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How to Build a Killer Product Roadmap

Posted by Laith Dahiyat on July 18, 2017 15:13:40 PM

There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about what makes a functional, high-performing product roadmap. This information can be especially misleading for the people who need it the most, folks who are just getting started in their product development career.

As someone who’s been in the product management space for 15 years, I’ve learned a lot about product planning and execution along the way. I’ve seen processes that went relatively smoothly, and some that caused confusion and miscommunication.  From Fortune 500s to 10 person startups, there is one key to a successful roadmap: understanding vision and strategy first.

A product roadmap ultimately starts with the overarching vision and strategy for the company as a whole. If your company sells or delivers a product-- whether that’s software, hardware, or something else-- your product and your business strategy are one and the same.

Ultimately, a product roadmap is your business plan. Here’s how you can build a killer one.

Start at 50,000 feet

It can be tempting to get granular when you think about product roadmaps and get lost in the executional details. I recommend starting at the big picture level. 

The most successful companies think about their product roadmap and their overall mission in tandem. For example, if a company’s mission is to deliver the fastest food delivery service and be the world leader in quick delivery, then the product roadmap needs to reflect that.

If high level vision and strategy is not well-defined and is not set up in such a way to get the entire company behind it, then it’s going to be impossible to ultimately deliver very tactical execution plans built off of that high-level strategy.

Develop a deep understanding of market and industry

If you don’t have a good understanding of industry expectations and where you sit in the market, you won’t be able to come up with a roadmap that improves your product. You need to understand what will most help your company drive market share, rather than what feature is most exciting for engineers to build.

As part of your product roadmapping, you should segment based on characteristics that are important either to your software or the industry that you’re providing the solution into.

Market Segmentation 2.png

So we may size a segment of an industry or a potential customer base on the amount of revenue they generate. For example, at Assembla, we segment our customers based on the size of their development team.

And if we’re able to gather that data, we can group our potential customers, group up the market, and then start backing into overall opportunity, and determine what segment of the market we should go after with our product roadmap.

 

Understand your customers & your prospects

To build out and develop a true product roadmap, you really have to start with your customer base. If people are buying your software, why are they buying it? If you’re trying to sell your software and people say no, why are they not interested?

In order to develop a killer product roadmap, you must understand the motivations of your existing customers as well as your prospects. It’s particularly important to identify what value customers get out of the product. What is the main reason they became a customer and the reason(s) they remain a customer?

intercom Chat Example

Getting to know your customer doesn’t involve technology or building a cool tool. Instead, it involves conversations, diving deep into your data, looking at your pricing, examining your revenue, and looking for trends. Identifying trends in your customer base, as well as in your failed customer base, gives you a good starting point when developing a product roadmap. We use in-app conversation tools like Intercom survey tools like Qualaroo and, of course, phone calls to have direct conversations with our users and translate their feedback into insights.

Perform a competitive analysis

Competitive analysis is a major component of product management, strategy, and roadmapping. You must understand your competitors, what they do well, and what they don’t do well.

Weighted Competitive Analysis.pngI recommend assigning a weighted scoring method to key characteristics of competitors to rank them. Rather than make a guess on who’s the best, you can quantitatively rank competitors by assigning weights to certain characteristics based on the market.

Ideally, you should get a bunch of people to score the competitors. If you do all the scoring yourself, it’s very easy to score things so the results come out in the way you want them to. Once you’ve scored your competition, you can assess where you stand and where you need to go next.

I recommend assigning a weighted scoring method to key characteristics of competitors to rank them. Rather than make a guess on who’s the best, you can quantitatively rank competitors by assigning weights to certain characteristics based on the market.

Ideally, you should get a bunch of people to score the competitors. If you do all the scoring yourself, it’s very easy to score things so the results come out in the way you want them to. Once you’ve scored your competition, you can assess where you stand and where you need to go next.

 

Use swim lanes to chart execution goals

When people ask about your roadmap, what do they really mean? Typically, they want to know your execution plan.

The best way to present execution is with a swim lane chart. This shows the order in which you’re going to invest, what products you’re going to launch, what initiatives are you going to kick off.

Swim Lanes.png

Swim lanes are a way to group or categorize the different products, features, or initiatives in a logical way. A swim lane chart allows anyone to see what product priorities are at different times.

A swim chart is a visual way to plot all the different things you’re going to do in the product over the course of one or two years.

 

Analyze based on financial gains

Encouraging your product team to do financial analysis can dramatically influence the product roadmap.

For example, if you see that your recurring revenue from your existing customer base is eroding, that means you have a retention problem and you’re not upselling and retaining your existing customers.

In that case, you might focus on building tools that will increase retention, or new features that are perfect for upselling.

Ultimately, financials are a great place to dig in to learn what’s driving business revenue, and where the product could go next. Analyzing the financials can lead you to conclusions that impact your product set, how you support the product, as well as how you support your customers.

Final thoughts: A product roadmap is your business plan

It’s one thing to build a really cool piece of software, but if you haven’t thought about how you’re going to sell it to the market, what you’re going to charge for it what happens when people buy it and have a question, you won’t get very far.

At the end of the day, you need to build a product roadmap that works for you and your business. What works for one company may not work for another, and vice versa. Using the charts we’ve provided, you should be able to perform analysis in a number of key areas to inform your product roadmap.

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About the author

Laith Dahiyat

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