Introduction to product roadmaps

You have a bold vision for your product. The high-level strategic planning is done — now you need a roadmap for what you will deliver and when. This might be the launch of a new product to customers, enhancements to an existing one, or even an internal product used by your organization.

Your product roadmap lays out the big efforts required to meet your overall business objectives and the timeline for implementing features and requirements that align with your strategy. It should be separate from other planning materials, such as lists of ideas and feature requests, a backlog of work, or bug reports. Those materials inform what goes on your roadmap, after careful review and consideration from you — the product manager.

Roadmaps evolve. You should continuously adjust yours throughout the lifecycle of the product, based on shifting customer needs, and market demand. Forward-thinking product managers see a roadmap as more of a dynamic compass than a rigid guide.

Today, many product teams use purpose-built roadmapping software to visualize their plans. This video shows how to get started using Aha! to build your product roadmap. If you are not already an Aha! user, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial.

Why is roadmapping important?

Roadmapping is an essential part of your strategic planning process. The exercise can be a forcing factor for conversations about where you will invest and why. Connecting your product strategy to implementation drives alignment and keeps everyone focused on the work that matters most to achieving the vision. You can visually communicate the direction of your product to internal teams and external partners. Visibility into what is coming next helps the entire organization prioritize and plan for the new experience you will deliver.

Your work as a product manager impacts other groups, and you need their input and participation to deliver a Complete Product Experience (CPE). This is why the best product roadmaps include cross-functional teams and factors. For example, marketing can prepare for more impactful launches and campaigns, IT can improve the overall technical infrastructure, and sales can better set customer expectations. The more inclusive your roadmapping process is, the greater organizational alignment and support you will have when you release that new experience.

How to build a product roadmap

Before building your product roadmap, you must know the business goals that your efforts will support and define the initiatives you will invest in to support those objectives. Once you have a high-level product plan, you can decide which releases and features are best aligned, then visualize it all on a timeline.

What you show on your roadmap depends on your intended audience. For example, the leadership team will want to understand the strategic importance of what you will deliver, conveyed through roll-up relationships between major releases and associated goals and initiatives.

Customers, on the other hand, will be more interested in seeing the theme of the release and any critical functionality they need. And of course, you would not likely want to show more detail than that anyway. For example, you might choose to show an external release date to customers that is different than your internal release date. Or you might use a broader time frame (e.g., show releases by quarter) on your customer-facing product roadmap so that you have flexibility to shift delivery dates if necessary.

Your product roadmap will also reflect the development methodology that your organization follows. For example, an agile team will create a roadmap that is incremental and flexible to accommodate changes in customer needs and the market. This differs from a roadmap developed by an organization taking a traditional waterfall approach. A waterfall product roadmap is more fixed — it conveys a long-term commitment to building specific features within a given time frame.

Here are the five main steps to building a roadmap:

Step 1: Define the strategy
Strategy is the "why" of what you will build. Set the vision, goals, and initiatives for your product and how they will support overall business objectives. A strong product vision captures the crucial information the team must understand to develop and maintain a competitive advantage. This includes details of who your customers are, what they need, and how you will go to market with your offering.

Step 2: Review and manage ideas
The best way to consider customer requests is to rank each one. You can do this by scoring ideas comprised of metrics that reflect your strategy. Scoring takes subjectivity out of the idea evaluation and allows the ideas that have the most significant impact to rank higher in priority.

Step 3: Define features and requirements
If strategy is the "why" then features are the "what" — the "how" is for your development team to determine. Identify the specific features that best support your strategy. Build those out into user stories and detailed requirements that give engineering teams the context they need to implement the best solution.

Step 4: Organize into releases
Now you are ready to organize those features into themes. Agile teams may also use epics to organize major work efforts. Once you have everything sorted, you can set timing for releases. These can be grouped according to a specific launch or your development capacity.

Step 5: Choose a view
For each roadmap you create, customize the types of information and level of detail you want to include. Consider the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of this roadmap?

  • Who needs to see it?

  • What information needs to be shown?

  • What is the time frame?

The different types of product roadmaps

Roadmapping helps you capture and communicate your product plans. As already noted, audience is a major factor in what elements you present and how. You can decide which components to include based on what you want to convey — product, goals, initiatives, releases, epics, features, and more.

Here are four common types of product roadmaps:

Portfolio roadmap

A portfolio roadmap shows the planned releases across multiple products in a single view. This is useful for providing a strategic overview of your plan to executives or advisory boards. It can also help internal teams understand how their specific projects relate to the work of other teams.

Strategy roadmap

A strategy roadmap displays the initiatives or high-level efforts that the team needs to invest in to achieve the product goals. It is great for presenting your initiatives to executives and giving internal teams an understanding of how different releases contribute to the overall business strategy.

Releases roadmap

A releases roadmap communicates the activities that must happen before you can bring the release to market — what needs to be done, when, and who is responsible for delivery. This is helpful for coordinating release activities with other cross-functional teams, such as marketing, sales, and customer support.

Features roadmap

A features roadmap shows the timeline for when new features will be delivered. It is perfect for communicating the details of what is coming and when to customers or other teams in the organization.

Sharing and presenting your roadmaps

Communication and transparency are essential to building great products. You want to show how you will make progress towards your high-level business objectives and deliver the solutions that customers are clamoring for. When you have the roadmap view you want, share it with the relevant audience.

Here are a few examples of internal teams and what they need to know about your plans:

Leadership

The leadership team and board members will want to understand how your product plans align with the company vision, strategy, goals, and high-level corporate metrics.

Engineering

The engineering team will require the high-level strategy, goals, and vision (the ”why”) with specific information on releases, features, and requirements (the “when” and “what”). This helps them formulate the "how" of implementation.

Marketing

The marketing team will need to know the detailed strategy, goals, and vision — with more emphasis on the overall benefits to customers by releases and features.

Sales

The sales team will be interested in what functionality customers are going to receive, when, and why they should care about it.

Customer support

The customer support team will need to be aware of the critical features or enhancements you are planning to deliver and when.

Successful product roadmap presentations tell a cohesive story about the direction of your product. Depending on how quickly your team moves, you might present your product roadmap monthly, quarterly, or annually. As noted above, the audience for your product roadmap presentation will vary — you may be presenting to executives, internal teams, partners, or customers.

But no matter who you are sharing your product plans with, the overall goal of your presentation is to inform people where your product is going and how it will get there. You want to make sure that everyone understands what you are going to deliver and why.

Besides sharing the actual roadmap, you can explain how the plan maps to the company strategy, how it will delight customers, and how it will differentiate the company from competitors. You will also want to give your audience the opportunity to ask questions and share comments. Whether it is positive or negative, feedback is invaluable for refining and improving your roadmap.

Start building your own product roadmap

There are a variety of roadmapping tools and templates available. You may want to get started with free Excel and PowerPoint roadmap templates, which help you organize your research and save time. But templates like these are typically lightweight and limited in their capabilities.

This is why many product teams use purpose-built roadmap software like Aha! to visualize product plans. You can define your strategy, manage ideas, build visual roadmaps, and analyze results all in one place. You can also collaborate with colleagues and share your plans in real time. If you are not already an Aha! user, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial.

No matter what approach you choose, the recommendations in this section of the product management guide will give you a solid framework for building, sharing, and maintaining your product roadmap.


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