In a customer-focused world that revolves around agility, communicating your product roadmap is more important than ever. Today’s iterative and feedback-heavy processes mean that stakeholders need to be informed and involved throughout all the development phases, not just at the end. A clear roadmap ties them to the process and ensures they can participate in the deepest sense of the word. A well-planned roadmap can also help align your product teams with your customers, who have all kinds of business needs as well as user requirements.
With so much at stake, it’s surprising that today’s product managers don’t have a clear set of uniform guidelines to follow when creating a product map. After all, they’re the ones charged with most of the responsibility for this key aspect of software development. And as organizations shift from old “waterfall” methods of creating products that entailed planning what and how to build the final product, roadmapping is shifting too. So what was already a vague and individualized process has now become even less standardized.
Here’s how to build a product roadmap, how to communicate it, and how to make sure everyone is aligned.
“Start by focusing on what your customers need and initiate contact with end users early on.”
How to Build a Clear Roadmap
Here’s a brief outline of the basic techniques that products managers use to come up with great roadmaps that are clear and effective.
- Start with the right expectations. A common waterfall-influenced mistake is to spend too much time on your product roadmap. PMs try to remove stress and uncertainty by outlining everything from the get-go. While that’s a well-intentioned goal, it’s important to realize that no roadmap can spell out the future. And if you’re incorporating regular feedback from users and other stakeholders, how could it anyway? You’ll probably need to update your roadmap as fresh customer insights start to roll in.
- Use design thinking. Start by focusing on what your customers need and initiate contact with end users early on to find out what those needs are. Products need to be meaningful in real-use scenarios. The features you originally envisioned building may eventually be rendered irrelevant once you unlock the insights of how the product is really being used and what problems it really needs to solve.
- Skip the technical details. Remember, the product roadmap is for alignment. As such, it needs to speak to everyone at the table in a common language that covers points which are relevant to everyone who has a seat. Getting too technical about what bugs you need to fix or including a detailed list of every single feature you’ll build isn’t going to engage many people outside of the development team. Focus on strategy, set important milestones, and outline your overarching goals. That’s enough.
- Keep it general. Focussing too much on the smaller priorities can lead to unrealized expectations, thereby rendering your roadmap ineffective. Plus, it erodes confidence in your abilities to lead the team as a PM. Stay focused on more top-level themes and skip detailed timelines or specific outcomes. And it’s definitely not the vehicle for telling engineers how to do their job!
- Build in agility. Staying general typically means you end up with a roadmap that’s more resilient to the inevitable changes that will come about further down the development line. That’s really just another way to “stay agile”, which always implies change as each iteration brings in new data to respond to. Consider your product roadmap an organic entity: one that’s continually responding to its external environment, growing, and evolving toward something closer to the ideal version of itself.
- Create priorities with input from a variety of sources. We talk about customer feedback a lot around here, but that’s not the only type of input good PMs use to create product roadmaps. Be sure to incorporate input from these sources as well:
- Sales and marketing teams
- Verbiage from the company vision, product strategy, and company strategy
- Specific business needs
How to Communicate Your Roadmap in the Best Way Possible
You’ve built clarity, agility, and relevance into your product roadmap. Now, what’s the best way to show it off? Here’s a quick cheat sheet for presenting your roadmap effectively.
- Share it with the right people. There are a lot of different individuals and groups whom you might think should see your roadmap but it’s key that the right people see it. Make sure you’re including that list of stakeholders mentioned earlier on Step Three of building your roadmap- the people who gave you your input.
- Create different versions for different audiences. Different stakeholders have different priorities so create versions of your roadmap that speak to those concerns. Be sure not to include “vanity metrics” that aren’t meaningful for the group you’re presenting to.
- Be visual and don’t talk too much. No matter who the stakeholders are, they’ll respond better to a visual presentation rather than a written document.
- Be candid about the timelines. Product managers are not soothsayers and nobody expects them to know what lies ahead, 18 months from now or even a year. Be honest and present confidently by limiting your time frames to shorter periods: six months or three-quarters of a year is good enough.
- Hold update meetings. In the previous section, we recommended treating a roadmap as an organic body, a living document. Therefore, presenting the roadmap as final isn’t realistic so hold regular updates on how it has changed.
- Use best practices for presenting. Think of your roadmap meetings as presentations: provide context, don’t drop bombs on your attendees, and speak to everyone present, not just the highest-paid people whose opinions might be perceived to have more weight.
Takeaways for Good Roadmapping
In an industry where there are always countless ideas that teams could develop — as well as opportunities that continually pop up and which could be explored — the product map is key. It focuses everyone and, as the title of this post suggests, ensures stakeholders that everything is going to “be okay” and they’ll get what they need. Following the guidelines we’ve outlined above, product managers can help ensure the product is given its best chance of survival.