps should not only be business aligned with your business goals, but they must also follow a user-happy path to achieve great results.

Hook

For every feature, the clip plays a prominent role in getting the user to return to use a product. It could be anything from push notifications to email notifications. Instagram, for example, uses push notifications as their hook to ensure continued usage of their application. Like the activation feature, the curve will differ from product to product and combine business goals with user happy paths.

Dream in years; plan in months; evaluate in weeks; ship daily. – D.J Patil, Former U.S Chief Data Scientist

The main takeaway from the product roadmapping process is to help you take the big picture and break it into significant and minor periods.

What a roadmap is not

Now that you have a good idea of a roadmap, it's time to turn your attention to what roadmapping is not.

  1. A Commitment: Even though some people see a roadmap as a commitment, it is not. Things could change along the way as new information surfaces. It is better to see it as a flexible guide.
  2. Stories:Your roadmap should not include job stories or "tasks to be done.”
  3. A Gantt chart: Dependencies and waterfalls are not needed in your roadmap; this is not a Gantt Chart by any means.
  4. A release plan: First of all, a roadmap is not a release plan. This is not about your launch, so you have to leave out all those dates and timelines.
  5. A list of features: Also, a roadmap is not where you make a list of features and components.

How a product roadmap helps you deliver on the product work

It probably won't be easy to understand how vital roadmapping is for your product idea if you don't know why you need it in the first place. Therefore, let's talk about why you need product roadmapping.

Focus

Following a product roadmap is like looking at the product through a magnifying lens. With a roadmap, you're bound to focus on the core values of your work. Like already mentioned in this article, it also helps you know what not to focus on. For humans, the focus is an essential requirement for getting things done. Sticking to the food delivery service example, being focused on the roadmap could mean sticking to making food for some peculiar neighborhood and not for the whole country.

Alignment

A product roadmap also creates balance and direction in the team. As soon as the roadmap has been agreed on and every team member has sufficient clarity on their respective roles, it gets everyone working towards the same purpose.

Priority

Prioritization is something we've talked about before now, but it cannot be overstated. Knowing what to do is just one part of the picture; knowing when to do it is entirely different.

Visibility

Being able to visualize how the team works and everything they'll be doing to move the project from one point to another makes it more accessible. By mapping out what you have to do in order of importance and priority, you'll be able to visualize opportunities and pitfalls. For example, if it's 1 am, and we need to deliver a vegetarian lunch to the remote digital strategist by 2 pm, what exactly should we be doing between now and then.

Coordination

Nothing causes more stress and wastage during the execution of a project than overlapping roles or misaligned work. With a roadmap, the whole team will be working in rhythm and creating momentum for the remainder of the project. Everyone knows what they should be doing and how it relates to others in the team.

Vision

One thing that stands the best companies and products apart is a clear vision of where they're headed. Essentially, a great vision is more about your customers and less about you. You delivered a great vegetarian meal to your customer, so what's next? Where do you go from there? Product roadmapping, therefore, enables you to create and maintain a great relationship with these users.

Who's responsible for creating a product roadmap?

At any point in time, there are always several people and elements involved in creating a product. They include a product manager, product team (engineers, designers, quality assurance, etc.), roadmap, components, tools, marketing team, marketing team, and customers.

You'll be getting an entirely different outcome if you exclude any of the parts listed above. What's also true is that sticking too closely to the process will deny you the opportunity to improve the product or experience those moments of delight.

When the roadmapping is complete, who'll use it?

The answer is: pretty much everyone. From the product team to design and development, to sales, marketing, execs, partners, customer support, and customers— the roadmap will be utilized by everyone.

In conclusion, it is essential to note that just like any of the tools available to the product manager, a roadmap can only be as good as the information in them and the quality of attention given to them. There's no better time to get your product roadmapping journey on track than now, and at Dusseau and Company, we remain committed to helping you fulfill that dream of getting your product out there and seeing it live up to expectations. All you have to do is schedule a meeting with us. It all begins with just one click.