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How to create the ultimate product roadmap

Last updated

15 January 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

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Business operations must constantly evolve and adapt to evolving consumer behavior and economic trends.

Whether you plan on making improvements to existing products or developing entirely new ones, these changes must align with customer expectations while meeting your financial and marketing goals.

You may be wondering how your product should adjust to get an edge over the competition.

The solution is to create a product roadmap. This will present a strategic product development plan to help you get ahead of consumer and economic shifts.

What is a product roadmap?

A product roadmap sets out a big-picture vision and direction of a product over time as it aligns with business goals and customer expectations. It outlines:

  • The present status of a product

  • The direction in which you want the product to go

  • How you plan to get there

It's usually used to present a product strategy to business executives and helps direct the actions and resources within different teams.

Many different plans may seem like product roadmaps but are not. The difference between a product roadmap and other roadmaps or plans is their purpose and the elements within them.

Agile/sprint roadmap

An Agile/sprint roadmap contains smaller projects or stories divided within a team. It's used to encourage product team members, such as developers, to focus on the tasks at hand in the allocated time.

While the product roadmap may span a year or two, the Agile/sprint roadmap contains short time blocks of weeks (called sprints) in which teams must complete tasks.

Release plan

A product roadmap outlines the long-term strategy or the product's plan of direction. However, a release plan is a tactical plan containing individual steps and actions to launch a product

Product or development teams create release plans, which include the features or enhancements planned for new releases of the product. They may also include action items for other teams, such as release communications from the marketing team or pricing strategy from finance.

Product backlog

This plan arranges stories or projects from epics (big-picture goals that the stories support) into a single list. The elements in the list are prioritized so the team knows which components should be delivered first and next.

For example, suppose you have three epics containing multiple stories. A product owner may decide to organize the plan for the product team to complete an entire epic first. Alternatively, they may decide to prioritize stories from across different epics in a particular order.

Gantt chart

A product roadmap and a Gantt chart both plan for the completion of long-term projects and set projected milestones for the elements that make up the strategic plan. However, these plans have different strategic purposes.

A product roadmap contains a strategic plan and goals for a significant undertaking like building and releasing a product. A Gantt chart represents a linear schedule of tasks that multiple teams complete for a single project.

A product roadmap tends to use general timeframes (such as delivery within a particular quarter), whereas a Gantt chart outlines specific dates and durations for tasks.

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Who is responsible for creating the product roadmap?

The product manager is ultimately responsible for creating the product roadmap. However, the product owner, development managers, and product team representatives need to participate in the creation of the roadmap to get a clear picture of the following:

  • Themes

  • Epics

  • Stories

  • Resources

  • Timelines

  • Effort levels

  • Skill sets 

Executives must also be included. A product or product line generally has an executive sponsor. In addition to approving the product roadmap, they must help secure the budget and offer ongoing evaluations and approvals for strategic updates to the plan.

What to include in a product roadmap

A product roadmap should depict a strategic alignment with a broader business goal while providing planning and coordination for all stakeholders. It should contain the following information:

  • Problems to be solved

  • Milestones

  • Budget and resource estimates

  • Timeline estimates

  • Any risks or roadblocks 

  • The teams that will be involved

Once you create the initial product roadmap, you can use it to break down the big-picture goal of product additions or improvements into high-level and then smaller, more manageable projects.

This creation of smaller projects generates cohesiveness and focus within teams, allocating resources where they need to go and adding metrics to measure progress.

What shouldn't you put into a roadmap?

A product roadmap is not final and absolute. It should be flexible enough to adapt to roadblocks and new information. You should not include a detailed timeline or overly specific details that may detract from the overall goal.

A strict timeline

A product roadmap is directional and represents a product's general course. The product roadmap doesn't call for specific information like a strict timeline or individual tasks. The teams should individually incorporate details into the plans they derive from your product roadmap.

Non-value items

Things that don't add to the understanding of the strategic direction for a product should not be incorporated. Too many details or long lists of upcoming features do not belong on a roadmap. Unachievable expectations and biased opinions should also be omitted.

Why are product roadmaps important?

Adding new products or improving existing ones is a complex and costly process. You must carefully consider whether the cost of resources, time, and financing of the proposed product improvements and additions will add value and match your business and marketing goals.

A product roadmap can help provide the answer, as it offers a picture that can be analyzed. Product roadmaps are also helpful in guiding internal teams to make efficient and cost-effective steps toward high-level business goals.

They are also useful in communicating priorities and areas of focus within a team and for broader stakeholder groups, including executives.

Types of product roadmaps

There are different types of product roadmaps with different structures. Which type you choose and how you structure your roadmap will be determined by the project and by the data you need to communicate the projected result of the product changes.

Goal-oriented roadmaps

These types of roadmaps arrange information around goals. They are usually formatted with bars containing goals written in simple words or phrases. The bars are in horizontal rows beside the team that owns the goal and placed vertically under a timeline.

This format helps everyone understand the overarching “why” of their efforts. For example, "campaign management" might be the marketing team's goal within a specific timeline.

Theme-based roadmaps

In this roadmap format, themes are used as headers. Several goals are listed underneath a theme with their associated timeline. For example, a theme might be "integration," and underneath will be the platforms you aim to integrate during certain timelines.

Theme-based roadmaps are similar to goal-orientated roadmaps, keeping the roadmap high level while still providing the why.

Strategy-based roadmaps

Instead of goals, the information bars of a strategy-based timeline represent the strategies the product roadmap is working toward. The strategy bars are then tied to aspects that explain how teams will accomplish the strategy.

For example, the plan may be "Enhance social media presence," while the how of that strategy is to "Create social media content calendar."

Planning for a product roadmap

Creating a roadmap starts with the planning phase. You'll have to consider:

  • Who needs to understand your vision

  • How long the process will take

  • The components involved when planning your roadmap

1. Determine your audience

You can tailor different types of roadmaps to meet the needs and interests of the audience or stakeholders involved in product development. Executives, product teams, sales teams, and customers all have a stake in its success.

External product roadmaps for target audiences outside the company, mainly customers, are created to excite them about what's coming next. They generally offer a big-picture view of new features they can expect and the pain points being prioritized and addressed.

The target audiences inside the company that may be most interested in your internal product roadmaps are:

  • Executives

  • Development teams

  • Sales teams

The executives will not only want a roadmap to help them understand the overall strategy of how the product development will provide value to business goals, but they will also need to be updated on progress. They'll be more focused on the high-level goals and metrics of the project and not so much on the stories and tasks.

Product or development teams will need a roadmap that helps them understand the product strategy, how it connects to business goals, and why specific stories and tasks were prioritized. Other details can include:

  • Customer value priorities

  • Target release dates

  • Milestones

Armed with this information, product teams can develop their own management plans to move toward the goals.

The sales team will be more attentive to roadmaps that provide information about the new features, customer benefits, and the target audience for these features. This team may need to know estimated dates to plan training and customer communication.

2. Identifying the roadmap timeline

Timelines provide a measure of when teams will complete significant goals and deliverables. Because product roadmaps have a strategic, high-level focus, their timelines can be looser and more fluid than tactically focused plans.

Estimate timelines using monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual blocks of time rather than specific dates.

3. Assemble additional components of your product development plan

Other components you should consider and include in your roadmap are high-level goals and the smaller projects that stem from the high-level goals.

You should also incorporate tasks, milestones, features, and resources, and form a relationship between these components. This allows people to see which teams are involved in the roadmap and how each piece of the plan relates to the entire roadmap.

What tool is used to create a roadmap?

There are many digital platforms and product roadmap templates you can use to create a roadmap.

If your organization is large, with several teams involved, you might need a more robust option. If you’re working within a smaller company, simpler tools might suffice.

Regardless of format, make sure your roadmap is easily accessible to all stakeholders.

How to create a product roadmap

Many elements are involved in creating a roadmap. At a high level, some steps to consider are:

  1. Conduct market research for information on consumer behavior, product positioning, and competitor analysis, creating a foundation for your strategy.

  2. Prioritize potential features according to which will provide the most value for the company and customers.

  3. Break down the big picture into smaller projects and assign levels of importance.

  4. Choose the type of roadmap that will represent your vision and incorporate these smaller projects and estimated timelines into the roadmap.

Presenting your product roadmap

Once you've identified the elements that will go into your roadmap, present it using a visually compelling graphical representation. It should depict clear objectives, eliminate jargon or technical language, and make everyone involved aware of the milestones.

Doing this visually will help communicate important information to all stakeholders.

Using and updating the roadmap

Product development can span a long time and is often a learn-as-you-go process. Although everyone tries to stick to the roadmap, unforeseeable conditions may occur that require a modification to the plan.

Consumer preferences or the competitive picture may have changed, making adjustments necessary. You could also learn important information that impacts the project or run into a roadblock, which may change timeframes. Checking the validity of the roadmap and updating it as needed should be an ongoing exercise.

Best practices for creating an effective product roadmap

Here are some best practices to keep in mind when you’re creating your roadmap:

  • Stay connected to stakeholders at all levels throughout the process to ensure everyone is aligned with the same goals.

  • Include only as much detail as necessary for the appropriate audience.

  • Review roadmaps regularly and frequently to adjust plans as needed.

  • If you need to adjust the roadmap, communicate the changes to all stakeholders so that downstream plans can be modified.

What comes after a product roadmap?

Once your product roadmap is complete, individual product teams can create work plans, such as Agile/sprint roadmaps, release plans, and product backlogs that map back to the product roadmap. These tactical plans will contain more specific tasks and timelines for the team members to follow.

In summary

Now you know about the different types of product roadmaps and what a powerful tool they can be for businesses.

With the knowledge to create, present, and execute an effective roadmap, you can get your teams moving efficiently with minimal wasted resources as they proceed toward aligning with business and customer-oriented goals.

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