What is product development? Essential guide for product managers
Product development is the process of strategizing, brainstorming, planning, building, and releasing a product to market and then measuring its success. It encompasses taking a product idea from concept to delivery and beyond — so you can grow your business and make customers happy.
Whether you are delivering a brand new offering or enhancing an existing product, the product development cycle begins long before anything gets built. Traditionally, product development was equated with the build phase of the product lifecycle. For teams following strict waterfall processes, requirements were defined upfront and implemented in sequential phases. Most product teams now embrace a more iterative approach based on agile methodologies. Customer feedback is incorporated early and often, work is released incrementally, and change is expected and welcome.
Methodologies aside, product development today is about much more than "how" a product is built. It is the "why," "what," and "when" — involving cross-functional work from product management and engineering all the way to product marketing. Your goal is to work together to build, launch, and refine a product that customers love.
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In this guide, you will learn the fundamentals of product development, including:
Who is involved in the product development process?
Product managers guide the success of the product. You set product strategy, build the roadmap, and define product features. And you sit at the center of the cross-functional product team — folks across the organization who contribute to planning, building, and delivering the product. This typically means representatives from product, engineering, innovation, product marketing, and operations.
Every organization defines its product development team differently depending on the product, customers, and industry. The product team is often made up of people actively involved in one or more stages of product development. They also collaborate with people from other teams who participate in the product's success as well — think customer success, sales, finance, and legal. Everyone in a product-led organization plays an important role in understanding customers and delivering a Complete Product Experience (CPE).
A product team typically includes representatives from the following groups:
Product managers span strategic objectives to tactical activities. You set product strategy, define what the product team will deliver and when, and communicate progress against the product roadmap.
Engineers are responsible for "how" the product is built — collaborating on features and user stories, estimating work, planning sprints, and releasing new functionality.
Innovation teams strategize new ways to approach problems facing the business and its customers. They combine fresh product ideas with market analysis to propel product strategy and avoid stagnation.
Product marketers determine how to share the product's story. They craft positioning and messaging, research the competitive landscape. create buyer personas. They manage go-to-market campaigns, build awareness, and increase product usage.
The operations team is charged with organizational performance and progress — aligning budgets and processes across teams. Program and project managers track resource allocation, risks, and bottlenecks while facilitating collaboration between teams.
What are the stages of product development?
While the details of product development will look different at each organization, there are standard stages that nearly all teams cycle through — from setting strategy to analyzing success. You typically complete one stage before moving to the next but may refine decisions and solutions throughout the entire process.
These are the seven stages of the product development process:
1. Strategize: Define goals and initiatives
Every breakthrough product starts with a vision and strategy. Success in subsequent stages depends on the goals you set upfront and how you decide to measure success.
Most of the foundational strategic work is owned by company leaders in collaboration with a chief product officer, VP of product, and senior product managers. Together you set the top-level goals and initiatives that will influence the product team's areas of focus:
Product goals represent the key accomplishments needed to make the product vision a reality. They should have a fixed time frame and measurable criteria for success.
Product initiatives are the broad areas of work that the product team will complete in order to achieve each goal.
The strategy phase of product development also includes crucial work such as positioning and messaging, conducting market and competitor analysis, and developing user personas that clearly describe specific segments of your target market. This foundation helps bring the voice of the customer into everyday decisions.
At a single-product company, product and company goals may be the same. At organizations with a portfolio of products, each product will have its own goals and initiatives. Product managers are responsible for delivering against the defined product strategy and ensuring that the product team's work tracks back to these top-level goals.
2. Ideate: Capture and refine promising ideas
Putting strategy into action is hard work. Plenty of people within and outside the organization will have an opinion about what you should do next. It is the product team's responsibility to review and evaluate all the ideas from customers, colleagues, and partners. Then you will determine which to prioritize.
This is why the ideation phase of product development hinges on building an effective idea management process. You can collect, review, and score requests consistently and transparently. Great ideas will propel the product forward — but only if you see beyond idea collection. The focus here should be on transforming ideas into real solutions that are aligned with business and customer needs.
3. Plan: Build a well-defined product roadmap and estimate product value
Now it is time to refine ideas further based on goals, estimated product value, and your team's capacity. In this stage, product teams shift into detailed roadmap planning led by the product manager. This includes defining the epics, major user stories, and features that fit under each initiative. Keep in mind that your product roadmap is different from your release plans — which detail phases of work, release dates, and dependencies.
A product value scorecard gives you consistent criteria for estimating the value of ideas, refining during feature scoping, and then measuring again after release. Establish a prioritization framework and value metrics that can be used consistently across teams and stages.
After building the roadmap, you need to detail how the tactical work will get done. Collaborating with engineering on how much effort it will take to complete upcoming work is a critical piece of making your roadmap a reality. This is where capacity planning comes in.
An example of a product roadmap created with Aha! Roadmaps.
4. Showcase: Share roadmaps and go-to-market plans with stakeholders
Roadmaps also serve as a communication tool for internal and external groups. Getting buy-in and anchoring the team around a shared vision requires everyone to know their role in the product's success. During a roadmap presentation, the product manager shares roadmap views tailored to the audience. For instance, company leaders will want to understand how major initiatives roll up into company strategy. The customer support team, on the other hand, will want to see the benefits of upcoming functionality, guidance on when it will be available, and how to introduce it to customers.
Showcasing the roadmap is more than unveiling new features and a timeline. Product teams can use this phase as an opportunity to answer questions about product direction and solicit feedback.
An example of an Aha! Roadmaps presentation complete with automatically updated views and charts.
5. Build: Deliver new functionality
In this stage, the team's focus shifts from planning to building. This is when you bring product and engineering together to deeply review features and requirements. The engineering team then owns the development work — including estimation, sprint planning, and acceptance criteria. Many development teams choose an agile product development methodology to organize and prioritize work items across sprints.
Product managers are responsible for coordinating the releases or launches that bring a new product experience to market once it is ready. Regardless of your release cadence, you need to consider all of the cross-functional activities needed to support the release — from marketing and promotions to customer support.
An example of a workflow board in Aha! Develop showing features organized into swimlanes by status.
6. Launch: Bring new capabilities to market
A product launch is not a single event that gets wrapped up in a day or two. It requires just as much planning as any other stage in the product development process. Depending on the type or size of the release, launch activities may include marketing announcements, providing customer-facing or internal training, building self-help resources, and more. Consider utilizing a launch checklist to align the team around the work that needs to get done.
7. Analyze: Assess realized product value
Successful launch done — onto the next? Not so fast. Important post-launch work includes analyzing product usage and gathering customer feedback. There are some standard product metrics you might track, but numbers alone cannot tell the whole story. The ultimate metric is lovability — how much your customers truly love your product and want to tell others about it. You can measure lovability in various ways, including a simple in-app survey that asks customers to rate their overall satisfaction. Some product teams use metrics such as net promoter score (NPS) or customer satisfaction score (CSAT).
What are some common early-stage product development frameworks?
Let's back up for a moment and imagine that your organization is just embarking on the product development process. There are a number of different frameworks that product teams can follow to get started. Most approaches advocate understanding customer needs, market research, prototyping, and testing ideas before fully investing in product development. The specifics will vary based on what you are actually building, but below are some common early-stage product development frameworks.
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Design thinking is a framework for design and innovation. It includes cognitive, strategic, and functional processes for developing new concepts. The table below shows the fundamental steps behind design thinking.
Understand the user and what their needs are
Frame the problem in user and human-centered ways
Gather feedback and create ideas
Produce preliminary versions of a product or feature
Determine what works and identify any issues
Front end innovation
Front end innovation represents the beginning stages of the product development process. It should not be confused with the user interface, which is often referred to as the "front end" as well. Front end innovation is used for scoping out the concept of a product and determining whether or not to invest further time and resources. There is no universally accepted definition or dominant framework but you can see common components below.
Establish company and product vision
Idea selection and analysis
Conceptualize and understand product feasibility
Build a business case and gather requirements
New product development (NPD)
NPD is the process of taking a product from concept to market availability. It can apply to developing a new product as well as improving an established product.
Brainstorm ideas internally and gather ideas externally from customers
Analyze and prioritize ideas
Turn an idea into a defined concept
Market strategy and business analysis
Determine the cost and potential profit
Technical product design and development
Design and develop the product
Perform beta testing or a trial run of the product
Complete a comprehensive go-to-market launch and introduce the product to the market
What are product development best practices?
Product development is complex — an introductory guide surely cannot capture all of its intricacies. At a high level, here are some best practices to keep in mind as you chart your course:
Keep a clear focus on business and customer value
Facilitate deep cross-functional alignment
Promote a shared understanding of plans and priorities
Enhance visibility and transparency throughout the process
Remain focused on meeting real customer needs
Track and measure value through each phase of development
Product innovation is integral to a company’s continued success. It comes down to creating value — for your customers and for your business. It sounds simple enough but this is difficult work. An integrated product development suite is vital to staying aligned, tracking work, and transforming ideas from concept to launch.
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