How to build a product roadmap
Learn the essential steps and key considerations for creating an effective product roadmap, enabling you to align teams, prioritize features, and drive your product vision to success.
One of the best parts of a product roadmap is its name. What could be clearer? Even if most people take driving directions from an app these days, we can all imagine how difficult it would be to get from point A to point B without a roadmap. A product roadmap does the same thing for an organization. It serves as a single source of truth to show how you can move from a vision to a launched product and beyond.
As an example, think of Slack, a widely used instant messaging app for workplaces. Slack’s team started with a vision: “make working life simpler, more pleasant, and more productive.” From there, they designed an app that made conversation between coworkers and teams easier and more organized, and then launched a beta in 2013. If you’ve been using Slack for a while, you know countless quality of life features have been added since then, including threaded conversations, reminders, different functionalities for different users, and integrations with other apps. If point A was the vision, point B may have been the product launch, but the roadmap also provides a framework for ongoing iteration.
What does a company look like without a product roadmap? Well, imagine going on a roadtrip with no idea other than “grandma’s house” as the destination. Or imagine Slack if no one at the company had talked about what to do after the product launched. It simply wouldn’t work. The product roadmap is a key document for an organization’s success.
Why you need a product roadmap
A product roadmap is a living strategic document that outlines the vision, goals, and planned development of a product over time. Most often, this takes the form of a visual timeline that shows what will be done by when and why it matters for the company. It acts as a sole source of truth for stakeholders from throughout (and even outside of) the company as far as what to expect with the product.
For product managers, the creation and maintenance of a product roadmap is a key duty. The accuracy and usability of the roadmap is essential to the product manager’s success in their job. But a roadmap used only by the product manager isn’t a good one. A roadmap should be just as easily accessed and understood by:
- Leadership and management, so they can feel sure that teams are prioritizing features and initiatives that ladder up into the broader product strategy and its attending business goals.
- Product teams, to facilitate collaboration and understanding of priorities.
- Marketing teams, so they know what’s coming down the pipeline and can create campaigns accordingly.
- Customer service and sales reps, so they can better guide conversations with external parties.
- Users, so they can be kept abreast of upcoming features and improvements.
Agile vs waterfall development roadmaps
Many organizations are committed to either agile or waterfall product development methodologies, but a roadmap is an equally important tool in either environment. In an agile organization, the roadmap likely focuses on short-term planning, typically covering a few weeks to a few months. Agile roadmaps are flexible and iterative, allowing for adjustments and reprioritization based on evolving market conditions, customer feedback, and development progress.
A waterfall roadmap, meanwhile, follows a sequential and linear approach. It outlines the planned features, activities, and timelines in a fixed sequence, with each stage depending on the completion of the previous one. In a waterfall roadmap, the emphasis is on completing one phase before moving on to the next. This often takes the form of a Gantt chart.
5 essential steps to creating a product roadmap
Creating a product roadmap can be a turning point for a company – it’s when strategy, vision, research, and reality all collide, get sorted, and turn into something actionable. While the steps listed below can seem like a lot, remember that for start-ups and smaller companies, the roadmap can be simpler and shorter-term, providing greater room for agility. For enterprises, on the other hand, the roadmap may be more complex. Either way, a few steps remain consistent across organizations.
1. Define the vision
Every product roadmap begins with a clear and compelling vision. Define the ultimate goal to achieve with the product. What problem does it solve? What value does it provide to your customers? Establishing a strong vision sets the foundation for the roadmap and ensures all decisions and initiatives align with your overarching purpose. (If you’ve already created a product strategy, you’ve likely done this step, but it’s worth reviewing that document to see what might have changed.)
Next, establish specific objectives that contribute to the realization of your vision. These objectives should be measurable, attainable, and time-bound. So while the vision might be something far off on the horizon – “revolutionize the way people eat” – the objectives might be something more concrete, like “launch beta in Q3.” They will act as guideposts throughout the roadmap creation process, helping you prioritize features and initiatives that directly support these objectives.
2. Gather ideas
To create a roadmap that resonates with your target audience, you must deeply understand your customers' needs, pain points, and preferences. Conduct user research, collect feedback, and analyze market trends to gain insights into customer behaviors and expectations.
On the other hand, if you’ve already launched your product, customer-facing teams are likely full of additional input that should be incorporated. If you’re building a roadmap post-launch, you may ideate with internal teams around specific objectives (financial or otherwise) that will be important to hit.
Regardless, make sure that you gather all ideas. If you’re dealing with lots of ideas, sort them into related themes, features, or initiatives to make them easier to manage. Themes could be categorized by department or features, like “UI upgrades” or “customer satisfaction improvements.”
3. Prioritize themes
With a clear vision and customer insights, the next step is to prioritize the features and initiatives that will fulfill the product strategy. Consider factors such as market demand, customer impact, technical feasibility, and business goals to determine the priority order.
One simple method, helpful for smaller companies, is to give simple scores from 1-3 to each theme’s feasibility and customer impact. High impact and high feasibility themes would be the highest priority. Other prioritization techniques are worth considering, like the MoSCoW method (Must-Have, Should-Have, Could-Have, and Won't Have) or the RICE framework (Reach, Impact, Confidence, and Effort). Collaborate with stakeholders, including engineering, design, and marketing teams, to gain diverse perspectives.
4. Create a visual roadmap
Once the prioritization is complete, translate your product roadmap into a visual representation that’s easily understandable and accessible to all stakeholders. Choose a format that suits your needs, such as a Gantt chart, timeline, or thematic visualization. If you’re using a specific piece of software, this will largely determine your options.
Clearly communicate the major milestones, releases, or phases, and assign estimated timelines to each. It’s essential to balance setting realistic deadlines and allowing flexibility to adapt to evolving circumstances. Remember, the roadmap should be a living document that develops as your product and market landscape evolve.
5. Present and align
A product roadmap is not just a planning tool; it’s a communication vehicle for aligning teams and stakeholders. This means that presenting the roadmap is one of the most important steps, as it’s the moment buy-in happens. When sharing the roadmap, keep in mind a few best practices:
- Keep the audience in mind: If you’re presenting to leadership, they’re likely going to want to see strategic goals and KPIs more prominently. If you’re talking to dev teams, they’re concerned with day-to-day tasks and resource allocation.
- Use metrics: Keep everyone aligned on the broader goal by using data wherever possible, whether it’s retention figures or hour allotment based on previous projects. Showing your work helps to sell it.
- Keep the narrative in mind: Reiterate the overall vision and, when possible, tie this product roadmap to the higher-level vision. This helps individual goals and tasks feel meaningful.
- Be open: This is one of those meetings that truly should be a conversation. You want everyone from executive leadership to individual developers and marketers to raise questions and poke holes in the plan. This makes a roadmap more trustworthy for everyone involved.
10 questions to ask when reviewing a product roadmap
The final step of producing a good roadmap is maintaining it. Set a cadence to review and update it. This may be a weekly touchup or a more formalized quarterly reevaluation and rollout. Whenever you’re reviewing the roadmap, ask yourself a few key questions:
- Are we on track to achieve our strategic objectives and vision?
- How have market dynamics or customer needs changed since the last review?
- What progress have we made on the roadmap items? Are there any bottlenecks or challenges that we need to address?
- Are there any new market opportunities or emerging trends that we should consider for inclusion?
- How have customer feedback and insights influenced our understanding of their needs?
- Have there been any changes in business priorities or resource allocation that may affect the roadmap?
- Are there any redundancies or overlaps in the roadmap that we can consolidate or streamline?
- Are there any gaps in the roadmap that we need to fill?
- How can we improve the clarity and communication of the roadmap to stakeholders?
- What have we learned from past roadmap iterations and how can we apply those learnings?
Asking these questions could lead to some big conversations and reprioritizations, but a product roadmap needs to reflect reality. In some ways, the maintenance of a product roadmap is a way to have these conversations and communicate them clearly to the relevant teams.
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Frequently asked questions about product roadmaps
What is a product roadmap?
A product roadmap is a strategic document that outlines the vision, goals, and planned development of a product over time. It serves as a guide for organizations to move from vision to product launch and beyond, providing clarity, alignment, and a single source of truth for stakeholders.
What are the steps to create a product roadmap?
To create a product roadmap, follow these key steps: Define a clear vision and establish measurable objectives. Gather ideas by understanding customer needs and collecting feedback. Prioritize features and initiatives based on factors like market demand and feasibility. Create a visual representation of the roadmap using formats like Gantt charts or timelines. Present the roadmap to align teams and stakeholders, emphasizing strategic goals and using data to support decisions. Regularly review and update the roadmap to adapt to changes and incorporate feedback.
What’s the difference between an agile product roadmap and a waterfall product roadmap?
In the context of product roadmaps, the main difference between an agile roadmap and a waterfall roadmap lies in their approach to planning and execution. An agile product roadmap is characterized by flexibility and iteration, focusing on short-term planning and allowing for adjustments based on market conditions, customer feedback, and development progress. It emphasizes adaptability and prioritizes value delivery. On the other hand, a waterfall product roadmap follows a sequential and linear approach, with a fixed sequence of planned features and activities. Each stage depends on the completion of the previous one, and the emphasis is on completing one phase before moving on to the next. It typically takes the form of a Gantt chart and is suitable for projects with well-defined requirements and predictable timelines.