Best Practices and Expert Tips for Creating Product Roadmaps

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby

September 30, 2016

Rapidly-changing technology requires companies to innovate quicker and get new products to market faster. But good ideas don’t always guarantee good products, and cutting-edge product owners are often held up by delayed decisions. A product roadmap can help product owners avoid these issues and create a forward-looking go to market plan. In addition to the core elements that make a solid roadmap, we’ve put together a list of best practices. Together these help you create a product roadmap that achieves both your vision and company goals.

What Is a Product Roadmap?

A product roadmap gives a broad overview of all aspects of an upcoming product: goals, timeline, features, resources, etc. The roadmap indicates what a development team is building, the problem the technology or software will solve, and the business goals the new product will achieve. But an effective roadmap will also serve as a project management tool in two main ways: 1) it is a strategic tool where you can make forward-looking objectives and rough timelines for your product, and 2) it can improve communication by providing a place where multiple stakeholders can weigh in on product goals and progress. Product roadmaps are most typically used by software companies and organizations that develop technology. 
Below is an example of a visual product roadmap with a swim lane view:

Product roadmaps give internal teams and other stakeholders (senior executives, upper management, marketing and sales teams, and/or investors) insight into a product’s current state. Additionally, the roadmap should also set clear expectations for how your product will develop in future months. The product owner creates the roadmap, and should take existing technology trends, market conditions, engineering constraints, and the organization’s value proposition into consideration. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge of building a product roadmap is nailing down the core elements that make it effective. In the next section, we’ve outlined the five steps for creating a product roadmap and the essential elements to include.

How to Create a Product Roadmap

Step 1. Define your product strategy.
A product strategy is how you make the case for your product. For instance, in order for your company to invest in your product’s development, stakeholders need to know what business goals your product will achieve. They also expect you to answer questions such as: What customers will use the product? and What problems will the product solve? Additionally, you’ll want to include major product differentiators that make this product stand out from other similar products already on the market. When you pair these answers with the product vision, you’ll have a solid structure from which to build the rest of your product roadmap. To ensure alignment, tie your product strategy back to the roadmap to keep everyone on the same page. 


Step 2. Gather requirements.
There are three main groups you can gather information from to help you define your requirements: 

  1. Start this process by talking to your sales and customer support teams. These departments know first-hand how the outside world feels about and engages with your company’s existing products, and likely have customer feedback which can help you prioritize new features. Additionally, their insight can give you ideas about what to consider for future releases.
  2. Engage directly with your product user community. You’ll gain valuable information from product enthusiasts and experts who already spend substantial time using your product.
  3. Finally, tap into your own product knowledge. You undoubtedly have a deep understanding of the product’s functionality, its features, and its limitations. Think about which component(s) are most vital to your customers. Once you identify these, focus on what you can do to significantly improve any weaknesses.  

Step 3. Assign a broad timeframe to your initiatives.
“The level of detail on your roadmap needs to leave room for innovation and agile responsiveness,” says Cliff Gilley, technologist and product manager of The Clever PM. Many product owners agree. As long as you refrain from hard deadlines, you’re not committing your team to promises that you might not be able to deliver. Bear in mind that a key function of your product roadmap is providing guidance. So, rather than indicating specific dates, many product managers choose to plot initiatives at the monthly or quarterly level. Alternatively, you can choose to omit dates completely. 
Example of product roadmap with initiatives plotted quarterly:


multiple product roadmap template

Step 4. Tailor your roadmap to your stakeholder(s).
A product’s success depends upon the participation of other internal teams. To help gain full support during development, aim to get stakeholder buy-in early on. You can help persuade stakeholders by customizing and presenting a roadmap tailored to their particular interests. 

Here’s are some common internal stakeholders and the information they typically want in a product roadmap:  

  • Company executives and upper management: All of the elements outlined in your product strategy, plus any data regarding market size.
  • Marketing: Product features, how your product will compare to similar products on the market, and your product’s potential for generating sales.  
  • Sales: Release dates and specifics about the benefits and advantages the product provides to customers. Remember: instead of promising hard release dates, display general timelines like those mentioned above.
  • Engineers and developers: Requirements, deadlines, sprints, and specific tasks. 

You do not necessarily have to create multiple versions of your roadmap for each group of stakeholders. Instead, you can use a flexible online tool to highlight the information that is most relevant to a particular party. We’ll take a look at some popular online tools in the following section. 

Below is a product roadmap an engineering team might use:


Basic Agile Project

Step 5. Share your product roadmap.
Sharing your roadmap has several benefits. Aside from encouraging team engagement and gaining upper management support, your roadmap communicates all the progress you’ve made and sets expectations for next stages. Whether you choose to share your roadmap using spreadsheets, PowerPoint, or with a cloud-based software program, sharing your roadmap is an important step to ensure accountability among your team, and keep everyone up to date. 

Best Practices for Creating an Effective Product Roadmap

Ultimately, your product roadmap will help developers build the best product possible. With this in mind, here’s a round-up of best practices from active, experienced product managers. 

Best Practice #1: Present a Visual Product Roadmap. 
An effective product roadmap will  do more than ‘tell:’ it will also present a simple, realistic visual representation of your vision and how it is tied to company’s goals. Additionally, your roadmap should be easy to understand and persuasive. PowerPoint and spreadsheets are widely used, but there are also many popular software options that make it easier to create visually compelling product roadmaps. For these reasons, many PMs prefer flexible task management tools like Trello, Jira, or Asana. Features such as swimlane views, drag-and-drop editors, movable cards, and other interactive features prevent presentations from coming off clunky.

Best Practice #2: Have Different Versions of Your Product Roadmap. 
In his LinkedIn post, Google Developer Expert Shrinath V explains common difficulties in product roadmaps. If a sales team and dev team use the same roadmap, Sales might commit to a feature in order to close a deal without consulting the developers on timing or probability. This is just one of many problems that can occur if there is one party making changes or if you don’t have a way to track who is making changes.

Remember, your roadmap helps you gain buy-in. Because each internal department has a unique role in helping make your product successful, each department will also care about something different. For example, marketing departments typically want to understand how product features will look and behave, while Sales wants details about when the product will be ready for customers to purchase it. To avoid publishing hard dates that could change, speak in terms of quarters or months. 

“Don’t fall into the trap of specifying dates for anything that’s not already a work-in-progress or that isn’t well defined and well understood. Any attempt to set a date for something that’s outside the 1-3 month time horizon is not only a mistake, but is bound to fail,” adds Gilley.

Each of the following product roadmaps were created in Smartsheet, and display timeframes instead of specific dates. 




Project Roadmap



Project Roadmap with Priorities

External product roadmaps are usually shared with company investors, industry analysts, customers, and the media. Even so, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Gilley advises that for internal roadmaps that you intend to share with customers you want your product roadmap to reflect sufficient details without tipping your hand to any specific strategies that you’re considering. For an external roadmap that you plan to share with investors, you should convey your strategic thinking and be structured in a way that presents confidence but still leaves doors open for innovation and agile responsiveness, without jeopardizing your financing rounds. 

Below is an example of an external roadmap format:


Best Practice #3: Share Your Product Roadmap. 
“The primary reason we want the product roadmap to be visible to anyone in the organization is that product roadmaps represent the plan of execution against the company vision and strategy,” says Gilley. 

As explain, product roadmaps organize and communicate a lot of information: what your development team is building, the problem the product will fix, as well as the business goals your product aspires to achieve. This means that your road map has the opportunity to speak directly to external or internal concerns and paint a clear picture of your intentions. 

To executives, the roadmap validates your product’s usefulness to a market that aligns with the organization’s strategic direction, and also proves that it enhances the company’s position. To your development team, your roadmap demonstrates progress and fosters inspiration. And to other internal departments—sales and marketing—your product roadmap sets expectations about product benefits, its comparisons to other similar products, and the potential for conversions. 

To external customers, a product roadmap shows that you value their input and care about their needs. By sharing a roadmap externally, you signal that their awareness is a crucial part of your product’s success, which increases the likelihood of purchase. Additionally, it’s an opportunity to engage with customers and emphasize your brand story.

Janna Bastow, co-founder of ProPad and Mind the Product, explains the strategy behind their roadmaps. “Our product roadmap has actually become a central part of the way we communicate our priorities with our customers,” she says. “Customers love the transparency. We’ve found that as long as we’re open and honest about our priorities, customers are actually very forgiving. We hold onto the feedback we get and reach back into it to guide the way we approach their problems – and our customers know that.”

It’s true. ProPad’s product roadmap for a web application is online for the digital world to see. Additionally, the site prompts visitors to share constructive feedback.  

“When the roadmap is hidden,” says Gilley, “the narratives about where the product is going, when, and why, are now outside of the control of the product manager and directly in the hands of the rumor mill and office grapevine.” 

Best Practice #4: Create a Flexible Roadmap
Todd Olson, Founder and CEO of Pendo, recommends that you write “SUBJECT TO CHANGE” on all product roadmaps. Maintaining flexibility in your timeline and deliverables will enable your team to react calmly to roadblocks, and to adapt your plan to fit changing needs. However, keep in mind that a product roadmap should have a single owner - this individual is the only person with the authority to add and remove items. 

Best Practice #5: Involve Your Stakeholder Community in Regular Intervals. 
Product roadmaps are created with the intention to be shared with internal development teams and others who have a role in the product’s success. Rather than being static, your roadmap should function like a reader board that gives a current snapshot of project status. So, in order for your product roadmap to do its job well, it needs consistent input from the product owner. This means updating your roadmap daily to capture any market changes, new planning directions, added resources, or changes in priorities. By regularly updating your roadmap, you help your constituents understand factors that account for your product’s progress or delays. 
Karthik Vijayakumar, podcaster, author, and product maker at Design Your Thinking, asserts that continual updates also create a deep level of shared ownership that in turn drives results. “Without this,” he says, “product roadmaps end up in nice documents without having seen the daylight”.

Best Practice #6: Spend 10 Minutes with Your Product Roadmap. 
Carving out chunks of time helps you identify trends and set priorities. Before checking email or cruising Twitter, give your product roadmap your entire focus. Sameena Velshi, Head of Product at Roadmunk, makes it her morning ritual. “Since I started allocating a few minutes to my roadmap every morning, my days have been more grounded. I analyze both the granular (what is each dev working on today? how close are we to that next release?), and the big picture (are we on track to make quarterly goals in line with our STRATEGY?),” she says. “It’s given me a new sense of control and perspective over our approach to product management.” 

Web-based Tools to Create a Product Roadmap

While you can certainly create a physical product roadmap that outlines your product goals and strategy, there are several online tools designed to ease the process. Online tools can save time and increase efficiency in several ways: live, shareable documents allow for collaboration, and also make it easier to track history and versioning. Additionally, many programs offer pre-built templates that you can use to get started. 

Here is a list of some of the most popular roadmapping tools:

  • Aha! – provides an array of modules that help you manage a product through its entire lifecycle.
  • Craft helps you build epics and stories and translate those into visual roadmap.
  • Lucidchart offers real time collaboration, with a simple user interface.
  • Onedesk helps you identify and prioritize requirements
  • ProductPlan includes drag and drop features, enables you to view several roadmaps in a master plan.
  • TrendsRadius analyzes aggregated customer data from your different channels then transforms that feedback into actionable insights.
  • Smartsheet offers a Gantt chart with various views, customization features such as color and symbols, and real-time collaboration. 

Create a Collaborative Product Roadmap with Smartsheet

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