May 17

How to Build a Product Roadmap with Examples (2021 Guide)

As a Product Manager, a roadmap can be a great tool to have when it comes to communicating the strategy for your product to both your team and your stakeholders.

Here we will explore in detail what a product roadmap is, why they’re important, take a look at some of the different kinds of roadmap frameworks out there and show you some examples so that you can try them out for yourself.

WHAT IS A PRODUCT ROADMAP?

At its heart, a product roadmap is a plan that details the prioritization, strategic goals, product vision, business goals, outcomes, and themes for a product team across several quarters. It also functions as a tool to communicate with stakeholders with the goal of articulating the “why” behind the proposed plan.

Traditional roadmaps that define which features will be delivered and by when are a bit of a hangover from the era of Waterfall, although some companies still use these.

There can be an uncomfortable tension when it comes to roadmaps within an organization – disciplines such as Sales and Marketing are keen to know exactly what will be delivered and when so that they can sell it to their customers and prepare marketing materials for promotional efforts. Senior executives are keen to know what is coming down the pipe so that they can articulate this to the board of directors or investors. There is a human desire for certainty! However, things aren’t often straightforward when it comes to product development and committing to delivering features to specific timelines can lead to a breakdown in trust between product folks and their stakeholders if deadlines aren’t met.

Modern agile product development teams need to strike a balance between communicating to their teams and stakeholders the product backlog and what’s coming next versus locking themselves into hard deadlines and deliverables, especially when we consider the role of product discovery.

Teams can achieve this by keeping roadmaps simple and high-level – we have some great examples for you to try here.

WHY ARE PRODUCT ROADMAPS IMPORTANT?

The best Product roadmaps serve many purposes and can help you make headway in clarifying the direction of your product with both your team and your internal stakeholders in the short-term and long term. Here are some of the key reasons that product roadmaps are important:

Communicating priorities with your cross-functional team

Often as a Product Manager, you will have many documents, notes, and lists that describe the work that you are doing and it can be hard for your cross-functional team to keep up with the overarching plan for your product. You might find yourself having to explain or present the same information multiple times, so having a single source of truth in the form of a roadmap can be really helpful as a document to refer back to when needed. You can even keep a copy of your current product roadmap plans pinned to a physical or virtual board for stand-ups and planning sessions so that your team’s priorities are always in view.

Achieving alignment with and inspiring stakeholders

Not only do you have to keep your team aligned on your product priorities, but also your key stakeholders. Being able to move forward with your product roadmap relies heavily on buy-in from people around your business and having a single document to use in discussions with them makes things a whole lot easier. It is also a useful tool to demonstrate that you (as a Product Manager) have a good handle on the product strategy and product goals! Alignment with stakeholders is important, but getting them excited about your work is equally important. They are much more likely to get on the same page as you if they feel inspired by your work and having a visual roadmap to show them during meetings can be one way to do this.

Transparency and visibility of your product work

A well-put-together roadmap is a great tool for giving executives and key stakeholders visibility into what your team is currently working on, the backlog, and what’s evolving and changing with your product strategy. Building trust with people around your business is key to getting the job done, so utilizing a product roadmap to help you do this can be really effective.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF PRODUCT ROADMAPS?

There are many different types of product roadmap (some useful, some not!) – here we will take a look at some of the more helpful ones and what purpose they serve. Further down we will show some examples of these so you can try them out for yourself.

Now, Next, Later Roadmap

Earlier we touched on the topic of deliverables and timescales, and how these are a hangover from the days of Waterfall roadmapping. A good antidote to this way of formulating a roadmap is the “Now, Next, Later” framework. At its core, this product management roadmap covers 3 areas of work without committing to immovable deadlines and promised feature sets and is good for communicating broad plans to your cross-functional team and key stakeholders.

“Now” covers themes/areas that are being worked on at present and represent work that is high value and solves the most urgent user or business problems. The “Now” work could cover discovery work around high-profile problems that if solved, help you meet your OKR or desired outcomes for the quarter. It could also be highly validated work that is currently in further live experimentation or delivery. You can also describe the “Now” work in a bit more detail as it covers what’s already in progress.

“Next”, as you might have guessed, represents the work that comes right after “Now”. It’s still important work but may need further validation or clarification. It could also be work that builds on something that you have bucketed into “Now”.

“Later” covers work that is on your team’s radar but lives further out on your timeline of priorities. Anything in this bucket should serve to reflect the high-level, longer-term strategy for your product.

The Now, Next, Later product management roadmap doesn’t necessarily have a fixed timeframe (although you could argue that “Now” and “Next” often fall into the current quarter’s work), it’s more of a living and evolving plan that can be updated whenever the Product Manager sees fit.

Learning / Problem-Based Roadmap

This roadmap serves the purpose of defining which customer or business problems or areas your team plans to learn about and in which order, over a series of quarters. It is purely focused on discovery and the onus is on what you might be able to learn about your customers.

Maybe you have a series of assumptions that require deeper user research or have heard feedback from your customers on particular areas of your product that you want to dig into in more detail. Learning about your customers’ needs and jobs to be done is key to building great products, so it’s essential to invest time on an ongoing basis to understand these. A learning roadmap is a great way to put some focus on these.

Theme-Based Roadmap

This kind of product roadmap is another good way to keep your plans high-level while also instilling faith in your team and stakeholders. It can work in different ways but at a product team level, you can have your objective or OKR at the top of this roadmap with the key themes of work that help you to achieve that objective mapped out underneath.

Themes are really useful for communicating the “why” behind your work and if used correctly, can help to tell a story with an emotional appeal to your stakeholders (which is great for building empathy with your customers!). These roadmaps are also great for demonstrating how different themes ladder up to an overall objective over a period of time and can help foster creativity by demonstrating the components of a bigger picture.

You can identify themes from good customer research and product discovery practices and by pinpointing the key problem areas or new feature opportunities that will help you to achieve your team’s objective.

Outcome-Driven Roadmap

In today’s data-driven age, most businesses have a heavy focus on metrics and measuring success. As a Product Manager, you’re also likely obsessed with outcomes and goals, so the outcome-driven roadmap can be a good way to demonstrate the impact that your team’s work will have over a series of quarters.

Hopefully, you have one or several overarching business-level OKRs or objectives that your team’s work ladder up to – you can use this roadmap to show how your work will contribute to these over time. So for each quarter, you might be working towards a different outcome or set of outcomes or you may have several that span multiple quarters.

WHAT ARE THE KEY FEATURES OF GOOD PRODUCT ROADMAPS?

While there are many different kinds of product roadmaps, there are some key features that are common across them. We have already touched on some of these – let’s have a look at some of those in more detail here.

Keep it high-level

Keeping your product roadmap high-level cannot be emphasized enough! You want to make sure that you’re not committing your team to immovable deadlines and running the risk of not meeting those deadlines and incurring difficult conversations with your stakeholders.

You also want to be sure that you have enough flex in your plan for your team to get the work done and for necessary changes in direction to be made while also achieving buy-in, alignment and transparency around the business.

Clearly articulate your outcomes

As we discussed earlier, it’s important to articulate what the impact of the work on your product roadmap is and why you are planning particular themes or outcomes, rather than writing down a shopping list of features and outputs that you plan to deliver.

This can definitely be a bit of a culture and mindset shift for some organizations, but as a Product Manager, you can help make this happen.

Make it easy to understand

You might have identified the best outcomes, themes, and opportunities for your product roadmap but they aren’t useful to anyone if they aren’t articulated in a way that both your team and key stakeholders can understand.

You might consider tailoring a version of your product roadmap based on your audience – some people take in information better when it’s presented visually while others prefer a written document. You might also consider the hierarchy of your information – display your objective/outcomes at the top along with the quarters or now / next / later clearly marked.

HOW TO BUILD A PRODUCT ROADMAP

Product roadmap planning requires some key ingredients, no matter which type you decide to use. Let’s take a look at those here.

Define your OKR or outcomes

Before you start cracking out the virtual board and sticky notes, make sure that you have a clearly defined OKR or outcomes for your work that clearly ladders up to a high-level business objective or an area of your company’s product plan. You need to define your end goal before describing the journey you’re going to take to get there!

You might have one objective that lasts across several quarters or several outcomes that span the same timeframe.

Define your (high-level) timeline

Whether you’re using “Now, Next, Later” or dividing your work up by quarters, be sure to clearly mark each section of your roadmap with the timeline you’re aiming for so it’s easier for your team and stakeholders to understand.

Identify your themes or customer problems

As a good Product Manager, you will hopefully have done some work with your UX / UXD / Researcher to understand your customers and their needs/problems to solve in relation to your objective or specific outcomes. These will help you identify your themes (if you’re using a theme-based roadmap) or areas you want to learn more about (if you’re using a learning roadmap). You may also glean some useful insights that can form themes from other parts of your business – behavioral patterns from your Data team, direct customer feedback from your Sales or Marketing teams, or app store feedback if you have mobile products.

Articulate the information clearly

As we mentioned earlier, it’s really important that your team and internal and external stakeholders can understand your product roadmap so that you can achieve buy-in and move forward with getting some great product work done.

You don’t need to spend too much money on fancy roadmapping tools or time visualizing your content. There are some great free tools available (we used Miro to create the examples below) that can help you to articulate your story easily and quickly.

Common mistakes include making your roadmap too wordy or even overloading it with flashy imagery – keep it simple!

4 PRODUCT ROADMAP TEMPLATE EXAMPLES

Earlier we looked at some of the product roadmaps out there that can be helpful for Product Managers to use in defining their work. Here are 4 examples that we have put together to bring each framework to life:

Now, Next, Later Roadmap

Here you can see the 3 buckets of work we described earlier with the overall objective and outcomes clearly marked. You will notice the absence of a specific timeline – this is to keep things high-level and flexible for your cross-functional team:

Now, Next, Later Roadmap

Learning / Problem-Based Roadmap

With this roadmap, the focus is on customer problems that you have identified during research and product discovery. Some larger problem areas may take multiple quarters to learn about. The objective is still front and center here:

Learning / Problem-Based Roadmap

Theme-Based Roadmap

Both high-level themes (in purple) and sub-themes (in pink) are shown here, along with the overarching objective that spans several quarters. There will be a lot of detail that sits underneath each theme, but it’s not always helpful to include that here – again, the onus is on keeping it high-level and flexible:

Themes Roadmap

Outcome-Driven Roadmap

This roadmap is purely focused on your objective, the outcomes and metrics, and the timeline to show impact over time. Here the focus is on what effect your cross-functional team will have rather than a list of features they will deliver. The “how you get there” is up to you:

Outcomes Roadmap

FINAL POINTS ABOUT PRODUCT ROADMAPPING

However you approach product roadmapping, remember: keep it high-level where appropriate, clearly articulate your outcomes, and above all, make it easy to understand for your team and your stakeholders!

You can use one of the roadmaps we have talked about here or maybe create your own by combining the parts that make the most sense for you, your product, and your business. Good luck!

Monica Viggars

About the author

Monica Viggars is a Product Coach with over 15 years of experience working in product and tech. A Product Manager in a past life, Monica now enjoys helping product teams to improve their ways of working and best practices as well as supporting companies on their journey to becoming more product-led. When not writing or product coaching, Monica enjoys travelling (when there's not a pandemic happening!), arts and crafts and baking cakes.


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