A report by Nielsen states that there are around 3000 new products launched every year; however, only 15% of them are truly successful.
Building a product is both an art and a science and most modern software are built on this premise. Additionally, a significant factor that sets apart successful products and the teams that launch them is a well thought through plan or a product roadmap.
In this post, we are going to elaborate on types of product roadmaps, evaluate the product roadmaps of a few modern softwares and share tips on how you can create one for your company.
But first that let’s run through the basics of product roadmaps and why they are significant in the development of modern-day softwares.
What’s a Product Roadmap?
A product roadmap is essentially a product summary (in most cases visual) that guides the team on what’s expected next, what new ideas/features need to be incorporated, and what needs to be prioritized and what doesn’t.
But that’s just on the surface.
Deep down a product roadmap serves other critical purposes, such as getting internal and external stakeholders in alignment, providing a strategic framework in line with company’s goals and serving as the center point for every product related decision.
While building a product roadmap may look like a systematic, straightforward and logical thing to do, it comes with its own challenges.
In a nutshell, it is a problem of plenty.
Product teams buzz with ideas – some easy to implement and some difficult. There’s always a tug of war when it comes to prioritization.
Why is prioritization significant when it comes to product roadmaps?
Sean McBride, formerly of Intercom, sums it up in 4 points:
- “It’s satisfying to work on pet ideas you’d use yourself, instead of projects with broad reach.
- It’s tempting to focus on clever ideas, instead of projects that directly impact your goals.
- It’s exciting to dive into new ideas, instead of projects that you’re already confident about.
- It’s easy to discount the additional effort that one project will require over another.”
What makes matters worse is the constant demand from users for new features. Product prioritization thus becomes a challenge, and the best way to resolve this is by having a clear balance of ideas and what Sean calls ‘RICE’ – reach, impact, confidence, and effort theory.
Types of Product Roadmaps & Why They Differ
Developing a product requires a multi-team effort.
For product managers, this means liaising with sales, customer service, marketing, engineering, design and their own team to create a development plan. This also means that you need to bring all the internal stakeholders into alignment toward a common goal – a complex task. The communication lines between teams may get blurred and it can difficult to get in sync.
As product managers it’s your job to maintain visibility at all levels, therefore the type of product roadmap that you choose becomes a critical part of the overall product strategy.
Just as there can be numerous routes to the same destination, you choose the product roadmap that is best for your product and company.
Product roadmaps can be broadly classified into two distinct categories, and then further broken down based on the final goal that the team wishes to achieve. The two broad categories are:
Single product roadmap
Multiple product roadmaps
Let’s discuss them in depth.
* Single Product Roadmaps
Put simply, single product roadmaps deal with one product. This type of a product roadmap takes into account the time horizon of the product development, usually split into months to be easy for the team to understand.
Since single product roadmaps list all the teams under the same roadmap, they usually more clearly showcase expenditures, development time and expected timelines associated with each team involved.
These roadmaps list micro- and macro-level data associated with the end goals of the product.
* Multiple Product Roadmaps
If your company and the product team are juggling multiple products at the same time, it is prudent to build a multiple product roadmap.
A few teams might debate its viability since a multiple product roadmap can be overwhelming and lead to confusion. In actuality, however, multiple product roadmaps can prevent teams from doing duplicate work and allow them to be more systematic with the way they approach development.
Product teams can further break down their approach and create a roadmap with either a short-term or long-term vision. This helps them to see the product development cycle clearly and take tactical calls.
For example, feature release, an ongoing task for most software companies, can be a part of a short-term product roadmap. Product redesigns in terms of usability, like in the case of G suite below, and can be better defined in a long-term roadmap.
Another way to approach product roadmaps is by creating them based on their end goal. For example, product managers can build different roadmaps for technology (design, UX etc), strategy and platform (Android, iOS etc).
How Successful Companies Strategize Product Roadmaps
Each product has a different vision, timeline and set of expectations, and therefore product roadmaps are unique to each company. What works for one company may not work for you. However, by observing how successful companies envisioned theirs, and how they extracted maximum value out of them, product managers can significantly improve the deliverability of their own plans.
Companies like Crazy Egg and Buffer are great examples.
Crazy Egg’s Product Roadmap Strategy
When it comes to conversion rate optimization heatmaps are essential, and Crazy Egg has been one tool that’s been helping marketers and data evaluators for a long time. Needless to say, the team receives umpteen product requests from its users via emails, tweets, phone calls and DMs.
As mentioned earlier, prioritization is tricky when it comes to building a product, and that’s why the company follows a three-step process.
- They let the customers guide their choices – In this first step, they look at their biggest pain points, evaluate the ones that they can most feasibly begin with, and then pick the ones that bring the most value to their users.
- They proactively reach out to customers – The team interviews their users and evaluates their willingness to pay for a feature. This helps them extract maximum value when starting to build a feature.
- They use a ‘prioritization matrix’ as a guide.
Buffer’s Product Roadmap Strategy
Being a transparency champ in the startup world, Buffer’s roadmap is open for everyone to view.
Buffer’s product roadmap strategy is very close to the one followed by Crazy Egg, especially when it comes to acting on customer feedback. The company gathers valuable feedback from its customers via an open forum and regularly shares prototypes with them.
By sharing their product roadmap Buffer has been able to:
- Have a clear and workable approach towards building features, etc.
- Get all internal stakeholders at one place – or, as Jim Hitch, an ex-product leader at Buffer, mentioned in a post:
“It encourages us to think more long-term and be more deliberate about what we build, hopefully resulting in us building more value for you.”
- Build an engaged community of users – which helps them create better and valuable features.
How To Build Product Roadmap – Best Practices
A stable building is set on a strong foundation and the same holds true for a good product. Roadmaps help strengthen foundations, so it’s vital that you have a strong product management structure in place before you begin.
Here are the top tips for product teams who are either building a product roadmap for the first time or who are looking to improve an existing one.
Get all the stakeholders in one place
A good product roadmap won’t be successful if it doesn’t involve all the internal stakeholders. This includes engineering, marketing, customer service and leadership teams. A good product is the outcome of unified decisions, goals and visions across the company.
The whole team should have access to the product roadmap and should be open to views from other teams; however, the ownership should lie with the product team at all times. A transparent and inclusive product roadmap will ensure a faster product delivery.
Talk to your customers
We cannot emphasise enough the significance of customer feedback and how it can help product teams build better products. However, the key to a successful product roadmap is to clearly demarcate a customer’s needs from his wants. This, coupled with internal assessment and creating a ‘high-priority’ internal feature checklist, can keep product teams on track with development.
Intercom, for example, routinely interacts with its customers and gathers feedback. Its research team, on the other hand, tags feature requests and creates a ‘hit-list’ of requests that need immediate attention, as opposed to features that can be built later.
The approach to gathering and analysing user feedback may vary from one team to another, however, what’s important is that PMs invest in gathering and acting on customer feedback rather than taking product based calls on gut-feeling.
Weigh the challenges
As mentioned earlier, product roadmaps should be built around the users’ needs and not wants, since they are limitless. Another factor that needs deliberation by PM’s is the challenge that surrounds ‘feature building.’
It’s important that teams weigh the challenges associated with building a new feature, along with its viability. They should also question its impact on revenue, churn, and its standing in the market and with the competition.
The key lesson here is to stick with a plan that’s promising rather than spending dollars on building something that’s over-ambitious and may drain the team.
Have an open mindset
Rome wasn’t built in a day and your product features won’t be either. Product development needs hours of testing, and staying open-minded about turnaround times is crucial for everyone involved. Your team might have started with a short-term outlook towards a certain feature, however, it is possible that it may not materialize in time.
Apart from being prepared for development delays, product teams should also show flexibility in accommodating inputs and remain open minded overall.
Set up a priority matrix
She explains the concept in a thoughtful post:
“The trunk represents the core features – the absolute must-haves and what you have in place today. The branches represent different areas that you can go into, and the roots represent the infrastructure that’s needed to build the tree. Get everyone to brainstorm and get everything down on Post-It Notes. Then together have everyone stick them onto the tree and negotiate with each other as to where these particular features or ideas might go.”
Following a priority, matrix simplifies the decision-making process for everyone involved.
Focus on the end goal
Running a successful product roadmap can follow one of two approaches- top down or bottom up.
A top-down approach is focused on creating a product based on a company’s vision and goals. Because of its simplicity, a top-down approach allows product teams to easily articulate information to all stakeholders. The end goal is eventually tied in with many other factors, with each focussed on bringing value to the end user.
A bottom-up approach is slightly different as it requires the involvement of stakeholders at each step of decision making, disrupting the flow for the product team. Even though the bottom-up approach is also focused on the end goal it can get overwhelming for product teams at points in the process.
Whether you follow a top-down or a bottom-up approach with your roadmaps, being goal-oriented is key to attaining product success.
Building a product and its features is a work in progress, and teams need to approach it with an open mind. There are a plethora of requests that will come your team’s way, but it’s always wise to strategize, make changes and tweak strategy to suit what’s best in the long run.
Product roadmaps aren’t new to teams. More and more companies are adopting them to have a systematic flow throughout their product development process. While there might not be a single best way to approach a product roadmap, the key steps and examples discussed above can help teams in conceptualizing and building one that’s ideal for them.
What’s your company’s approach to product roadmaps? What’s that you would want to add to the discussion here. Share your thoughts in the comments below!