Product Roadmap Best Practices

Kelly Gebo

Product roadmaps are a really powerful tool and to be truly effective, a product roadmap needs to do more than provide a laundry list of any and all features and rough, broad attempts at timing.

Here are a few best practices we’ve collected from years of working with entrepreneurs and clients building great products. We hope these tips can help founders new to outlining and managing a roadmap in not only nailing their first version product but also keeping track of their future vision.

1. Features should be backed by Customer Research, not Assumptions

Building a roadmap isn’t commonly the place to start when you have a product idea. A roadmap is most useful when it can articulate a real strategy and provide practical expectations.

Before you sink time into developing a product roadmap, make sure you understand both your product’s differentiator, your target audience and your strategy to disrupt the market. With total clarity on those points, the roadmap can be outlined as the critical elements that need to come together to deliver your value proposition to your target users.

Just as important as drafting a roadmap based on validation, a roadmap should be written with the customer in mind. Items should only be captured on the roadmap when we have proven customer impact. When we are capturing a feature, we prefer writing Job Stories over User Stories that outline the work to be done by capturing the customer’s need or goal.

2. Open, clear, & organized communication

Another essential function of the Product Roadmap is its ability to facilitate communication.

A product roadmap not only helps your internal team get on the same page, it gives investors and secondary stakeholders an overview of your trajectory. The roadmap lets everyone know the priority, strategy, and timeline at any time. It should be clear, direct, and organized using tags, milestones, owners, dependencies, and due dates.

Here is more info from our playbook that outlines how we get organized using Trello.

3. Plan small, thoughtful iterations to be tested

At thoughtbot, we suggest working through frequent, small releases of working software. We call them iterations. When planning an iteration, keep it simple. It’s easier to plan a corresponding timeline on a manageable amount of work and it allows you to test new features with users sooner.

This approach also helps you mitigate risk in making sure you are spending time and money moving in the right direction with moving forward too much. Iterations should be small steps that are confirmed & optimized with users vs. large releases that are hard to wrangle, estimate and introduce a big change to your user audience we aren’t sure they are ready for. If you are queuing up to tackle a bigger feature make sure you’ve done the upfront research and validation before moving forward with the largest investment

4. Regular cadence for review & prioritization

If Covid-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s how quickly everything can change. The world’s economy saw seismic shifts in market demand, supply chain, work flexibility, and more, all within a few months. The businesses that survived had to adapt.

The same is true for your roadmap. You should have a regular cadence for revisiting your roadmap, prioritizing and checking assumptions.

At thoughtbot, we offer an agile approach to product roadmapping. The process includes weekly iterations, regular user tests, and adding in optimizations in response to user feedback. The result is a fast and flexible product development that focuses on the right things to move the needle for your business.

5. Backlog vs. Roadmap vs. the Dreaded Icebox

As your roadmap grows, you’ll likely start to collect a great deal of items. Even as you revisit your roadmap you may start to see your backlog of ‘old’ or ‘lower priority items’ get pushed to a backlog or icebox.

Long story short - if you haven’t picked something up and you keep pushing it out, it’s likely not important. If it ends up being important down the line your customers’ feedback will highlight that. A trim, focused roadmap is also going to be a better tool than a growing list of items you may never get to.

Here is a more detailed blog post where Chad, our COO, shares his perspective on the ineffectiveness of a Product Roadmap’s Icebox.

Successful project roadmaps galvanize efforts and clarify vision.

We have dedicated teams to help at each step of your evolution. thoughtbot’s Discovery Sprint is a great way to complete the upfront validation that will inform a sound roadmap. We also have a team of experts that specialize in embedding directly with an in-house team to not only improve your product but also improve your processes, like roadmap planning, prioritization, and clean-up.

At thoughtbot, we love building great products and helping our clients figure out what will make their business successful. Contact us today to see how thoughtbot can help you.