The product roadmap is the strategic communication tool in a product manager’s arsenal. Product managers work with internal teams and stakeholders to build a crystal-clear roadmap that clearly communicates deliverables and the expectations for where the product is going and why.
Here at Roadmunk, we know how important roadmaps are for product managers to create alignment around a plan that builds trust and confidence among stakeholders. So, we wrote this guide to prepare you for planning, building and sharing a great product roadmap that will make you—and the progress you’re making—look great in front of your teams.
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What is a product roadmap?
A product roadmap is a visual communication tool that aligns a company around a high-level product strategy. Depending on the type of organization, product roadmaps can include upcoming features and technical considerations, and often demonstrate how a product will evolve over time. Roadmaps communicate the intention of what customer and business outcomes a plan will achieve within a period of time.
The product roadmap is also a coordination tool: It gives stakeholders and team members the information they need to be able to focus their goals and priorities. Roadmaps bring visibility to all the moving pieces that help product teams coordinate their efforts; pieces like scope and resource allocation (and the why behind those decisions). The roadmap is the asset that communicates how those pieces form the strategy, in a way that can be understood by each and every stakeholder.
“A product roadmap is about communicating the why. It’s about the ultimate destination (the vision) and the major steps that the team intends to take along the way (goals to be reached, problems to be solved). A roadmap should not delve deeply into the what and the when. It should stay at the why level. It should inspire your teams to then develop a release plan, a delivery plan or a project plan for how to deliver that vision.”
— Bruce McCarthy, author of Product Roadmaps Relaunched
Why are product roadmaps important?
When product managers establish a healthy product roadmapping process and culture at their organization, it helps them achieve a few things:
Roadmaps help create alignment and excitement around a product strategy. A product roadmap is the perfect tool if you want to create product strategy literacy across your organization (and it's the perfect tool for demonstrating to your stakeholders that you have a firm grasp on that strategic wheel!). When your teams have this foundational understanding of what matters to the business and to customers, their internal compass for making tactical decisions will be grounded in that high-level plan and direction.
This visibility works to the product manager’s advantage from top to bottom. A great product roadmap gives executives and other stakeholders complete visibility into what’s happening, changing or progressing within the strategy. It’s meant to create confidence, so your stakeholders can feel good about the progress that the company is making towards solving the customer problems that will yield the biggest business impact.
Roadmaps facilitate cross-functional team collaboration and clarity around priorities. The process of product prioritization is as complex as roadmapping. It requires an ongoing, collaborative dialogue between teams and stakeholders. Having a product roadmap encourages teams to narrow down the focus of the problems that can be solved using the available resources―a prioritization exercise in and of itself.
A product roadmap is a powerful channel of communication. These ongoing conversations―about the why, how and who of the work to be done―create a culture of alignment and deep understanding of the vision and direction for the product.
How to plan what goes in the roadmap
“It’s all about solving problems, not implementing features. Conventional product roadmaps are all about output. Strong teams know it’s not only about implementing a solution. They must ensure that the solution solves the underlying problem. It’s about business results.”
― Marty Cagan, author of INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love
Product roadmap planning is hard—but with a bit of focus and ruthless prioritization, you can manage most of the problems and difficulties that come with the process. Narrow down the priorities you intend to tackle for a period of time, define priority-based goals that focus on outcomes and solutions (not feature delivery dates), and define the measures of success you’ll implement (metrics and KPIs).
Roadmap planning starts with those pieces. Commit to doing them right and communicating them with your teams, and you'll be on the right path towards roadmapping success.
1. Generate the goal, or goals, for a specific period of time
Like we said earlier, you’re ideally planning a roadmap for the next few months or quarters. Rarely do product managers know what’s going to happen a year from now (market changes, discovery of new user needs), so planning for a one year timeline doesn’t make sense. You only need the details of the who, what and how for the month and quarter, focused on working towards achieving a high-level goal or two (for agile teams and startups, even that time frame can be a stretch!).
How do you determine what the product goals for a quarter should be? No matter where you’re at in your company’s lifecycle—whether you’re a scrappy 20-person startup or a 2,000-person multi-product portfolio enterprise—it all starts with the product vision. It’s what Roman Pichler calls: "The reason for creating the product.". Everything you do should be aligned with that unique positioning for your product; the outcomes that vision aims to create for current and potential users.
What are your business goals? Know if your company’s priorities are to push acquisition metrics forward (to expand in the market and acquire new customers) or to satisfy current users (reduce churn and improve retention). When you know the business goals, you can craft your product goals and KPIs towards that direction.
Pro tip?: This is where a framework like Porter’s Five Forces or a SWOT analysis can help determine what goals to focus on. What are the areas of focus that might make the product more competitive over time?
2. Identify the problems that can be solved
Once you know what the business goals are, and have a product strategy rooted in measuring and improving metrics related to those goals, it’s time to move into the problem discovery phase. What are the user problems that you can solve in order to impact those metrics you defined? Look for the problems that will create the biggest impact on the business goals. And you can remove a lot of the noise by focusing on the signals in these channels:
- Customer feedback: You need to talk to your users frequently. We can't repeat this enough! Feature requests coming from sales, CS/CX messages are useful, and meeting with those teams can be informative towards understanding user problems, but you as a product manager need to be deeply embedded in user conversations. Look for the big problems that can be potentially solved within the block of time you’ve defined for the roadmap.
Pro tip?: Use a model like Ash Maurya’s lean canvas) or the Jobs to be done frameworkto conceptualize and segment your understanding of customer problems and needs.
Usage data: This is where you find out exactly how your users are interacting with your product and features. Look for the problems, barriers and common trends in the behavior that can be potentially solved for.
Product competitive analysis: Keeping a pulse on the problem areas your competitors are solving is important, even if you’re not aggressively going after them. That involves experiencing your competitors’ products to gain a more comprehensive frame of reference for where your product stands in the market versus the competition. Do a deep analysis, measure the experiences, and benchmark them against your product.
This depth of research and problem discovery during the product roadmap planning phase is crucial to generating the right problems you’ll commit to solving over a period of time. This research is the evidence you’ll use to justify why certain features and initiatives should be on the roadmap during alignment discussions.
“It’s important to create a roadmap that tells the story of the features your team will be working on, but also why those features were ideated. One feature could be there because 100 important users asked for it, or another feature addresses customer churn. If you do this work ahead of time, and attach it to the roadmap, you rarely have to deal with people questioning the roadmap.”
3. Align with your internal teams and stakeholders
Your product roadmap planning needs to be collaborative from start to finish. To loosely quote Teresa Torres, champion of the Continuous Discovery mindset, any team invested in solving customer problems should come together to brainstorm the possible paths that can be taken to achieve an outcome (paths = potential product goals for any given quarter).
Customer facing teams are key touchpoints for product managers during the product roadmap planning process. Think about it this way: having a good pulse-check on the needs expressed by customers is critical to ensuring you’re making market-driven decisions. Over 70% of the Pragmatic Institute’s 2019 survey respondents said that they spend less than 5 hours a month processing customer feedback. And most product managers don’t have the time to do ongoing, comprehensive user research, which is a big hurdle towards identifying the problems worth solving.
“It’s in the interest of the product manager to demonstrate to their teams how they came about the decision-making using all this research,” Bobby adds, “This creates faith and trust in us, the product team, that we’ve actually done our homework and looked into all the factors, data and feedback that could weigh in on the decision-making process.”
How can you build those relationships with your teams during the product roadmap planning phase? It starts with having ongoing and regular conversations with customers and customer-facing teams. These conversations can be weekly or quarterly, depending on how much gut checking you have to do during your planning process. Be curious about their input on a proposed solution: when you talk to them, try to identify the trends in the issues and feature requests so you can ground your plans in real feedback.
The best way to build those relationships during the product roadmap planning phase is to zero in on the biggest problems that can be solved the fastest. Remember that roadmap alignment should be a regular, ongoing exercise. It should start from the early days of roadmap drafting and strategy planning.
Product roadmap planning is not about saying: Here’s what I’m thinking about and I’m just keeping you in the loop. But instead, it’s about bringing these teams into more participatory conversations. Lead your customer-facing team touchpoints with questions like:
- What problems do you feel are urgent? Can you walk me why you feel that way?
- What evidence are you basing that on?
- What do think is the impact of acting on/not acting on this piece of feedback
"Meet with each team leader and ask: What are the trends you’re seeing, if any? What are the most common things customers are saying? I like to keep my meetings with customer-facing teams to about 30 minutes in length, and I make sure to carry them separately rather than in one big problem discovery meeting. This way, you remove the bias and influence that people can have on each other’s answers. Ideally, you want a combination of that input, along with what feedback pieces from actual customers, plus data."
4. Define metrics of success and KPIs for the initiatives in the product roadmap
What’s the best way to quantify the impact of the goals to be reached and problems to be solved within a period of time? By ensuring that your roadmap is connected to well-defined KPIs. Your roadmap should illustrate, or be informed, by the answers to the questions:
- What will our long-term impact be?
- How will we measure if this impact has been achieved?
- What’s the process for updating and communicating the progress of this impact?
One popular method that helps product teams answer these questions is Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). OKRs are a great goal-setting framework because they take a high-level vision and break it into manageable objectives. OKR Objectives are time-bound and actionable, as well as inspirational (it inspires the team to "roll up their sleeves" and act independently to execute the objective). Key Results, on the other hand, take the qualitative aspect of objectives and turn it into quantifiable milestones.
- Triple average weekly sessions on mobile by the end of February
- KR1: QA all mobile functions
- KR2: Improve loading time by 40%
- KR3: Add one new integration to the mobile version
“Ensure every goal is measurable when using a goal-oriented roadmap. This will allow you to tell if you have met the goal or not. For example, if your goal is to acquire customers, then ask yourself how many new users should be acquired. If you’re aiming to reduce technical debt, figure out how much of the bad code should be rewritten or removed. It will be hard to tell if you have met the goal or not if you don’t state a target. Make sure you set a realistic target though. Then select the metrics that will help you determine if a goal has been met and if a release has delivered the desired benefit.”
— Roman Pichler of Pichler Consulting
5. How to prioritize the product roadmap
To borrow some of Marty Cagan’s words, author of INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love , great product decisions come from the deep understanding of the user’s needs combined with an equally deep understanding of what’s possible to achieve with the resources the company has.
This is where a prioritization framework comes in handy during the product roadmap planning phase. Start by asking the questions: What initiatives will create the most impact? What’s the most urgent thing that needs to be tackled? What’s our scope of resources (time, effort, technology)? Then, move into ways to quantify those answers so you can use that to make those prioritization decisions.
Free book alert ⚠️. We wrote a whole book about the prioritization process and the best frameworks you can adapt to your organization's needs. Get it here.
There are two weighted-score methods we like that can help you benchmark potential epics or features against your product goals.
RICE. RICE stands for Reach, Impact, Confidence and Effort. It’s a simple weighted score method for quantifying the potential value of features, project ideas and initiatives. A RICE score helps product managers quantify the estimated value of a feature or project idea so they’re easier to sort when it’s time to decide the order they should be worked on. Sean McBride, who co-developed RICE prioritization as a PM at Intercom, walked us through how to best use this prioritization method (read it here).
Value vs Effort. A popular, easy-to-communicate way to begin prioritizing ideas is to compare the value gained from an idea against the effort required to complete it. By using a standard ranking scale from 1 to 5, decisions can be made quickly and easily by a product manager or team. Check out our breakdown of the factors that define value and effort.
You can use both RICE and value vs. effort as templates in Roadmunk. Start surfacing high-impact ideas by scoring them using these tried-and-true prioritization techniques. Try it here.
How to build a product roadmap
We covered one way to plan what goes in the roadmap. It’s time to take your set of goals and outcomes and turn them into a clear visual.
There are countless ways you can bring a roadmap to life. From post-its on a whiteboard, Excel spreadsheets and powerpoint slides, all the way to a flexible roadmap tool like Roadmunk.
The challenging nature of product development work extends to the process of choosing the right tool stack for strategic planning. To learn about which tool best suits your individual team's needs, we suggest reading airfocus' recent guide on the best Product Roadmap Software of 2020.
Psst, if you’re wondering what a roadmapping tool like Roadmunk can do, try us out! Sign up for a 14-day free trial and build your first product roadmap with just a few clicks.
In general, from how we’ve observed product managers build their roadmaps using Roadmunk, roadmap formats tend to fall in three categories. Each type of roadmap format loosely works best at different stages of the product lifecycle, but how you’ll structure your roadmap really depends on the unique characteristics of your business.
The no-dates product roadmap: The no-dates roadmap offers more flexibility than roadmaps built on timelines. They’re helpful for companies whose priorities are constantly shifting. This is usually the case when your product is still in its earliest stages—when you’re processing new information on a week-to-week or even day-to-day basis.
The hybrid product roadmap: This type of product roadmap includes dates—but not hard dates. For example, a company might create a product roadmap that is organized by month or quarter. This style of roadmap allows you to plan into the future while maintaining flexibility. Items here are plotted by month, and designated as either Current, Near-Term, or Future. By time-boxing projects according to months, you create a loose projection that’s helpful but not constraining.
The timeline product roadmap: The name is self-explanatory: it’s a roadmap plotted on a timeline. A complex timeline product roadmap really isn’t helpful or necessary until you’re juggling multiple departments, dependencies and deadlines.
It’s common to see twitter hot takes and Medium articles that downplay the role of dates in the roadmap (all with valid reasons related to agility!). But usage data from the product managers who use Roadmunk suggests that dates are a key factor in roadmapping: 89% of roadmap views built in Roadmunk have at least some representation of time, whether it’s a detailed timeline or broader time buckets displayed in a swimlane.
A timeline product roadmap gives a visual structure to the many, many, many moving parts that have to work together to ensure product success. They also show the product’s long-term vision—since some departments must plan a year or more in advance.
Along with working with a format that fits your company's needs, there are a few roadmap components that will make it a visual communication tool that can be easily digested by your stakeholders. (You can build a roadmap that includes all of these components using Roadmunk, by the way!):
- Identify dependencies early on. Nothing exists in a vacuum among product teams, especially between departments like product, engineering and design. Every project, team and initiative is related to one another, so it’s important to define those dependencies early on in the roadmapping process.
- Mark milestones. If your team is following the OKR method for measuring the progress of your business goals, then having milestones on your roadmap can bring visibility to that progress. Milestones are a great way to spotlight your organization's goals, major releases, trade shows and achievements. By visualizing a goal or key result on a roadmap, milestones help your team rally behind it and understand what it takes to get there.
- Track progress. What do you hope to change in the lives of your users? How quickly? By tracking the progress of your objectives, key results and goals, you keep a pulse on how close you are to solving the customer problems that will bring you closer to fulfilling your vision.
Check out our podcast episode on customer-driven roadmapping, featuring Roadmunk co-founder and CEO Latif Nanji⬇️
How to present a product roadmap to get buy-in
Your goal with the product roadmap presentation is to gain alignment around the set of priorities you’ve arrived at in collaboration with your teams. But more importantly, the roadmap presentation is where you’ll show your stakeholders that you have the product management acumen necessary to identify and advocate for the product opportunities that will help your company reach its goals.
Your roadmap presentation is the perfect time to shine as a product manager in front of your stakeholders: you’re able to demonstrate how well you know the market, the users, the product and the business goals. This is where it’s important to treat your roadmap presentation audiences as personas. Before getting into a room with stakeholders, ask yourself: What information does each department and stakeholder care about? What will affect their work the most?
When you understand each type of priority (at the business level, the strategic level, the technology level), you can then pivot the information and tailor your roadmap presentation to specific audiences.
What they care about: Scalability, code, integrity of work, efficiency of work (not taking one step forward and two steps back), building features that add actual value (not just perceived value).
How to communicate your roadmap for successful buy-in: Engineering wants to understand the value for their effort. For developers, integrity is a top priority, and they’ll push back on features that seem difficult to scale or solutions that seem inelegant. You need to be able to explain the intrinsic value of each feature and milestone: value to the business, value to customers, value towards improving the product. Set realistic time frames (i.e. pad your estimates!), while striking a balance between your sense of urgency and their limited resources.
What to show them: Focus on developer-oriented themes, like scalability, usability, quality, performance, infrastructure and features. And keep it short term!
Sales, CS and other customer-facing teams
“We want to know when something is coming to market so we can sell against that delivery, whether it's to existing or new customers, or ones we lost. Secondly, we like to have that roadmap so we can convey confidence to our customers for where we're going and when (and of course, the why behind those decisions). All of that is valuable for sales to see on a product roadmap, both internally and externally, because it impacts how we approach our messaging."
What they care about: WHAT they can promise customers and WHEN those will be ready, building trust and loyalty, performance improvements for the product, ways to reduce churn.
How to communicate your roadmap for successful buy-in: Focus on the timeline. When will different outputs be ready? What can they promise customers and prospects right now? Show how the roadmap will introduce ways to reduce churn and improve conversion. And go big: highlight how the needs of large clients will be met, and how your product roadmap creates opportunities for significant deals.
What to show them: The what and the when. Give them a transparent timeline they can communicate to customers and users. (Some schools of thought around roadmaps believe that you should keep dates out of the roadmap due to the risk of committing to something that might not be delivered. Assess that risk internally and decide if a dateless approach works best for you.)
“CX/CS teams need visibility into the level of confidence around the roadmap plan. Are there any blockers, risks or dependencies that might put a wedge on a timeline? Who is the key contact if we have questions about any delays? Will a feature be delivered as a final version or should customers expect updates post-release? CS/CX need this information in order to provide informed answers to customer questions and concerns; to show them that the company is working towards solving the problems they care about.”
For a more in-depth look at how to present the roadmap to execs, check out this guide: Managing executives in the roadmapping process
What they care about: The business goals and how the plan depicted by the roadmap will help the company achieve them. They want to see a strong connection between the development initiatives and the priorities of the business. Execs are more concerned with the investments a company is making (resource allocation) and how those investments will create a return.
How to communicate your roadmap for successful buy-in: The CEO of the company tends to be pretty hands-on with most facets of the company, and especially with the product roadmap. CEOs think high-level and inter-departmental, so make sure your roadmap ties each initiative to customer value and business goals.
What to show them: The Exec team will want to see what features you’re adding, but more importantly, they’ll want to see how the initiatives will help the product capture the market. They also want to understand risk and internal efficiencies (if there are any).
What they care about: It’s up to your company whether or not you share a roadmap with customers. But if you decide to have a customer-facing roadmap, it’s important that they see the value that they can anticipate your product will deliver.
What to show them: Customer-facing roadmaps should not include the what, how and when you’d show internal teams (so, no dates, documentation or team capacity). The axiom here is: under-promise and over-deliver! Focus on the things they care about achieving, and define roadmap themes around those categories.
How to ace your roadmap presentation
Product roadmap examples
Roadmapping needs vary from company to company. We understand that, which is why we have different examples of product roadmaps that fulfill different needs.
Product roadmap example
Here’s a roadmap for visualizing your product strategy and getting your entire organization aligned. You can use this roadmap to chart how your product will grow over time and when.
?Start using this product roadmap:
Agile product roadmap example
An agile roadmap illustrates how your product or technology will evolve—with a lot of flexibility. Unlike time-based roadmaps, which focus on dates and deadlines, agile roadmaps focus on themes and progress. Agile roadmaps encapsulate the flexibility of the agile philosophy: they’re a statement of where you’re going, not a hard-and-fast plan.
?Start using this agile roadmap:
Feature roadmap example
Feature roadmaps track the development and releases of a product’s key features. These roadmaps are used to communicate the direction and progress of an organization's feature development to team members and external stakeholders. Feature roadmaps manage an organization's resource allocation in development cycles and prioritize key releases. They communicate specifically how a product will evolve, without going into detail on other areas of a business. This keeps the focus on initiatives that add value for users.
?Start using this feature roadmap:
Product launch roadmap example
A product launch roadmap is a visual communication tool that illustrates how a new product will hit the market. It crosses all teams involved – from product, development, marketing, and sales. It outlines all tasks required to ensure that pre-launch, launch and post-launch tactics are successfully executed.
?Start using this product launch roadmap:
For more examples, visit our roadmap templates library. Choose from 45+ free templates and start using one with just a few clicks.
Some final product roadmap best practices
It’s not a project management tool or a release plan. Ideally, your product roadmap doesn’t include the granular details of resource management and shipping dates. Your product roadmap focuses on what business and user outcomes it will create within a period of time (whether it’s a month, quarter or year).
Keep your product roadmap flexible. Executive stakeholders will want to know what’s going on over a number of quarters—sometimes even a year. But technology moves fast, including competitors releasing features that become table stakes, and the priorities that emerge from the ongoing conversations and product discovery interviews that product managers have with users. Not to mention, development timelines are often unpredictable. It doesn’t mean the roadmap is useless; it means that when you present it, you have to communicate how change is part of the development process.
Measure performance and share status updates. I hope by now it’s clear that roadmaps can’t be static documents (Excel and powerpoint roadmaps, we’re side-eyeing you). This also means that the roadmapping “lifecycle” doesn’t simply end with a presentation. You need to follow up on KPIs and progress, as well as keep your customers informed.
8+ free customizable product roadmap templates
How to focus on the right qualitative and quantitative data for the product roadmap
Why a roadmap tool is better than a Microsoft Office roadmap
Build your first product roadmap in Roadmunk. Sign up for a free trial and create a crystal-clear roadmap that you can present at your next meeting.