What Is a Theme?
In product management, a theme is a high-level goal or plan for the product. The theme sits at the top of the strategic hierarchy on the product roadmap. Each theme is built on a set of related but narrower strategic plans called epics. Epics, in contrast, consist of a group of related features or user stories.
You can think of each product theme as an answer to the questions: “Why are we building this product?” “What market problems are we trying to solve?”
How Do You Develop Themes for Your Product?
Each product team will develop a unique approach for coming up with product themes. But if you are unsure of how to get started, here are a few best practices that will help guide your team.
Note: The step-by-step guide below assumes your company has already established a product vision and product strategy. Those are the first two strategic steps in building a new product. You can begin developing your roadmap, which you’ll do first by coming up with themes using the formula below.
Step 1: Do your research
Each theme you add to the product roadmap should have data demonstrating why your team has decided that the company should commit budget and time to it. Before your team begins suggesting and reviewing ideas, you’ll need to conduct market research to help narrow the possibilities for themes.
This research can include studying successful competitors’ products, analyzing usage data from your company’s products, sending out surveys to your target users, or conducting in-depth user interviews.
Step 2: Develop your theme before deciding on any tactical details
Now that you have research to guide your strategic thinking, you’ll want to create your product’s themes before your team starts discussing features or functionality or what the product should look like.
Developing your product strategy should involve a top-down approach. First, you settle on the major themes. Then you’ll come up with a few related epics under each one. Then, you’ll decide which features and user stories best support each epic. That is the best way to ensure you have a viable answer to the strategic question “Why?” for every decision your team makes.
Step 3: Write your theme in plain language
Each theme should communicate your product strategy and goals to all stakeholders. As a result, you need to draft your themes as short, clear statements anyone can understand. A strong statement might look like this: “Improve product’s compliance for regulated industries.”
How Does It Fit into a Product Roadmap?
A theme is the highest-level strategic element on the roadmap. Every task the product team takes on—from a large strategic epic to the smallest user story—must support one of the roadmap’s themes.
A roadmap can have more than one, but it should have only a few covering a specific timeframe. They help a product team stay on track with their big-picture strategy. Having too many on the roadmap at the same time can lead to conflicting priorities and confusion.
To give you a clearer understanding of how a theme fits into the roadmap, let’s review the following hypothetical.
Note: The best practice is for the team to develop these plans in order from top to bottom, starting with the most strategic elements. They will first agree on a theme, then develop epics under it, and finally decide on features and individual user stories.
“Develop a mobile version” of the product.
“Develop mobile framework” | “Build mobile account-management platform”
- Multiple payment methods
- Order via the app
- Review account statement
“As a customer, I want to be able to view a mobile-friendly version of my order status on my phone.”
Why Are They Important for Product Managers?
Here is how ProductPlan’s co-founder Jim Semick explains the value of product themes in our book on feature-less roadmaps:
“You’re going to get distracted. You’re going to get distracted by a loud customer. You’re going to get distracted by the next shiny object. Someone’s going to come to you with a fantastic idea, and they phrase the idea as a feature. With a theme, though, it helps you stay on track. You’re always tying back these things that you’re delivering, these features and enhancements, to a specific theme.”