The Role Roadmaps Play in Managing Product Design

In modern software development, product designers tend to be embedded on a cross-functional squad or scrum team. That team’s collective work is often represented, at a high level, as features on the product roadmap.

The work of a product designer, however, is distinct from their developer counterparts. Also, the role of product design in designing great user experiences is both tactical and strategic.

As an organization scales, product design leaders and other executives need some way to track their team’s efforts. They need to ensure all teams are working in service of the same goal and user outcome. The roadmap can be a powerful tool in coordinating these efforts, including the product design team members.

Avoid the Temptation for a UX Roadmap

I sometimes hear of design leaders who use a roadmap to track the work of their designers. More often, their bosses ask for a UX roadmap to have visibility into the design team’s workstream and bandwidth. These use cases give me pause, as the UX Roadmap is an artifact of waterfall software development.

As modern software development has adopted a more agile and lean approach, design has become more integrated and in-step with the development team. In this practice, having a separate UX and Product Roadmap doesn’t make sense. Even if your team is still practicing handing up-front design to developers, that work is still ultimately guided by the product roadmap.

In most cases, it seems the goal of a UX Roadmap is more for management to stay on top of what each designer is working on across several teams. For this, I would argue that a roadmap (which is more strategic by definition) isn’t the right solution. It would be more beneficial to somehow view and track tasks at a global level. I usually recommend tracking design tasks alongside development tasks in the same system.

Capture Product Design With Your Existing Product Roadmap

The work of product design is always in service of the product strategy. So, including design work on the existing product roadmap is a great way to provide visibility into their work. Understanding how design supports product initiatives also enables collaboration. Cross-functional leaders can better align and respond to schedules that inevitably slip.

It’s generally recommended to have different roadmaps for different audiences. Representing design work, then, should be at the appropriate fidelity for the right audience. I recommend showing tactical design work on shorter-term roadmap views and the more strategic work on longer duration views.

Tracking tactical design.

Tactical design tasks include activities such as UX research, design sprints, prototyping, and usability testing. These activities are granular, which might be more information than executive leaderships care to see. They are, however, critically important to the team and the short-term view. For this reason, I recommend including these tasks on weekly or bi-weekly view roadmaps. Seeing those design tasks can be beneficial for audiences that need to plan and sequence their work.

For example, on any given sprint, most teams are balancing current work with planning for work to pick up in the future. So, your current sprint might have a line on the team’s product roadmap for prototyping when, in the following sprint, the development work may begin. Similarly, at the beginning of the next sprint, there may be a line representing that team’s usability testing to validate what is being built.

Tracking strategic design.

Much of the product design team’s work is more strategic than tactical. Some activities that might fall into this category include strategic user research or design audits. Design teams may also build playbooks and libraries that support the greater organization. This work is in contrast to design work that focuses on a particular team and/or initiative. For this reason, a design leader may want to advocate for their own lane to include these efforts on higher-level roadmaps. And high-level roadmaps tend to cover a longer duration (months or quarters).

Visibility into strategic design work can be especially valuable for executives. For example, strategic user research usually looks out ahead to generate new product ideas or opportunities. More research follows the discovery of those ideas to validate their feasibility and business viability. These efforts serve the product and also inform the cross-functional roll-out efforts. In addition to informing what to build, user research also helps coordinate sales, service, and marketing efforts.

Tracking design system work.

The outlier to the tactical vs. strategic design categorization is work done on the organization’s design system. The primary purpose of a design system is to enable design decisions at scale and across teams. It provides a system for designers and developers alike to pull their components and patterns from. Because it is an internal product, the design system requires the focus of a product development team to build. In this case, represent a design system work the same way you would other product-related initiatives.

Use Product Design Roadmaps Only for Team Development

By now, it’s clear that my strong belief is that product design work does not belong on a roadmap separate from the product team’s. However, in general, roadmaps can be a useful tool for all kinds of purposes for various roles in an organization. A marketing team might use a roadmap to plan their editorial calendar. Or a sales team might roadmap their strategy towards winning deals in a certain segment. In the same way, a product design leader may use a roadmap to communicate the strategy for growing their team and practice over time.

For example, most design leaders make calculated investments to improve design maturity in their organization. A roadmap is an effective tool for illustrating and communicating that plan and how the organization might support those efforts.

Another example where a product design roadmap might be useful is in team support and planning. A design manager might see an opportunity for filling skill gaps on a team, for example. A roadmap could help her map out a plan to educate existing team members and/or hire to fill those gaps. Additionally, a cross-functional roadmap could be useful for coordinating headcount planning across teams.

Keep Design Work Visible

Finding the right level of detail for a product roadmap can be tricky and is dependent on the audience. Product managers may not understand the value of including design on their product roadmap. Collaborating with product managers on the roadmap is a great way for design leaders to communicate their team’s work.

Product design work is uniquely different from development. Including design on the product roadmap provides visibility into how they support the company’s short and long-term efforts.