How to create a product roadmap: Guide and FAQs

How to create a product roadmap: Guide and FAQs
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The product roadmap is an integral part of not only the product development lifecycle, but also the organization as a whole. Whether you’re at a startup or large corporation, a product roadmap is always the start of the product development lifecycle. In this post, we’ve put together a guide on how to make a product roadmap, along with some frequently asked questions from product managers and owners about the roadmapping process. 

Read on discover: 

  • What a product roadmap is 
  • How to create a product roadmap 
  • Who owns the product roadmap 
  • The difference between a product roadmap and product strategy
  • How to present a product roadmap

Let’s begin!

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What is a product roadmap? 

Any great new product starts with a product roadmap. A product roadmap describes the why and what behind the product that you’re building. It is a big-picture visual summary of what the product is and how it will continue to evolve. 

The product roadmap is a communication tool that outlines how a product fits into the business’s overall vision and goals, as well as a plan for executing that strategy. It is a source of inspiration and motivation, and it helps to create a feeling of shared ownership of the product among the organization. 

Everyone – from executives, to external stakeholders, to the sales team – sees the product roadmap and can orient their progress according to the roadmap. The product roadmap keeps everyone on track, and helps to prevent product development team members from adding on side projects and wasting resources. 

Although product roadmaps help foster a sense of shared product ownership, ultimately there is one team who is in charge of the product roadmap. So who owns the product roadmap? The product management team – i.e. the product owner and manager – are responsible for the product roadmap. The product management team leads the effort in collecting research, user stories, and ideas and feedback, ultimately prioritizing and distilling these materials down to the finished product roadmap. 

While the product management team owns the product roadmap, it is still a document that facilitates collaboration. An effective product roadmap stimulates conversation and inspiration, but ultimately the product management team decides what goes in the final product. 

What is the purpose of a product roadmap?

The product roadmap serves different purposes for different teams and stakeholders. 

The main goals of a product roadmap are to: 

  1. Describe the product goals, vision, and strategy 
  2. Align that vision and strategy with those of internal teams and external stakeholders
  3. Create a jumping off point to discuss options and next steps

The product roadmap serves as a common point of reference to facilitate teamwork. It ensures that everyone is on the same page and is making progress towards the goals of the product roadmap. It guides the product team so they don't stray far from the goals outlined in the document, and it serves as a single point of truth when the team isn’t sure about next steps. 

For external and internal stakeholders, the product roadmap is a useful at-a-glance reference point to assess progress. 

What is the difference between a product roadmap and product strategy? 

The product roadmap is not the only document that a product owner owns. While some organizations may use the terms product roadmap and product strategy interchangeably, there are some notable differences between the two documents. 

If the product roadmap outlines the what and why behind a product, the product strategy outlines the how. Although product roadmaps may include feature milestones, they typically lack the granular details that outline exactly how to achieve those milestones. On the other hand, the product strategy is a detailed document that describes exactly what steps are needed to realize the vision of the product roadmap. For example, your product strategy might include Gantt charts, but your product roadmap would not. 

You might think of the product roadmap as a high-level view of the overarching vision, while the product strategy is more useful for the execution of that vision.

When product management teams find themselves unsure of the product direction or what product features and integrations to prioritize, they may find it helpful to look back at the product roadmap to reorient them to the product’s vision. When the team is unsure about what specific step they should take to achieve milestones, however, they should look to the product strategy for next steps. 

What should a product roadmap include?

The product roadmap contains many elements that are equally important at different parts of the product development cycle. 

These main elements of a product roadmap are ordered according to their level of granularity. These elements are nested within each other as dependencies:

  • Themes: A theme is a high-level objective for the product. When formulating themes, it’s important not to think about the specific features, but the overarching benefit to users. For example, a theme could be: “create a more user-intuitive interface.” These are broad statements that guide the development of epics and features. 
  • Epics: An epic is a group of features that have a specific strategic purpose. They are one level below themes in terms of granularity, but are still high-level groupings. Going with the example theme of “create a more user-intuitive interface,” an epic that connects to this theme could be “create a streamlined login interface.” As you can see, epics aren’t as small as features, but they are more specific than themes. 
  • Stories: A story is another group of features that all work together to achieve a common theme and goal of the product. Using our example of streamlining the user interface, a story can be “improve visual responsiveness.” This story can include features across multiple epics, but is still more granular than a theme. 
  • Features: Lastly, features are the most granular of the product roadmap components. These are the specific deliverables that comprise your product. Every feature on your roadmap should connect to an epic or story, as well as a theme, making it clear to all why the feature is necessary. 

In addition to themes, epics, stories, and features, product roadmaps also contain elements that communicate the bigger picture of how the product fits into the organization’s overall strategies. 

  • Goals are measurable objectives that have clearly defined success metrics. Goals differ from themes in that they connect with the overall business goals and describe what impact the developers hope the product to have. 
  • Initiatives describe the high-level actions you will take to contribute to the goals of the product. Initiatives are the bridge that connect how specific releases and features relate to your goals. 
  • Releases are groupings of related features that launch together. You represent these releases on the timeline.
  • The timeline shows the timeframes of when specific features and the complete product launch will occur. Release dates can range from quarters to years, depending on the scope of the product and its specific releases. 

How do product roadmaps look in agile teams?  

Product roadmaps look very different for agile product development teams than they do for waterfall or traditional development teams. 

Agile product development uses the agile methodology to break down the product development cycle into smaller development cycles called sprints. Agile development prioritizes speed, efficiency, flexibility, and frequent feedback. The product development cycle is iterative – the team goes from development sprints to evaluation cycles and back to sprints. 

On the other hand, more traditional product development methodologies, like waterfall, are linear approaches. The Waterfall method divides the development cycle into different stages. The team must fully complete each stage before the next one begins. 

In the waterfall method, product roadmaps are fixed documents that change very little as the product progresses. 

In agile teams, however, the product roadmap is a living document that constantly changes. As teams cycle through sprints and take stock of the product backlog, they update the product roadmap to reflect current capabilities and shifting priorities. 

How to create a product roadmap 

Creating an effective roadmap is all about distilling competing priorities to what’s most important in creating the best product. It’s important to understand that not everything can, or should, make it into the product roadmap. The roadmap is the starting point in the product development lifecycle, and although it should evolve as the product itself evolves, it should not be a step-by-step plan for how to implement product development. 

Here are the five steps to building a successful product roadmap: 

1. Strategy 

Start with figuring out the why behind the what of your product. Keep in mind your organization’s strategic objectives, and create key themes for the initial parts of the product management lifecycle that fulfill those objectives. Start with the strategy, and then visualize how to achieve that on a timeline. 

2. Idea prioritization

Putting together a product roadmap means being ruthless about what ideas and features go in the initial roadmap — and what doesn’t make the cut. 

Here’s how to prioritize a product roadmap. Only include features if: 

  • They bring value to your users
  • You have evidence and metrics to support the benefit to the user 
  • There is capacity on your team to assign ownership to the feature 
  • It fits your organization’s strategic vision and resource capacity 

In prioritizing what features go into the initial product roadmap, you should weigh the benefits of short-term wins and long-term goals. A successful product roadmap has both, ensuring that there are incremental gains in the product development lifecycle. 

If you are developing an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) then the initial product roadmap should include only the features that are needed to create that MVP. After launching the product and getting feedback from users, the product roadmap should then develop to include new features. 

3. Define features and requirements

Now that you’ve thought out your product’s strategy and you’ve prioritized a starting point for the project, it’s time to define the features of your product. The roadmap’s themes are a great starting off point for the product backlog, with an emphasis on what features will yield the biggest ROI. 

In addition, your roadmap needs to account for some of the “behind the scenes” essential features that address cybersecurity, scalability, and technical debt. 

4. Organize your roadmap into releases 

Now that you’ve prioritized and defined your features, it’s time to think about the timeline and organize your product roadmap into releases. Your roadmap should clearly outline how the product develops beyond an MVP (Minimum Viable Product). 

5. Choose your roadmap view

How you present your roadmap is important in getting buy-in from stakeholders and making sure that everyone understands what the plan is. Aha! Is a great resource for choosing different product roadmap templates, whether you’re creating your roadmap as spreadsheets, or on a specific product roadmap software. 

Presenting your product roadmap: What product roadmap types are there?

Before deciding what type of product roadmap to present, you need to be clear on who you’re presenting the roadmap to. These are the most common types of product roadmaps, according to the stakeholder you’re presenting to. 

Internal roadmaps for executives have the ultimate goal of soliciting buy-in and support for the product vision. This type of roadmap should focus on high-level strategic concepts, and it should always connect with the organization’s larger strategic goals. 

On the other hand, internal roadmaps for engineers should be more granular, so they should be more on the epic or feature level. This roadmap should also feature a more detailed timeline for releases, sprints, and milestones. 

Internal roadmaps for sales teams should focus on how key features benefit the customer. Because sales teams need to be able to sell the specific features, it’s important that the roadmap explain what the features are, focusing not on the technical details, but on how they fulfill customer needs. 

External roadmap for stakeholders should focus on how the product fits into the current tech space and in what ways it provides innovation or disruption. 

External roadmap for customers should be a high-level inspiring presentation that highlights functionality and the benefit to the user. 

Who you’re presenting your product roadmap to will inform what information to include and emphasize. Regardless of what kind of product roadmap you’re presenting, your presentation should focus on using storytelling techniques to create a compelling narrative. Add metrics and a user story to give more credibility to your ideas so it’s easier to get buy-in. 

Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint have some useful product roadmap templates for simple roadmaps. If you want a more flexible and comprehensive product roadmap template, Aha! is a great product roadmap tool, as well as ProductPlan. Jira is a project management tool for agile teams that also has great product roadmap software.  

Going forward 

The product roadmap is key for product success. It’s an important document that provides focus and direction for your team and for internal and external stakeholders. 

A key part in translating your product roadmap into success is making sure that your product development team is able to stay productive. Clockwise automates scheduling for your whole team, so you can focus on creating the best product. Your team can schedule uninterrupted Focus Time that’s free of meetings, so you can make progress on the backlog during sprints. Flexible Meetings is perfect for coordinating meetings with multiple people, without having to send emails back and forth. 

About the author

Judy Tsuei

Judy Tsuei is a Simon & Schuster author, speaker, and podcast host. She’s been featured in MindBodyGreen, BBC Travel, Fast Company, Hello Giggles, and more. As the founder of Wild Hearted Words, a creative marketing agency for global brands, Judy is also a mentor with the Founder Institute, the world's largest pre-seed accelerator. Judy advocates for mental and emotional health on her popular podcast, F*ck Saving Face. Follow along her journey at WildHeartedWords.com.

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