What is a product roadmap?
A product roadmap is a high-level visual summary that maps out the vision and direction of your product offering over time. A product roadmap communicates the why and what behind what you’re building. A roadmap is a guiding strategic document as well as a plan for executing the product strategy.
For examples and inspiration on building your first roadmap, browse our library of product roadmap templates.
The product roadmap has several ultimate goals:
- Describe the vision and strategy
- Provide a guiding document for executing the strategy
- Get internal stakeholders in alignment
- Facilitate discussion of options and scenario planning
- Help communicate with external stakeholders, including customers
Ideally, your product roadmap should convey the strategic direction for your product. And it should also tie back to the strategy for the company. Within that framework, of course, is the general order of what you’ll be building.
Clearly articulating the product vision and strategy can make it easier to secure executive buy-in. It also ensures that everyone is working toward a common goal.
For more on the basics of a product roadmap, check on this short video.
Why is a product roadmap important?
Product roadmaps encapsulate how the product strategy becomes a reality. They take many competing priorities and boil them down to what’s most important, leaving shiny objects by the wayside in favor of work that moves the needles stakeholders really care about.
They’re also a source of inspiration, motivation, and shared ownership of the product and its successes. All the work individual contributors do often only make sense within the context of the product roadmap and knowing that plan and what the organization hopes it will bring can get naysayers onboard.
Product roadmaps are one of the few things almost everyone in the organization will be exposed to, as sales pitches, marketing plans, and financials are usually held closer to the vest. For many workers, it’s their only glimpse of where the product and organization are heading and why certain decisions were made. They provide a shared, common understanding of the vision, goals, and objectives for everyone in the company.
Product roadmaps also help organizations avoid chaos from reigning, pet projects from sliding into the implementation queue, and wasting resources on less important tasks. They are the beacon, the focal point, and the guideposts for everyone bringing the product to market.
Who is responsible for the product roadmap?
Product roadmap creation should be a group effort, but the product management team should ultimately be responsible for their creation and maintenance. This combination of collaboration and discrete ownership gets stakeholders onboard while maintaining informational integrity and avoiding a free-for-all atmosphere.
Product management should begin with a clear understanding of both the product’s and the overall organization’s strategic objectives, which comes from the executive team. Then, with the desired outcomes in mind, product management can create the key themes for this portion of the product’s lifecycle.
Roadmaps support outcome-driven planning
Next, it’s time to dive into the backlog and see which items match up with those larger themes before engaging in a prioritization exercise with various internal (and potentially external) stakeholders to see what will have the biggest impact or greatest ROI. Once everything is sorted and ranked, the product team can then start slotting things in, checking in frequently with the implementation team to ensure the prioritized goals and themes of the roadmap are feasible and worth the effort.
Then it’s time to socialize once again and shop the product roadmap around, getting buy-in and approval to begin execution. So, while it takes a village, it’s the product team doing the lion’s share of the work.
Building Product Roadmaps
How Your Roadmap Will Evolve as Your Product Matures
As products evolve, they inevitably become more complex. They’re expected to do more, to serve additional cohorts, to integrate with other products and services.
Product roadmaps also go through an evolution of their own. A roadmap for a freshly-minted MVP differs significantly from a mature product on many fronts:
- Horizon: Startups have a much harder time predicting future requirements and opportunities for the products. Therefore their roadmaps probably won’t go too far in the future (or if they do it’s with some very large asterisks). Established products can make firmer longer-term plans. They have a better understanding of their customers and the market.
- Frequency: When you’re young and scrappy, you need to “always be shipping.” More mature products can space out their releases with less urgency.
- Dependencies: Startups can move quickly and break stuff. Mature products have a legacy to worry about, third-party integrations to maintain, and regression issues to contend with.
- Goals: A startup’s goals are very different from an enterprise product. The first is just trying to prove its viability, gain some traction, and grow. The latter will have more nuanced strategic objectives and more diverse targets.
How do you plan what goes on a product roadmap?
A great roadmap has a tough bouncer working the door. To maintain credibility with stakeholders, the riff-raff needs to be kept at bay while only items deserving of a slot can make the cut. So keep the roadmap clear of any undeserving inclusions by applying a few filters:
- Does it have actual value to users? If not, then save that space for something that does.
- Is there evidence of that value? Gut feelings and hunches are for amateurs. Well-documented facts should support this claim, and metrics should be driving feature decisions.
- Is there an owner? Every request needs a champion who understands the nuances and will continue to fight for it.
- Does it fit? There are lots of great ideas. But roadmaps are the culmination of prioritization and scheduling realities. Cramming in an extra one isn’t a viable option.
How to plan security and technical debt on your roadmap?
Every roadmap should include things that get the audience excited, such as new functionality and integrations. But there must always be a place for the less exciting need-to-do items as well.
Ignoring key topics such as scalability, cybersecurity, and technical debt is pennywise and pounds foolish. The product will eventually have to address those topics. If time isn’t allocated in the roadmap upfront for these things, it will feel more like an unexpected delay, slip, or poor planning than simply acknowledging upfront that you’ve got to eat your vegetables.
How do you prioritize features for the product roadmap?
Roadmaps are the result of lengthy analysis, consideration, and deliberations. Once you set strategies and goals, it comes down to prioritizing features and enhancements based on a variety of criteria.
There are multitudes of methods for prioritizing potential roadmap items. There are dozens of frameworks to choose from, from using OKRs, to MoSCow, to the RICE Scoring Model. Regardless of which approach is ultimately selected, proper prioritization requires product teams to do their homework. Assess each item under consideration for value, level of effort, and opportunity costs.
Teams must also weigh the benefits of short-term wins versus making progress toward long-term goals. Any good roadmap will include a combination of both items. This ensures incremental gains are being seen regularly without pushing out the hard work required to advance the overall product strategy.
More Roadmap Tips
How to Add Multiple Products to Your Roadmap
Roadmapping levels up its degree of difficulty when it involves multiple products. Now, instead of trying to convey a vision and plan for a single product, the roadmap must do so for lots of them.
Not only is this a challenge from a pure real estate on-the-page perspective, but getting all the messages aligned isn’t always easy. There are often multiple product managers or teams involved. Each with its own tastes, vernacular, and terminology. Not to mention that the products themselves might be in entirely different stages.
A note on roadmap alignment
Consistency is the key to pulling this off. Alignment on the roadmap style, legend, color coding, time horizon, and level of granularity are mandatory. And don’t forget about version control issues!
To make this easier, ProductPlan offers the Portfolio View feature. Each team manages its own product’s roadmap, but they’ll automatically roll up into a Portfolio View providing a single, consistent view of every product in the portfolio. Organizations can even include non-product roadmaps such as marketing, IT, and operations in the Portfolio View.
What is a roadmap in Agile?
Before the prevalence of agile development methods, a product roadmap underwent much less fluctuation during the product’s lifetime. Depending on the organization, a roadmap’s time frame might be locked in for 18 months or longer.
In the age of agile development, however, a roadmap has become much more of a living document. The roadmaps have far shorter timeframes and need more frequent adjustments to accommodate changing priorities and market opportunities. And Agile roadmaps may look a little different from more traditional single or multi-product ones.
Keeping roadmaps current is one of the biggest secrets to success. An outdated roadmap only leads to confusion and false expectations. This confusion is why it’s essential to use a tool that makes it simple and easy to make frequent updates as soon as possible.
What are the different types of product roadmaps?
Before setting out to build a roadmap, its audience must be identified — this way, you can tailor the content, focus, and presentation to their needs.
In an executive-facing roadmap, for example, the product vision is emphasized, along with its alignment with business goals. With a roadmap for engineers, however, there’s a stronger focus on specific features.
Here are four examples of roadmap constituencies, and the primary function the roadmap serves for them.
(Note: for these examples, we’ll assume your product is software, but the fundamentals of product roadmaps could apply equally if the product were physical or any other category of good or service.)
Internal roadmap for executives
For this audience, aim to secure buy-in for the product vision and to maintain support and enthusiasm throughout its development cycle.
These roadmaps should focus, therefore, on high-level strategic concepts — such as driving growth, new market penetration, customer satisfaction, or market position.
Although similar to executives, investors and board members also require their flavor of roadmap. The emphasis must be on how the planned work will increase the value of the product (and company). It should illustrate how enhancements move vital metrics that matter most to that cohort.
Internal roadmap for engineers
These roadmaps often focus on features, releases, sprints, and milestones. They’re typically more granular in scope and shorter in duration than executive-facing roadmaps. For those using agile development methods, these roadmaps are often at the epic or feature level. However, product goals and themes should still be a component of these roadmaps.
Engineering roadmaps should include as much granularity as possible. Even though developers will focus less on product vision and revenue potential, it’s a smart practice to include relevant milestones and requirements other departments are facing. This way, developers understand specific deadlines and requirements.
Internal roadmap for sales
Sales teams will want to know how the product will help them sell more, so the focus here should be on a combination of features and customer benefits. Focus on how the product will benefit reps directly, as well as the user benefits they can communicate to their customers and prospects. Whenever possible, group similar features/items into themes that sales reps can discuss with prospects.
Use caution when sharing internal roadmaps with Sales. It is not uncommon for sales reps to share internal roadmaps with customers, as a way of closing a deal, generating interest, and keeping leads warm. Avoid having sales teams committing a product to a specific release date, by excluding release or launch dates in these roadmaps.
External roadmap for customers and prospects
When designing a product roadmap for customers and prospects, the focus should be entirely on the product’s benefits to them. Because these are external documents, customer roadmaps should be visual, attractive, and easy to understand.
It’s a best practice not to include the release or launch dates in external-facing roadmaps. Just as a sales rep sharing an internal roadmap with prospects can commit the team prematurely to a release date, external roadmaps run the same risk of over-commitment. Unless there’s certainty about the product’s availability date, it’s a good habit to avoid including dates in an external-facing roadmap.
Why is product roadmap software important?
Product roadmaps aren’t new, but they were created using inferior solutions that were created with other tasks in mind for much of their existence. Whether it’s project management tools, Gantt charts, or spreadsheets, this software might have produced product roadmaps with lots of data. Still, legibility was often an issue, and there were few visual cues to the casual reviewer as to what was necessary.
The challenge with some presentation tools
Many product managers turned to PowerPoint and other presentation tools to create visually engaging roadmaps that attempted to convey more of a story with much less text on the opposite end of the spectrum. But as pretty as these product roadmaps might be, they are a nightmare to maintain.
Every modification can lead to hours of finicky tweaks to make everything line up and look as great as it did the first time around. And that doesn’t even factor in that there is only so much room on a single sheet of paper (even an 11×17 one) to pack in lots of information and lengthy-time horizons.
But product managers are no longer limited to these off-label uses of standard productivity software. Instead, solutions are created explicitly for building product roadmaps that boast features and capabilities that don’t exist elsewhere.
These tools unlock the ability to create visual, theme-based roadmaps that elevate the discussion above specific features and shift the focus to strategic goals. In addition, they eliminate out-of-date versions from circulating and being referenced by using a cloud-based viewer.
Product roadmapping software can also easily enable custom versions of the roadmap to be generated based on the particular audience it’s being presented to. They can also sync with other vital parts of the product stack to keep things up-to-the-minute accurate and alert stakeholders when changes are made.
Presenting and Using Your Roadmap
How to Present Your Roadmap in 5 Steps
Creating and maintaining roadmaps takes a lot of effort and attention to detail. But all that hard work might go for naught if the final product presentation doesn’t go well. So to make sure a roadmap is well received, product managers must lay the groundwork for success.
1. Who should you share your roadmap with?
Product roadmaps can be shared with a wide variety of stakeholders, provided that the version being socialized is appropriate for the audience in question. That’s one reason why using tags and filters with a cloud-based, purpose-built product roadmapping tool can be so valuable.
Instead of circulating the same version of the product roadmap with everyone, product managers can quickly craft product roadmaps appropriate for the occasion. Of course, the master version has all the details, but what is specifically shown to each group is tailored just for them.
In general, a few key sets of stakeholders need to get their hands on product roadmaps. Starting at the top, the executive team will certainly need to review and approve the product roadmap at the outset of any major initiatives and receive regular status updates on how things are progressing. The key for them is understanding the major themes, expected outcomes, and how it aligns with the overall product strategy and helps the company improve its KPIs.
Roadmaps for the internal team
But other internal groups should see the product roadmap as well. For example, the implementation team (UX, engineering, QA, operations) should all be privy to the most detailed versions of the product roadmap as they’re tasked with key pieces of its execution. Sales and marketing are also critical stakeholders to share the product roadmap with to plan out their go-to-market activities for key releases and major new functionality.
Beyond the organization itself, the product roadmap has additional roles to fill. Customers and prospects may benefit from seeing a glimpse of what’s on the horizon and from seeing where their specific requests fall (or don’t fall) in the future.
Press and analysts are another potential audiences for an extremely edited version of the product roadmap to get them excited about where the product is headed. Additionally, key strategic partners from technology providers to distributors and sales agents may also need access to align their activities with the plans for the product.
2. Know your audience.
Beyond tailoring the roadmap to the titles and roles of the crowd, product teams should understand their motivations, concerns, and hot-button issues. If the presenter doesn’t proactively address them (either in the roadmap or in the commentary offered during the presentation), they’re likely to be brought up and put the presenter on the defensive. So it’s best to get out ahead of those things as it speaks to preparation and keeps things from turning negative.
Even better is previewing the roadmap with crucial decision-makers ahead of time. Getting them onboard and addressing their potential quibbles before the formal presentation can smooth the path for approval and buy-in.
3. Focus on the narrative.
Providing context, anecdotes, sources of inspiration puts the audience at ease. It also demonstrates how much thought and consideration were invested in the process.
And if there’s a compelling narrative for how each new theme, feature, and epic unlocks new potential for users, all the better.
4. Stay high level.
If a roadmap presentation spends most of its time discussing individual features, things have already gone off the rails. The strategy, goals, and themes are the key messages to convey. Specific features are implementation details that shouldn’t matter to stakeholders as long as a result is achieving objectives.
5. Add some metrics to the message.
Everything in our data-driven world must be measurable, and roadmaps aren’t spared. The items on a roadmap should be improving the metrics the organization values and moving KPIs in a positive direction. When there’s a meaningful, measurable outcome for a particular initiative, it’s far easier to gain support than discussing vague and abstract endpoints.
What is roadmap execution?
A product roadmap is a vision, a strategy, and a plan. What it is not is a finished product. To get to that state of things, the product roadmap must be successfully executed.
That process has several key steps. The first is socialization to ensure the product roadmap and its objectives are clearly understood by the teams tasked with making it all happen. This includes UI/UX, engineering, architecture/IT, testing, and operations, as each plays a role in turning great ideas into actual products.
But making sure everyone is on the same page and then “throwing it over the wall” doesn’t guarantee the finished product will reflect those good intentions. So product management must remain involved throughout the design, development, testing, and deployment phases of the process.
Part of this is just being available when people have questions or need clarification or want to settle a quick judgment call. But it also requires proactive engagement from the product team, with frequent check-ins and conversations to ensure the plans are being faithfully executed and introducing new learnings and information as it becomes available.
Roadmaps during testing and deployment
This attention to detail carries through to the testing and deployment phases. The test plans must ensure that any new functionality works as expected and meets the requirements while any existing features continue to perform as well. And when it’s time for the rollout, proper internal and external communication plans should be combined with a launch that is minimally disruptive to current users.