When I was still a kid, I was always so excited to sit in the front passenger seat on holiday trips. You see, there were no navigation devices yet, and thus we had a physical roadmap. My dad frequently knew the route from memory, but I was eager to follow along on the map (and point out when we could find a quicker or alternative route).
My excitement for maps has not gone away. It’s not coincidental that I’m currently writing about roadmaps in another, similar, sense—product roadmaps.
In general, the power of a map is to help you get to a destination. But how we create and use product roadmaps is essential. It is a process that is both creative and analytical.
In this series, I aim to guide you through everything you need to know about creating the ultimate product roadmap. In this first installment, I aim to explain what a product roadmap is and why it’s such a great tool.
What is the purpose of a product roadmap?
Let me first tell you what I feel is a good definition of a Product Roadmap, which will help us frame the rest of the points in this guide.
“A product roadmap is a high-level visual summary that maps out the vision and direction of your product offering.” – ProductPlan
We’re going to break down the definition step by step, so we understand what it entails.
This means we don’t go into the details of a product vision too much (that’s what backlogs are for). We need the roadmap to stay on a strategic level where we can use it to set the course over the long term. To illustrate: think about a ship sailing to some destination. A captain on the vessel needs to look out over the horizon for direction. In contrast, an engineer on the same boat takes care of the machines in the engine room: both necessary for the end goal, but very different levels of focus.
This means the product roadmap, like a land roadmap, can be understood without needing to read it (apart from titles, notes, names, etc.). Visual representation helps make the roadmap easier and quicker to understand, which is necessary to get buy-in from everyone involved.
This is similar in the “high-level” part we saw earlier. (Not focus on all the details.) But it does drive home the point that the roadmap should simplify, but definitely not leave out critical parts of the vision. Doing this is hard, especially when a product is big. Note, summarizing is a continuous process.
This means the “why” of a product. Why create the product in the first place? What goal does it have? What is the value proposition for users? What is the incentive for the business to create this product? Tip, don’t spend a lot of time creating a product roadmap before your vision is crystal clear.
This means the execution part of getting to a finished product. It is “how” you go from nothing to providing the value intended. Do I need to say this is important? Well, yes, it is; it is essential. In the execution plan, you find most detail (and struggles) while creating and updating the product roadmap. After you formed a product vision (hopefully in line with your customers and your company!), most stakeholders don’t sway from that idea. The route to that goal, however, is a bumpy and complicated road. (I’m almost getting ahead of myself in wanting to talk more about this here, but there will be multiple sections where we’ll get into the details of this!)
This means “what” you’ll eventually end up creating—the finished product. The whole reason you create a product roadmap is to offer a valuable product to the end-user, your customer.
An interesting aside. Maybe you’re already familiar with the last three parts from the definition (vision, direction, and product offering) but under different wording. Simon Sinek talks about the “why, how, and what” (vision, direction, and product offering, respectively). He calls it the “Golden Circle” by his book with the same name.
What does a product roadmap look like?
A product roadmap can take many forms, feature-based, goal-based, time based, release-based, and a few more. But good roadmaps have a few things in common.
- They are timed based (be it specific dates or timelines).
- They have more detail for near term (higher priority) items than for later (lower priority) items.
- They have ‘themes’ as the highest level (like “increase customer retention for yearly subscribers”), not features.
Here’s an example of a roadmap (source)
In the next article, I will walk you through the details of an example product roadmap. As well as listing the different types of product roadmaps that are possible to make. First I’ll tell you a bit more about how you can use your roadmap.
How can you use a product roadmap?
Ok, so now you know what a product roadmap is supposed to do and what it looks like. Right? Well, on a high level, yes. But the utilization of a product roadmap becomes even more evident in the specific cases you use it.
These are all about people, social dynamics, collaboration, and communication. You can use a product roadmap
- as a reference document for the (Scrum )team.
- to get stakeholder alignment.
- to provide options for planning and conversation.
- to prevent someone from ‘hijacking’ your sprints.
- to tell a story to your customers.
These five uses all come down to the most important reason for creating a product roadmap. To set the narrative of your product vision and execution.
A Product Roadmap is a narrative tool.
With a product roadmap you can tell a story of intent. The intent to build a product towards a certain goal. This narrative is essential to get others to work with you in creating great products.
There is one crucial point I want to drive home. A product roadmap is a living document. The things you plan are not set in stone. The product you’re building is undergoing iteration upon iteration. Thus your roadmap should reflect the latest findings and details, especially in the age of Agile and Lean (software) development.
Hopefully, you’re now familiar with the idea of what a product roadmap is, why you should use one, and what it looks like.
If you have any questions, thoughts, or feel something is missing, please do shoot me a message on Twitter.
By the way, I also created a checklist with “40 Product Roadmap tips.” So if you can’t wait to get into creating and using a product roadmap, I highly recommend you check it out.
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