You may know these product meetings: you’re stuck reviewing an endless laundry list of future features while everyone’s eyes glaze over.
It’s a slow death by a thousand features.
Building your product roadmap to convey your vision in a compelling way is challenging. But by grouping initiatives together into themes, you can organize your roadmap in a way that describes value to customers and other stakeholders. Themes can help you put together a roadmap that creates a story – the why behind what you’re proposing.
Thinking in Themes
In their simplest form, themes are groupings of similar features, epics or initiatives. Ideally, themes describe customer value – what customers are going to be receiving or the job that you’ll help them accomplish. For example, “improve shopping cart experience” is an example of a customer-focused theme, and into this theme you would group the initiatives that support it.
Themes help keep your roadmap at a high level, especially for those long-term, fuzzier initiatives. One benefit is that you can switch features in and out of the theme without significantly affecting the roadmap. It’s a better way to keep executives and stakeholders on the same page and focused on the big picture.
How to write themes? Themes should be goal-driven. If you can get executive alignment on the goals first, it’s easier to create themes that align with those goals. As part of the process it’s essential to discuss the metrics and KPIs that define whether the goal has been met.
There is often discussion in agile circles about the difference between epics and themes. A theme is typically a grouping of similar epics. But whatever your definition, it’s important to keep the themes at a high level.
Present Themes Visually
You can visually group your initiatives together into a single theme on your roadmap. In ProductPlan, you can represent a release or theme on your roadmap using the Container feature. A Container can expand to allow for similar initiatives to be grouped inside of it.
When discussing your theme with executives and other stakeholders you can collapse the Container to focus on the big picture:
Previously, I was part of a product team that developed SaaS CRM and accounting software for vertical markets. At one point we realized through our customer surveys that the accountants using our solution were less satisfied than other personas.
We decided that “increase accountant satisfaction” was a theme for a future release. Into this theme we grouped dozens of improvements and features, which individually weren’t particularly compelling, but as part of the theme added up to a significant needle-mover for the accountants.
By creating a theme that had a goal and metrics behind it (using Net Promoter Score) we were able to measure the results after release (and the results were better than we expected). Because the theme was broad, product managers could use their discretion to implement the stories, epics, and initiatives that met the goal of the theme.
How to Create Themes
Your company’s long-term strategic initiatives are a good way to identifying roadmap themes. You can pick a handful of high-level initiatives you want to accomplish – they can be at the product level or identified for the broader organization (such as a platform-oriented initiative).
Themes can be short in duration (spanning one release) or they can span multiple releases. If you are agile, themes can contain one or more epics. They are rarely feature-specific.
One caution on using themes: stakeholders such as the sales team can fill in the blanks about what a theme includes. Education is an important part of communicating the roadmap – educating stakeholders about how you define the theme, how you are measuring success, and of course providing some detail about what is included in the theme.
One of the key things you do as a product manager is communicate. Getting the executive team and other stakeholders on board with your vision is essential. Whether you use a product roadmap template, an online roadmap spreadsheet, or product roadmap software, themes can simplify your product plan and create a more compelling vision.