The Basics of Building a Product Roadmap



Agile Product Development

Your product roadmap is an important tool to guide the progression of your product, vision, and the work of your engineering team. Without it, you’ll work without direction and your team will struggle to understand the company’s vision.

In this article, we’d like to explain the product roadmap: what it is, how it works, and how you can communicate it to your team, customers, and stakeholders.

What Is a Product Roadmap?

A product roadmap is a broad overview of your product’s progression, including goals, features, resources, and timelines. It explains what the development team is currently building, the problems you’re addressing, the technologies you’re using, and how the product fits into the overall business goals.

Product roadmap

The product roadmap serves four general purposes:

  • It maps out your vision and strategic goals, presented visually.

  • It explains how you’ll deliver that vision and strategy.

  • It communicates information to align stakeholders.

  • It establishes your priorities so that you focus on what’s important.

Your roadmap isn’t a project management tool, but it does help people (within your organization and outside it) understand the future of your product. It’s also a great way to communicate with customers and stakeholders so they can understand the planned evolution of your product.

The roadmap is created by the product owner with advice from the product manager and leaders from non-product teams. For instance, the CMO may suggest a particular feature to be included in the roadmap to help his team sell the software.

Roadmaps are not set in stone. This is important in an agile software environment. Product owners can make small or large changes to the roadmap based on new information. A market trend may cause the product owner to tweak the roadmap slightly, but a pivot may force him to throw the roadmap away and start anew.

Product Roadmap Evolution

As products progress, so should the roadmap. In the age of agile development,the product roadmap has become a living document that will change and evolve as you work through it.

Ideally, you should never complete the roadmap. If you begin to reach the end of the roadmap, the product owner should extend the roadmap with more features, optimizations, or improvements.

Extending the roadmap usually isn’t a challenge. Development tasks tend to pop up faster than you can implement them, especially as a product evolves and becomes more complex. Mature products tend to serve additional cohorts (new verticals and types of customers) and integrate with more products and services.

Furthermore, roadmaps evolve differently depending on the maturity of the organization. A roadmap for a young startup with a new MVP will look different than the roadmap for a mature, enterprise product that has solid footing in the industry. We can see those differences in four areas:

  • Goals: Young products strive for viability and as much growth as possible whereas mature products usually have more nuanced objectives.

  • Dependencies: Startups can move quickly without worrying about breaking too much. Mature products have to consider technical debt, legacy software, third-party integrations and regression issues.

  • Release frequency: Young companies need to ship often in order to acquire data and learn whereas older products typically set a slower pace.

  • Future requirements: Startups need to be agile, so their roadmaps generally don’t go too far into the future. Established products who understand their customers and the market can make longer plans for the future.

Roadmap Challenges

Coming up with ideas for the product roadmap is actually quite easy. As the product expands, there will be more opportunities for features and optimizations. Refactoring old code pops up on roadmaps all the time, especially when new technologies are released.

The biggest challenge, however, is prioritization. Deciding the order of which you’ll develop features and optimizations requires careful consideration.

Product owners and product managers have to work together to create as much value and derive as much productivity as possible in the shortest time. There are countless prioritization methods or weighted scoring models to choose from (such as OKRs, MoSCow, or RICE Scoring Model), but basically, the goal is to organize the roadmap to create the biggest impact.

For instance, even though a specific feature isn’t applicable to most of your customers, you may prioritize it high because it’s necessary for one high value customer. This type of prioritization can bring in revenue, allowing you to hire more developers to work on your other roadmap items faster. It all depends on your needs.

Furthermore, roadmaps can create problems if they’re based on old information, inaccurate data, or bad assumptions. You can mitigate this risk with constant testing and measuring, and by updating your roadmap regularly.

Roadmap Worthiness

You may have a lot of ideas, but that doesn’t mean all of them deserve to be placed on your roadmap. It’s important to think strategically. Some things should be cut out or kicked to your backlog until they become deserving.

To decide if an item deserves a place on your product roadmap, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the item have an owner? Each item should have someone who understands the issue and can champion it from beginning to end. This doesn't necessarily have to be someone on the product team.

  • Does the item have a value for users? Development time has a cost, of course, so anything you add to the roadmap should produce some kind of tangible value.

  • Can you produce evidence of that value? You should be able to measure the value each roadmap item adds. For instance, if the intent of a new feature is to improve retention, you need a solid way to measure retention.

  • Does the item play a role in the overall strategy? An item may create value, but that doesn’t mean it serves the overall value of the product. A quick money-making feature that doesn’t serve the strategy may be a waste of time.

Further, there are plenty of worthy items that don’t get anyone excited. Integrations and security features could be extremely worthy, even though they don’t amaze anyone. Eliminating technical debt can be enormously impactful, even though no one outside the engineering team can see it.

Communicating the Roadmap

Your roadmap isn’t just an internal resource to guide development. It’s an asset that should be shared with others to help them understand your company’s progress and plans. Plus, sharing your roadmap is a great way to get feedback before you start building.

Beyond your executives, product team, and engineers, you should share your roadmap with customers and stakeholders. Stakeholders could include investors, partners, or anyone else who has an interest in the success of your company.

How do you communicate your roadmap to these players and keep everyone updated? We recommend Frill, though there are other options. Frill allows you to collect ideas and create a public-facing visual roadmap.

Product roadmap

That said, while it’s good to collect feedback on your roadmap, don’t try to cater to the whim of every interested party. Consider their feedback honestly, but make sure the roadmap aligns with your strategy and vision.

Going Forward

Hopefully this clarifies product roadmaps and how they work. We’ve only covered the basics, so you still have more to learn. We’ll leave you with this piece of advice: Don’t neglect your roadmap, even if you work alone. It’s a useful tool to keep yourself organized and looking ahead.