A Complete Guide on Product Roadmaps & How to Make Them

What Is a Product Roadmap?

When building a product, it is easy to get lost and overwhelmed with decisions and ideas from various different departments in your organization.  One of the best ways to deal with this problem is to create a product roadmap.  

A product roadmap is a high-level visual summary that maps out the vision of your product offering over time.

Moreover, it’s a shared source of truth that outlines not only the vision, but the direction, priorities, and progress of a product as well.

Think of it as an actionable plan that aligns the organization around short and long term goals for a product and how they will be achieved.

In essence, a product roadmap is the big, overarching efforts and necessities, required to meet your overall business objectives and the timeline for implementing features and requirements.

As product teams have shifted gears to a more remote work environment, the need for roadmaps has grown exponentially to ensure that proper team alignment is achieved.

Why Use a Product Roadmap?

One of the largest benefits regarding the creation of a product roadmap will by forcing conversations about where you will invest time and resources and why.

Connecting your product strategy to implementation drives alignment keeps everyone focused on the work that helps you more efficiently achieve your vision.

The beauty of a roadmap lies in the visual aspect of it all, easily allowing you to communicate the direction of your product to internal teams as well as external stakeholders.

Everything you do as a product manager, impacts other groups throughout the organization. This is why the best roadmaps include cross-functional teams and factors during initial creation.

Imagine it like this: with a cross-functional roadmap in place, marketing will be able to create more impactful campaigns, sales can set better customer expectations, and IT can improve the overall technical infrastructure.

Therefore, good roadmaps should always be kept up to date and treated as a way to keep everyone informed about the goals of the product as well as to encourage collaboration between key stakeholders and various teams.

Parts of a Product Roadmap:

A roadmap needs to have certain components in order to communicate to everyone what the needs and goals of the product are.  This does not, however, means that the product roadmap that works for someone else will work for you.  Rather a product roadmap should be tailored to your teams’ needs and interests.  

The following lists of components should serve as a guide for you to consider what works best for you so that your product roadmap can have the right level of detail when communicating what you are planning to do and why you are planning to do so. 

Timeline:

Any good roadmap needs to have some sort of timetable.  This does not mean that these dates serve as a deadline for the features but rather as a way to rank the relative importance of the features.

Some common timeline methods include:

Now, Next, Later: This release schedule is useful when you have features that are not tied to a specific release.

June, July, August: This release schedule is useful when features tend to be released on a monthly basis

Q1, Q2, Q3: This release schedule is useful when you are planning long-term goals for your organization.

Release 1, Release 2, Release 3: This release schedule is useful when the time between releases varies.

Features:

Features are the smaller parts of a product you are thinking of releasing in a certain time period.  Features can be both high-level or detailed.  A good plan would be to create a high-level feature and then specify under it what more detailed features might need to be added to get it to work.

Some examples are:

Implement File Storage:  Add upload functionality, add download functionality

Add a social system:  Allow the ability to share files, allow the ability to like files

Goals:

These can be thought of as the reason why you are implementing various different features in your product.  Goals help key stakeholders understand the purpose behind the decisions that you are making and keep the entire organization aligned.

Examples include: Increasing user retention, increasing sales, or improving communication

How to Build a Product Roadmap

Define The Why:

Why are you developing this specific product?

Why ought we prioritize specific product attributes?

These are key questions you need to ask yourself and your team at the outset of any new product development, whether brand new or updated features being added to the existing product.

If you can’t answer these questions with data to support your answers, you cannot justify putting energy towards this.

It’s truly incredible how many product managers, no matter how experienced and talented, don’t do this. This is the baseline prep work any product manager needs to do so that when you meet with stakeholders, you can express your product/feature needs reason for being.

Moreover, aligning your team behind these questions, which can be understood as vision of the product, will pay dividends well beyond the initial launch.

The vision, the why, is the NorthStar for any product team and will allow future decisions more strategic and cohesive leading to more successful launch.

Review and Manage Ideas

Now that you have defined the why, you have a plethora of ideas that you need to sort out.

There’s a couple ways to cut through the noise. From experience, at Chisel, we like to use the Kanban board as a scratchpad. From that scratchpad, we will have a chunk of ideas that then need prioritization.

The way we prioritize those potential features is by requesting a vote on them from our team giving us a total prioritization score. Then we are aptly able to identify, which ideas are high priority, which ones ought to be put on the backburner, and which ones may need some more analysis.

Once you get this process down pat, aligning the team behind specific ideas that turn into features and honing in on priorities becomes a breeze.

Define Requirements

Once we’ve figured out the “why” and the “what,” next up is the “how.”

We’ve identified the prioritized ideas that are now potential features, but how do we make this actionable?

The best solution is user story mapping. This is a visual exercise that helps product managers and their development teams define the work that will create the most delightful user experience.

User story mapping employs the concept of user stories, which communicate requirements from the perspective of user value to validate and build shared understanding of the steps to create a product users love.

This exercise will give engineering teams the context they need to implement the best possible solution.

Prioritize Your Product’s Strategic Themes And Organize Into Releases

Your foundation is set. Your why, what, and how are all in sync. Now, the work begins.

You need to organize all of these different features into themes in the Release view.

Identify what the major themes are and try to identify what major components can outline your overall feature organization.

Beneath these major themes, you can layer the epics beneath them. Beneath each epic, as more additional details come up, you layer specific features beneath those as well.

The same way you determined the reason earlier will be the same line of thinking used to determine where features fall within a theme and overall epic.

Be Flexible

As outlined in the Agile Manifesto, you need to always be flexible with your roadmap.

It isn’t a stagnant document, but rather, it should be continuously changing and improving.

Take your ego out of the equation and always be willing to pivot if that’s what the data dictates.

Tailor Your Roadmaps To The Audience You’re Presenting To:

If you have one roadmap for every group of stakeholders within your organization, you are not doing your job as a product manager.

You must remember that the roadmap is a strategic document and the strategic objectives you share with your executives are going to be entirely different from those shared with the marketing and development team.

If executive stakeholders are looking at your roadmap and ask “show us what you’re planning,” they are not going to care about the nuances of every feature. They want a broad timeline of what’s going to increase market share.

A meeting with your developers, on the other, will be focused on the nuances of the features and how you want them to build the features, the time frame expected, the day to day tasks required, and what the prioritization is.

Different Types of Roadmaps

Not all roadmaps serve the same purpose.  Different roadmaps can help different stakeholders understand your product vision best. 

Delivery-focused roadmaps:

These are roadmaps with very detailed timelines and are best for helping engineering and User Experience (UX) teams understand the specifics of a feature they are trying to implement.  They excel in communication status of development, communication goals of a feature, and understanding help and dependencies that various features may have.

A good example of a delivery-focused roadmap is the Kanban roadmap.  This roadmap groups various initiatives together so that you can figure out what has been completed and what still needs to be done.  This roadmap is very useful for engineering, ux, and product teams as it lets them plan out what needs to be done without having hard deadlines.

Our Kanban functionality is included in our Free Forever Plan!

Customer-focused roadmaps:

These roadmaps help focus on the features that customers want and are important to them.  This roadmap is also very useful for customer-facing teams like marketing and sales as it helps them share with users what is coming next for your product.

A popular example of a Customer-focused roadmap is the releases roadmap.  This is a roadmap that shares with customers when they can expect certain features that they want to be implemented in the product. It is useful when trying to plan milestones and determine what the future of the product will be like.

Company leadership roadmaps:

These roadmaps help give executives and stakeholders a high-level view and understanding of the product.  They show the direction that the product is heading and how you are using time and other resources.  The summaries provided by these types of roadmaps are critical in keeping important stakeholders aligned with the goals of your product vision.

A popular example of a company leadership roadmap is the timeline roadmap.  A timeline roadmap helps communicate your product strategy and what the plans of the product are for a certain time period.  When combined with what the objectives are for the product or organization it helps to clarify why you are working on specific features.

Best Practices for Great Roadmaps

Your product roadmap will never be finished. It’s constantly changing and shifting, so you need to make sure you are being consistent with how to edit, navigate, and improve it.

  • Detail is important, but only include as much as is absolutely necessary
  • Keep the roadmap focused on the immediate short-term, but always keep an eye on how this relates to your overall vision. Don’t lose sight of your NorthStar.
  • Make sure every stakeholder has access to the roadmap and is checking in on it on a regular basis (Chisel‘s free forever version allows unlimited stakeholders for the roadmap tool)
  • Align your team and prioritize features consistently to make sure everyone is on the same page

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