If you’re ready to start creating a roadmap, I’ll assume two things.
First, your organization has already determined your product’s vision—your big-picture plan for what the product will accomplish in the market and for your company.
Second, you and your team have identified a high-level strategy to make that product vision a reality. This strategy doesn’t have to be fully worked out and documented—that’s what the roadmap itself is for—but you should have already determined the major components of your product strategy, and the reasoning behind them.
We’ve written in detail about what a roadmap is and what its primary roles are—and first and foremost among those roles is to clearly convey a product’s vision and strategy. What this means is that creating a roadmap can’t happen in a vacuum. You and your team can’t simply sit down with the idea of developing a new product, and as your first act start creating a roadmap.
After all, your roadmap won’t be able to do its job of effectively documenting vision and strategy if those two all-important elements haven’t already been thought through, vetted, and agreed upon.
The early stages of your product development process should follow a clear order of strategic planning. First you’ll determine the product’s vision. Then you’ll settle on a high-level strategy for guiding that vision to reality. And finally, you can start creating a roadmap to capture and communicate that vision and strategy.
In this post, we’ll take you through four key things to consider when creating your product roadmap:
- Make sure you’re using the right roadmap tool.
- Make sure your roadmap is visually clear and compelling.
- Make sure every item on the roadmap is accompanied by a strategic justification.
- Make sure you are reviewing and updating your roadmap frequently.
If after reading this introduction you determine that your team might not quite be ready for creating a roadmap—perhaps you’re still at the strategy brainstorming stage—I’d recommend you download our free book, Product Roadmaps: Your Guide to Planning and Selling Your Strategy. It will walk you through all of the strategic steps involved in getting to a finished product roadmap and beyond.
But if you are indeed ready to create a roadmap, below is a helpful guide to get you started.
4 Things to Look for When Creating a Roadmap
1. Make sure you’re using the right roadmap tool.
The first thing to think about when creating a roadmap is the tool you’ll be using. This is a critical decision to make because if you choose the wrong application to build your roadmap, you’ll be stuck with that application throughout your product’s development. This could lead to untold hours of extra work for you, a roadmap that presents itself poorly, and stakeholders with outdated information.
Although a roadmap is often mistakenly viewed as a document—something that’s written down once and then left more or less intact—the truth is that a roadmap is more of an ongoing process than a static document.
Your product’s priorities will change. Your customers will change. Budgets will change. These changes need to be reflected on the roadmap, which itself will ideally be easily accessible so any relevant party—development, marketing, sales, executive stakeholders—can view it and gain an up-to-date picture of where the product is in its development journey. If your roadmap tool doesn’t allow for easy updates and easy sharing across the organization, then what value does it add?
Yet when we surveyed product managers a couple of years ago to find out how they were creating their roadmaps and what their major challenges were, we found that the typical PM was still using presentation software and spreadsheets for creating a roadmap. And wouldn’t you know, the top challenge these PMs cited when it came to their product roadmaps was that they took too much time to create and to update.
(Other major issues, in case you’re curious, were that the PMs’ roadmaps were not visually compelling—making it more difficult to use them to win stakeholder buy-in—and the fact that because they were static documents they often left executives and other stakeholders with outdated information.)
Before creating a roadmap, think very carefully about the pros and cons of whatever application you’re planning to use. Presentation and spreadsheet software, for example, require manual updates and make sharing more difficult because they output static files that can’t easily be shared and accessed in a central location.
The solution? Use a purpose-built roadmap application—an app designed specifically for creating roadmaps. Look for a tool that takes into account the need for simple drag-and-drop updates, that can be housed online at a single URL for easy sharing, and that creates an aesthetically compelling presentation for product meetings with stakeholders, development teams, and other key groups.
2. Make sure your roadmap is visually clear and compelling.
Imagine creating a roadmap in spreadsheet format—rows and rows of epics and features and stories.
Before presenting it to the team, you review your spreadsheet roadmap. If someone were to take the time to read through the entire thing, they’d understand that this product strategy will be a needle-mover for the company. Yes, it looks a bit boring, but surely everyone can look past the rows of text in 8-point font and see the genius of your strategy, right?
As a product manager, one of your key jobs is to be an evangelist for the product. A high-level visual presentation is a powerful way to help get buy-in on your strategy.
In fact, some product teams care so much about creating the right impression that they spend hours creating a roadmap that is visually beautiful. We regularly hear stories about how much the presentation matters. For example:
- The VP of Product who had a designer use Adobe Illustrator to create their product roadmap document. (Unfortunately, the designer needed to be involved in every change).
- The product managers who enlisted the marketing department’s help in creating a roadmap—and the document was so beautiful that they continued using it even after the roadmap’s information was outdated!
- The product owner who spent hours each month re-formatting and color-coding a spreadsheet to convey how the roadmap tied to the strategy.
These teams understood the value of the visual—so much so that they spent an inordinate amount of time and resources creating a roadmap specifically so that it would present well.
But in today’s agile world, there isn’t time to hassle with updating a graphic, PowerPoint deck, or spreadsheet every time the roadmap is updated or your executives want to review it.
This is why my first suggestion was to be very strategic in choosing the tool to build your roadmap. Dedicated roadmap software will be designed to help you make a visually compelling case for your product strategy.
Regardless of which tool you choose to create your roadmap—a presentation tool, a word-processing app, spreadsheet software, or a purpose-built roadmap app—here are a few suggestions for creating an impactful roadmap.
- Use color. Color is a great way to represent how your roadmap ties to the product vision or strategic objectives. Color-code each item on your roadmap to help people make the connection between each initiative and how it fits into the big picture.
- Use large fonts. People have a limited amount of time to digest your strategy, so use large fonts, especially if you are presenting your roadmap on a projector or in an online meeting. Think of your roadmap like a presentation and you’ll be ahead of the game.
- Keep it high-level. Remember that you are telling a story about how your strategy fits with the product vision. So tell the story in big, bold strokes rather than minute details. If you can, create logical groupings of initiatives to make the roadmap easier to grasp.
3. Make sure every item on the roadmap is accompanied by a strategic justification.
As we’ve written before, a roadmap is not simply your product’s backlog or feature list. Your roadmap should provide a clear and persuasive case for building the product the way you are asking for it to be built.
With this in mind, it is a smart strategy to find a way to include—on the roadmap itself—your strategic reasoning behind each of the themes, epics and other initiatives you’ve chosen to include on the roadmap. If it’s on the roadmap, your team—or anyone you’ve given access to view the roadmap—should be able to learn why you’ve chosen to prioritize it.
“Make sure every item on the roadmap is accompanied by a strategic justification.”
There are several benefits of this approach. First, when you set a rule that any item needs to articulate its reason for existing on the roadmap, your team will be more strategic in your product decisions.
Second, when you have a clear explanation on the roadmap for why every item belongs there—even if it’s just a single line, i.e. “Research tells us 84% of our customers use mobile apps for work,” to explain the reason for prioritizing a mobile version of your product—you are more likely to earn stakeholder buy-in.
4. Make sure you are reviewing and updating your roadmap frequently.
Assuming you take the advice in this post and select a dedicated roadmap application for creating your roadmap, rather than a static-document tool like PowerPoint or Excel, you will find making updates to the roadmap quick and easy.
Indeed, as you can see from the screenshot here, adding an epic or story, or switching priorities, or moving a set of tasks from one team or swim lane to another, should be as simple as dragging and dropping color-coded bars or containers into the appropriate spot on the roadmap.
Likewise, with the right roadmap tool, checking the status of an item or assigning it a category should be possible with a couple clicks.
The point? With the right roadmap tool, you’ll have no excuse for not updating the roadmap as often as necessary. This is a critical step for the success of your product.
Failure to regularly update your roadmap could mean that everyone on your cross-functional team might be working with outdated or incorrect information.
When you regularly review and update your roadmap—and that roadmap lives in the cloud, so there are no version-control problems—you will always know that everyone in your company has an accurate picture of where the product stands, what they should be working on, and which priorities may have changed.
For more ideas about what to include when creating a roadmap, and how to vet each of these items before giving it precious roadmap real estate, read our blog post: Must-Haves Before an Item Makes it on Your Roadmap.