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Partner on the Product Roadmap

Learning Objectives 

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Define what a product roadmap is.
  • Describe the role that strategy designers play in roadmapping.
  • List the important variables to consider when roadmapping.
  • Describe best practices for strategy designers in product roadmapping.

Make It Real

If you’ve completed other badges in the Learn Strategy Design trail, you’ve learned about some key concepts and steps involved in strategy design, from framing a challenge through idea generation through prototyping. In this module, you focus on the importance of roadmaps in guiding and aligning the team as you bring the product to market.

So, your product concept has been prototyped and tested on your target audience, and you’re confident your strategy is solid. Now, to successfully launch your product onto an unsuspecting world, your team needs to align. 

Getting a product into customers’ hands takes collaboration across many teams and functions and buy-in from leadership. As the strategy designer, you help rally everyone around a shared vision of what you’re creating, why you’re creating it, what “good” looks like, and how to get there. A product roadmap, and the process of creating one, can help with that.

Let’s take a closer look.

Map the Path Forward

A product roadmap is the central hub of information for everyone involved in bringing your product to market. It’s a plan of action and shared source of truth that details how you’re going to fulfill the product vision: what you’re delivering and when.

There are four common types of product roadmaps.

  • Portfolio roadmap: Shows the planned releases of multiple products in a single view.
  • Strategy roadmap: Displays the team initiatives needed to achieve the product goals.
  • Releases roadmap: Shows the activities (what needs to be done, when, and who is responsible) that must happen before you can bring the release to market.
  • Features roadmap: Shows the timeline for delivering new features.

The type of roadmap and its formality depends on the type of the product and your experience in the space. Is this a new business with a completely new product? Does it fit within an existing product experience? 

For new-to-market products, initial roadmaps are best guesses that change frequently based on learning. For existing products (situations with few unknowns), the roadmap is generally more stable over time. 

When bringing an idea to market, a product roadmap helps you stay on the right path.

Where Are We Headed?

While the product manager owns the roadmap, the strategy designer plays a critical role in keeping the big picture in mind. Strategy designers make sure the team already has done quality product discovery work and is aligned around:

  • Strategic rationale
  • User and business outcomes
  • Validated value proposition
  • What’s most important to customers (problems, pain points, and so on)
  • Product principles

These, along with feasibility and economics, drive your decisions about what to create. All decisions must anchor to these elements. After all, a roadmap is only effective if you know where you’re going. When everyone’s clear about the destination, they’re empowered to bring their expertise to the table and advocate for better ways to get there. Everyone’s engaged and invested, not simply executing their tasks.

How Will We Get There? 

Roadmapping is about prioritization. For instance, of the many things your team can focus on, what do you choose? How do you choose? The team’s job is to make good decisions about what to put out into the world, decisions that maximize value and minimize costs. 

Consider three important factors.

  • Value: How does the product deliver business and customer outcomes?
  • Effort: How hard is it to create?
  • Confidence: How certain are you that it will have the desired impact?

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

Value

Business value is what the product gives back to the organization. This can be revenue, reduced attrition, lower service costs, higher customer satisfaction, and so on. Customer value is the benefit customers get from using a product. This is summed up in the value proposition and delivered on via key features and the experience around the product. Quality decisions rely on a deep understanding of the target customer, their context, and the competition. 

Best practice: Organize the roadmap around the customer challenges you are solving, making sure the value proposition considers social value impacts and prioritizes sustainable, long-term value creation over short-term wins whenever possible. 

Effort

For the company, it takes effort to make something. Every idea, product, feature, and release has costs attached to it for your team and your organization. This may be bandwidth, financial considerations, opportunity cost (the idea that you have to say no to something else in order to build this), or maintenance. The idea you’re bringing to market isn’t the only product in the pipeline. 

Best practice: Collaborate with partners to identify technical feasibility and costs as early as possible. Constraints drive creativity. However, if you wait too long, technical constraints can lead to trade-offs with diminished customer value. For example you might learn that what you spec'd for build is too big or difficult to fit into a release cycle, or that it doesn't work well within the current experience, or that the new feature surfaces the need for more design work before it can be implemented. If this happens, typically the PM and engineering team decide what to accomplish within the sprint. At this point they have tremendous pressure to meet the deadline, and essentially no pressure to create user value in what they deliver. 

These folks are typically disconnected from the research insights that drive customer-centered decisions. So they're problem-solving from a technical feasibility standpoint, either primarily or entirely. And they often make choices that sacrifice the parts of the design that bring value to the user. That’s why collaboration is key. Strategists can help strengthen the connection to those insights.

Confidence

Every decision is built on a set of assumptions. Be clear about what those assumptions are. At the overall product level, you want to surface assumptions supporting customer desirability, feasibility, and business viability. How important is that assumption? To what extent do you have supporting evidence? 

High-importance, low-evidence assumptions need to be prototyped and validated. They are your riskiest assumptions to test (RATs). The goal isn’t to validate all assumptions; it is to validate the critical assumptions so that dollars invested don’t outpace key assumptions validated.

Note

For more on prototyping to test your assumptions, read the Strategy Design Prototyping module.

Roadmapping Best Practices

As you bring your product to market, the strategy designer plays a critical role in keeping the big picture—and the customer—top of mind and at the proverbial center of the roadmap. But how does the team even start building this roadmap? What’s the first thing you need to actually do?

Start by clustering the proposed features by impact and difficulty. Once you visualize that, you can approach building out a more detailed vision by going deep in one feature area at a time. It might also be helpful for the team to take a broad pass across several groups of features, just for context. Zooming in and zooming out, from feature level to context level, ensures you’re designing an experience that makes sense to the customer at each stage of development, as features are added over time. 

Finally, since you’re always trying to get the biggest result for the smallest investment, it’s important to define trade-offs for each feature. For example, two lower impact features might be cumulatively as difficult to develop as one high-impact feature. It’s important to consider whether it’s better to launch multiple features or check off a single higher impact challenge. Again, there’s no hard and fast answer to this question. It always depends on the overall business outcomes you’re trying to achieve.  

To ensure the roadmap is helpful, follow a few best practices.

Do:

  • Keep it updated: Review the roadmap regularly and make adjustments as necessary. An out-of-date roadmap means the product team and other internal stakeholders will be lost.
  • Communicate broadly: Stay connected with all stakeholders to ensure alignment. Make task ownership open and transparent, so everyone knows who to contact if there’s a question.
  • Group features in ways that make sense to users: When you’re breaking features down into bundles for the roadmap, make sure each iteration feels like a complete idea, stays true to the core concept of your strategy, and provides user value.

Don’t:

  • Lose the vision: Ensure the roadmap communicates both the vision and how to deliver on it. Don’t overload it with details.
  • Forget to test: Even if the whole team thinks something is a great idea, be sure the decision is grounded in evidence. Time spent validating critical assumptions saves time down the road.
  • Write in permanent marker: As the saying goes, “Nothing in this world is certain except for death and taxes.” This is also true of the details in your roadmap. Stay flexible.

Cloud Kicks Product Roadmap

Our good friends at the Cloud Kicks custom sneaker company faced some challenges when creating their product roadmap for two new ecommerce tools. One was a new Tracker tool that gives customers visibility into the product manufacturing and delivery processes, and keeps them informed when supply chain exceptions occur.

During the design sprint, some unexpected changes came up.

  • There was extensive deliberation with Customer Support about the information to give out via the tracker.
  • Marketing was in discussions with leadership about the ways to promote the new feature, and how much attention to draw to it.
  • Developers had complications retrieving real-time information at various points in the process, and they needed to reduce the number of updates they could give customers.

All these changes necessitated revised mockups and deadlines as the various pieces kept moving and changing. 

Another tool planned for the same release was the Digital Head Start that lets buyers use their Cloud Kicks sneaker design on their game avatars. The UX designers were ready to promote the partnership on the Cloud Kicks side, but Cloud Kicks’s partner video game company discovered that there was more work to be done to align its backend systems. This kept the roadmap for that feature in constant, almost daily flux.

Cloud Kicks experienced firsthand how a product roadmap is a living document. And with all that input from key stakeholders, it can—and should!—change considerably throughout the process as the team learns more. 

To ensure that a roadmap reflects both your current and long-term work, update it often so that it remains an accurate source of truth. In the next unit, we look at how a roadmap can help you bring your product to market.

Resources 

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