Product development is complex, so it’s important to have a plan. Your product roadmap serves that purpose and lets you plot the journey ahead and ensure your entire team is aligned.
While it’s crucial to have a well-defined product roadmap at the outset of development, many companies do not have a good system in place for proper project planning. In fact, last year’s Pulse of the Profession report showed that 58% of survey respondents failed to grasp the full value of project management.
A product roadmap can help clear up any confusion and outline a project’s trajectory. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” If only more of us in software development had that same mindset.
The Challenges of Creating a Great Product Roadmap
Of course, good roadmapping presents significant challenges that you must conquer for your roadmap to be an effective tool. One common challenge occurs when companies adopt the “once is enough” view, doing all the roadmapping up front before a project starts, then never looking at the roadmap again.
While everybody knows planning is important, it never stands up to the realities of the product-development process. You must constantly update your plan. You’ll inevitably unearth new information as design and development get underway. Plus, after collecting customer feedback, you’ll discover necessary improvements to the product.
On the flip side are those who embrace the agile approach to such an extreme that the roadmap is merely symbolic and has no organizing force for their projects. Flexibility is great, but the whole point of roadmapping is to commit to high-level planning. Only then can your sprints become fully effective and your teams work cohesively, making the most of their time and effort. Agile development without a roadmap can lead to wasted cycles and costs.
Because of the central role a roadmap plays, you must continually iterate your roadmap—particularly after doing research and iterating on and testing your prototype. A product is only as good as the value it brings to users, so the roadmap must reflect your ever-growing understanding of users’ painpoints and your solution’s differentiators.
Consistently referring to your roadmap lets you to eliminate feature bloat and sharpen your vision of the product while minimizing costs and timelines. Factors such as feasibility, budget, deadlines, and projected revenue should guide your vision, as well as your understanding of what the customer wants and needs.
3 Best Practices for Crafting Your Product-Development Roadmap
Many leaders are unsure about how to create and update a product roadmap. To give your company the best chance of crafting an effective roadmap, follow these best practices.
1. Make sure everyone is on board.
A roadmap is critical to the success of a project, and it’s equally essential to make sure that everyone who needs to be aligned on a project shares the same views.
If you’ve ever worked on a project with misaligned stakeholders, you know the frustration of being pulled in multiple directions and not being able to get things right. Creating a roadmap early and getting buy-in from stakeholders in all of the departments that are involved in the project can mitigate any tensions that might arise later if an executive becomes unhappy with the direction of the project.
To achieve this alignment, use sketching and weighted-voting exercises, assigning points based on desirability and feasibility. This lets you rank your epics or smaller milestones and set your priorities based on their point totals. If you’ve included people with greater seniority and decision-making authority in a meeting, you might give them more votes.
People’s entrenched ideas and biases can sometimes make these kinds of exercises hard to run in house. One way to break the sort of gridlock that can occur and start the ball rolling is to bring in a product-development agency. An outsider is agnostic so can run the exercise free of the prior baggage that might be holding your company back. This offers the dual benefits of both reducing potential accusations of bias and providing a fresh, expert perspective on your roadmap and its goals.
2. Adopt the right vision and scope.
It’s tricky to set the vision for your product. So be sure to take the time and care necessary to get this important step right. If you are a more visionary person, it can be all too easy for you to constantly stray into the conceptual rather than the practical. To break a project down, you need to start thinking in epics. What epics would come together to achieve your vision? Without this high-level perspective, teams often feel overwhelmed and get bogged down, slowing their progress.
Try to condense product concepts into a collection of small, manageable chunks that you’ve documented in the form of user stories. For development, the very first epic should be about creating a testable prototype and gathering valuable user-experience feedback that can guide your team’s expectations about the product’s value.
On a slightly longer timeline, set your sights on a minimum viable product. No product is perfect when it launches. The feedback that comes in inevitably changes the direction of your product planning and development. Never lose sight of the goal to launch and get critical feedback. Take the time necessary to tailor the scope of the project to ensure you can achieve your goals on a timeline that fits your resources. Don’t overinvest in a product before getting validation and feedback from users.
3. Stay flexible.
Even though you have a roadmap, you must be open to changing course. Think of it as similar to using a map in the real world. When one street is closed for repairs, a good map enables you to adapt by taking an alternative route. In the same way, your attitude toward the roadmap must embrace adaptability.
This adaptability is especially critical whenever a curve ball gets thrown at your team. Competitors might launch similar products, new regulations might be enacted, or consumer interests might change. Most typically, you’ll receive user feedback that challenges the assumptions you had when starting the project. Handling all of these changes requires flexibility and a willingness to incorporate new feedback.
We’ve probably all worked on projects where we had assumed that users would flock to a certain product or feature only to find out that they didn’t find it useful. Even though the roadmap called for further development of that product or feature in future iterations, we had to adjust our plans and put our focus elsewhere.
However, being too flexible can be an issue as well. Being completely open to diverging from the roadmap risks introducing chaos into a project. Most often, this takes the infamous form of scope creep, in which the project scope continuously expands over time, often far beyond what the project truly needs. This problem is all too common. One recent study found that 52% of projects suffered from scope creep. You can avoid scope creep by continually referring back to your roadmap, making tough-minded choices, and nixing proposed new features unless they’re really necessary.
Your product roadmap is one of the most powerful tools in product development. But this tool is effective only if you use it correctly. Fortunately, this isn’t really hard to achieve. By seeking robust alignment early, finding the just-right project scope, and staying appropriately flexible throughout the product-development process, you can prudently guide your products toward a successful launch and further iterations beyond.
At Yeti, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco, Tony partners with small teams—both teams inside larger corporations and independent teams—at the early stages of the product-development process. Yeti has developed large-format, touch-screen experiences; mobile applications, and software systems for clients such as Google, Westfield, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Flextronics. Read More