In a world of browser-based solutions, experimentation and rapid iteration are sometimes taken for granted. Some products get released multiple times per day or simultaneously present different experiences to various users.
But when products must get installed on computers and other devices, there’s only so much tolerance for frequent releases. Users don’t want to download and install updates regularly, plus there’s often no guarantee users will even bother at all with the latest version.
This legacy of outdated product versions lingering on laptops, smartphones, and servers means it’s super important every release works well, has some staying power, and advances the product strategy—even if you keep cranking out updates. Every install could be your last, so you’ve got to make ’em count.
With this in mind, software product managers must make the most out of their planning process to guarantee each release is both functional and packed with additional value. So how do product roadmaps help ensure this remains the case?
Product Roadmaps for Computer Software Product Managers
Product roadmaps provide the cohesive vision and story for your product, aligning stakeholders, and illustrating how each minor improvement leads to more significant gains. To help you make the most of your product roadmap, we’ve got seven minor tweaks that make a significant impact on your product’s and organization’s success.
1. Don’t treat your product roadmap like a project management tool.
Your roadmap is not a project delivery timeline. Acting otherwise shifts the focus from strategy to implementation details. It isn’t the point of a product roadmap, plus it also leads to overcommitting and prematurely setting expectations.
Elevate your product roadmap above the day-to-day details with some editing. Ask yourself if the initiatives on the product roadmap are too detail heavy. Relocate anything more granular than the strategic headline to a project management tool.
You can also scrap many of the dates you’re including on there. Your product roadmap isn’t a schedule, so don’t format it like one. If there’s a key date or deadline for something major, make a note of it with a milestone. Otherwise, free your roadmap from release dates and focus on strategy and substance.
2. Each prioritized initiative needs a customer (or “why”).
Good ideas are a dime a dozen. But securing a coveted slot on a product roadmap requires an evident rationale for claiming that real estate.
While documenting the desired functionality is important, the crucial details come with that request’s backstory. You should be able to answer questions like:
- Who is asking for this?
- What are the expected outcomes for adding or improving this?
- How does this fit into the overall product strategy?
This information isn’t just needed for the initial prioritization process, either. Once your product roadmap starts making the rounds, expect to hear questions asking about the priorities of some initiatives.
With the relevant data available, you can tap your storytelling skills and make a solid justification that isn’t just a pile of metrics, statistics, and assumptions. Rather, position each decision with regards to its ability to influence KPIs, delight key customers, open up new target markets, or address critical technical debt and security concerns.
But to flesh out those backstories, you need a solid system for handling and organizing customer feedback. Here at ProductPlan, we capture our initial requests and feedback in Trello, collect them in Table Layout, then move them to the Planning Board before prioritizing them on the product roadmap.
3. Don’t allow exact delivery dates and completion percentages to dictate success.
You’re a product manager, not a project manager. Although dates and deadlines are still relevant, these aren’t significant indicators for the success or merits of your strategy. So why use these arbitrary measures to grade your product’s performance?
Be sure the metrics that matter are defined upfront, and the items on your product roadmap are directly linked to them. It could be anything from improving Net Promoter Scores to increasing usage of key features. Regardless of what you’re measuring, try making a product ops dashboard to help you keep track.
4. Don’t build one product roadmap for everyone.
One-size-fits-all has its place in the world, but not when it comes to product roadmaps. Your various audiences care about totally different things. Plus, they don’t all require the same information or level of detail. So why make them all settle for the same product roadmap?
Tailoring your product roadmap for each stakeholder cohort will save you from many pointless digressions and clarifications. Instead of having to explain why people don’t need to understand or worry about a particular item on the product roadmap, don’t show it to them at all!
Instead, create product roadmaps following a “need-to-know” philosophy based on conversations you’ve already had with stakeholders to understand what they care about.
Create at least three versions of your product roadmap ready for sharing at a moment’s notice. You never know when pulling out the product roadmap will be necessary or helpful in a conversation, but you also don’t want it full of irrelevant information for the folks you’re dealing with.
Start with one for the executive team, one for engineering/development, and one for sales and marketing. If this sounds like a lot of work, leveraging a visual product roadmapping tool makes it much easier. Within ProductPlan, you can use tags to filter which items should appear for each audience—enabling instant generation of an accurate and appropriate product roadmap for the occasion.
You can make your product roadmaps even more user-friendly by adopting a theme-based approach. By dumping implementation-specific features for a broader set of themes tied to the product strategy and business goals, your audience can get out of the weeds and focus on the big picture.
5. Check up on your product roadmap.
Product roadmaps get outdated faster than you’d think. Something slips, a priority changes, an enterprise customer makes a demand, and now everything’s in flux.
But the longer your roadmap languishes, the harder it will be to recover—and the greater risk an older version is going to cause trouble down the line. In this agile world, you can’t afford an outdated roadmap floating around leading decision-makers astray.
Checking your roadmap at least once or twice per month can mitigate these potential issues. So make it a habit to give your roadmap a once-over on the regular. Don’t count on your memory to do it either; block out specific times on your calendar (make it a recurring meeting or task) to ensure it happens.
And don’t forget to notify stakeholders about changes and get the old versions out of circulation. Even better, rely on a web-based roadmap that’s always showing the latest-and-greatest product roadmap and automatically emails stakeholders about updates.
6. Try a different prioritization method.
Prioritizing potential roadmap items is a major part of the process. But there are many ways to sort and stack those future features.
Many product teams have one or two tried-and-true methods for figuring out what’s on deck, but there are lots of frameworks to choose from. Mixing things up a bit can overcome analysis paralysis and be an eye-opening experience, not to mention it’s more fun than the usual routine.
Try picking a new one from our list to see what rises to the top. We recommend combining multiple methods to compare and contrast. For example, you can use one heavy on technical scoring and tabulation, such as the RICE scoring model, with one that’s a little more creative, like the popular Product Tree. If you’re not sure how to leverage multiple prioritization frameworks, read up on that here.
7. Say “no” or “later” more often.
Product managers are the gatekeepers; it’s a perilous role encompassing much responsibility. You must balance the many diverse interests of various stakeholders while understanding the available bandwidth and capabilities of the implementation team.
Let the wrong things through, and you’ve got a lot of explaining to do. Don’t give the green light to something critical, and you end up months behind the competition.
In general, it’s always better to underpromise and overdeliver. So be honest about what’s possible and don’t get pushed around.
You’ve got to stick to your product vision, and that means saying “no.” Remind them that “no” doesn’t mean “never,” and “later” means an idea heads for the backlog. That’s what it’s there for, and a new batch of promising projects will rise to the top next time you refine it.
Creating and maintaining a product roadmap is nothing to fear. Make the product roadmap a useful tool instead of an unwieldy burden by using some of the tactics above.