The Ultimate Guide to a Product Roadmaps

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 customerstimeline-style-roadmap

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.

 

Product-Roadmap-Contents-to-Include

 

Note that roadmaps aren’t limited to products. These objectives are similar for other types of roadmaps, such as marketing roadmaps and IT roadmaps.
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Building Your First Product Roadmap

Updating existing roadmaps has its own set of challenges, but creating one from scratch is a tall order for any product manager. There’s so much to include it’s hard to know where to start.

It might seem appropriate to dive in and try to handpick an initial set of features and an arbitrary timeline. But product managers should take a big step back. First concentrate on the product’s reason for existing at all:

  • Why are we building this product?
  • What are we hoping to accomplish?
  • How will this help users?

By answering these questions (which were hopefully already answered before the organization decided to build a product at all), it places the focus on what’s most important. There will always be more things the product can do and better ways to do it. But a baseline set of functionality must exist even to begin fulfilling the expectations set with the questions above.

Take it from the top. 

One method for focusing on big-picture strategy instead of getting lost in a sea of feature specifics and implementation details is to adopt a top-down product planning approach. This process starts with a crystal clear understanding of the product vision. If you’re creating a roadmap, it’s helpful to know where you want to end up.

From here, get agreement on the specific goals needed to make that vision a reality — the roadmap than illustrates how to accomplish those goals. By prioritizing certain items over others, the roadmap prioritizes work that gets the product to those goals. The rest can simmer in the backlog. 

An extra benefit of utilizing a top-down strategy (aside from providing clarity and direction to the product team devising the roadmap) is helping get stakeholders onboard with the plan. The roadmap’s contents no longer seem arbitrarily placed or the output of a context-free prioritization exercise. 

Instead, they line up with the vision and goals the company has already established for the product. There may still be some disagreement over why Feature A trumps Feature B. But it’s all grounded in the underlying rationale of advancing the product toward meeting goals and realizing the vision.

Themes provide structure for the story.

Layers of abstraction are a must for roadmaps, particularly in the early stages of a product’s lifecycle. The layers keep the discussion from being a feature vs. feature battle royale. It instead ensures continuing progress on the critical fronts.

Organizing by themes gives roadmaps structure, both visually and for the narrative. Themes should match up with key goals (such as increased usage or bumping up ARPU) or underlying basic requirements (such as scalability and security).

Each theme becomes its own swim lane. There’s still plenty of room for debate when it comes to which feature is more beneficial and prioritized within that theme. And there’s plenty of opportunities for innovation and adapting to market conditions within each theme.

But there’s no longer a need to argue with stakeholders about whether a revenue-generating feature is more or less important than one that improves the stability of the platform. If both revenue generation and infrastructure are their own themes (and have similar goals), they each deserve a share of development resources.

Theme-based-roadmap-example

Visual roadmapping 

After adopting top-down planning and themes to add strategy and structure to the roadmapping process, present the hierarchical thought process behind the roadmap in the artifact itself. This presentation is where using visuals becomes a considerable asset for roadmaps. 

Product managers must quickly convey the thought process behind the roadmap to secure buy-in. An opening position statement or long-winded commentary might achieve that goal. But it’s far more work and less likely to succeed than using a visual structure to reinforce this approach consistently.

Through grouping, color-coding, and persistent visual elements, a visual roadmap is far easier to consume. It tells a much richer story with far less text. Luckily strong design skills and PowerPoint chops aren’t required. With roadmapping tools like ProductPlan, roadmappers can drag-and-drop their way to a gorgeous roadmap that’s easily updatable and stays current for its consumers.
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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 for 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.

Not Everything is Roadmap Worthy

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. 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.

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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.

Make Prioritization a Priority

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.

MoSCoW-Prioritization

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.
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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 their own tastes, vernacular, and terminology. Not to mention that the products themselves might be in entirely different stages. 

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 Master Plan feature. Each team manages its own product’s roadmap, but they’ll automatically roll up into a Master Plan 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 Master Plan.

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How Does Agile Development Affect Today’s Roadmaps?

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.

product-development-roadmap-graphic

Product Roadmap Examples: The Roadmap Depends on the Audience 

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.

business-roadmap

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 smart practice to include relevant milestones and requirements other departments are facing. This way, developers understand specific deadlines and requirements.

Engineering-Roadmap

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.

How to Present Your Roadmap in 4 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 presentation of the final product doesn’t go well. To make sure a roadmap is well received, product managers must lay the groundwork for success. 

1. 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 itself or in the commentary offered during the presentation), they’re likely to be brought up and put the presenter on the defensive. 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. 

2. Focus on the narrative

Storytelling is an essential part of effective product management. There’s no opportunity more apt for tapping into your inner Mark Twain than during a roadmap presentation.

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.

3. Stay high level

If a roadmap presentation is spending 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. 
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4. 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.