What do Frodo, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter all have in common? Well, aside from all having run-ins with spiders, they all went on epic quests — and they all used maps to find their way.
A product launch is a bit like a quest. It usually involves a collection of people all working together over the course of weeks, months, or even years. There’s a goal at the end, but the route to achieving it can be complex and challenging. A product roadmap is essentially a map that guides you through your product launch, from day one all the way through to the end.
So, whether you’re off to Mordor or you’re at the beginning of your product launch journey, having a map will be a big help. Here’s everything you need to know before you set off on your adventure.
What is a product roadmap?
A product roadmap is a summary of your project from start to finish. It includes your vision and goals, as well as your strategy for achieving them.
A product roadmap takes time, so why do it? Here’s why:
- It’ll define your project’s vision and strategy.
- It’s a tool for communicating vision, goals, and strategy to stakeholders.
- It helps with team and stakeholder alignment.
- It’ll facilitate discussions and helps with planning.
- It helps tie the project back to the company strategy.
- It’ll help you prioritize tasks and goals.
- It helps you track progress.
- It creates transparency.
What should a product roadmap include?
Just like a regular map, your product roadmap should guide the team toward the destination: a successfully completed project.
How to create a product roadmap in 6 steps
1. Choose your format
The layout follows a Gantt chart format, with a single timeline and various projects within that timeline. Then, you split each of those projects into assigned tasks. You can create this in Excel or Word, but it takes time and can get a bit unwieldy. Big spreadsheets aren’t the easiest things to create and maintain.
Product roadmaps are big documents, so make sure you choose a format you’re comfortable using. Also, remember that this document will be ever-evolving. So, it’s best to create it using something that’s easily editable and sharable.
A cloud-based product roadmap template is the easiest option. The beauty of templates is much quicker they are to make and edit. On some platforms — like Cacoo — you can assign tasks and set up automatic notifications — so everyone on the team is updated in real-time whenever a task changes.
2. Start with your product vision
A clearly defined vision does several things. It helps make sure the project aligns with the wider business’ vision. It helps keep you and the team aligned throughout the project journey. And finally, it makes it easier to get buy-in from executives and stakeholders if your ultimate goal is clearly defined.
Here are some questions to help you work out your vision:
- Why are we building this product?
- What do we want to achieve?
- How will this help our customers?
- Which customers will use the product?
- What are the major differentiators between this product and others on the market?
- How will this benefit the business?
You’ll go into much more detail later on, but thinking about these top-level questions at the beginning should help you define your goal. They’re also questions stakeholders are likely to ask. Give each of them some real thought so you won’t be stumped if someone quizzes you.
3. Define your product strategy
Once you’ve defined your vision, it’s time to start creating a big-picture strategy. Don’t get tangled up in the details just yet — think broad strokes.
Note down key tasks you’ll need to accomplish to reach your goal. You can prioritize them and put them in order, but avoid going into too much detail. It should make a case for your product in clear, easy-to-understand terms to get stakeholders on board.
When you combine a clear strategy with a solid vision, you’ll have a strong foundation on which to build the rest of your roadmap.
4. Gather information
The more information you gather at the beginning, the more exact (and accurate) your roadmap will be.
Start with your own knowledge. Pool together everything you know about the company, the proposed product and its features, and its users. Next, talk to your sales teams. These people get to spend personal time with your users and will likely have valuable insights into how your customers behave in the real world.
Finally, engage with your users themselves. Surveys, interviews, and reading through reviews and comments can be a great way to get honest, unfiltered advice that can help you spot opportunities and weaknesses, and shape your new product.
5. Create your timeline
First things first: Your product roadmap is an evolving document. Deadlines will change, so bear that in mind when talking to stakeholders to avoid overpromising. Most roadmaps run by sprint, month, quarter, or year. There’s no right one to choose, but it should be long enough that you can see results, but short enough that you can plan with some degree of accuracy.
Once you’ve worked out how long your project will run, it’s time to start adding items, including top-level goals, tasks, task priorities, dependencies, and important project milestones.
If you’re using a Gantt chart (or something similar), start by creating division by day, week, or month, then begin adding bars for each task. The left-hand side of each bar should land on the date and time you want that task to begin, and the right-hand side should land on the end date.
Next, group your bars according to the initiative or team by adding swimlanes. You can then stack these in order of priority, making it simple to see who’s working on what at a glance.
Top tip: There are many methods to help with prioritizing tasks, including OKRs, the RICE Scoring Model, and the MoSCow framework. Combine one of these with your own homework and knowledge for the best results.
Finally, add arrows to indicate project dependencies, mark up your key milestones with diamonds, and make use of color to help define phases, teams, features, and anything else that can be grouped together. It’s just another thing that makes it easier to work out what’s going on at a glance. You can also make critical paths stand out by making them bold and add other shapes to indicate key dates.
A product roadmap example with swimlanes, milestones, and Gantt chart-style time blocks. Created in Cacoo
Top tip: You can make two versions of your roadmap: One for you and the team and a slightly simplified version for stakeholders. You can tailor that one to their particular interests. Different stakeholders will have different interests — so consider highlighting specific information for each group. For example, developers have more interest in sprints and requirements. The sales team will want to know about product benefits and approximate release dates, and the marketing department will need to know about features and USPs.
6. Share your product roadmap
Sharing your product roadmap with the team, stakeholders, and any other interested parties helps promote engagement and a feeling of alignment across the business. Having a clear sense of direction boosts motivation, too.
If you’re using cloud-based software, then sharing is easy: Just set your permissions and send out your invites. If you’re using a non-cloud spreadsheet or MS Word file, you’ll need to put a bit more effort into keeping it up-to-date: If you make any edits, be sure to send out an email to let the rest of the team know.
A well-planned product roadmap can help you reach your goal smoothly. It can unite the team in a common cause, leading to better communication and collaboration and a greater sense of purpose.
Whether you use a spreadsheet or you create your map using a roadmap tool, make sure you use colors, shapes, and arrows to highlight the most important information — and keep it meticulously updated as you go. The clearer you make your product roadmap, the easier the journey will be.