How to build a solid product roadmap: Part 1

Recently, I’ve spent more time mentoring and managing junior PMs and the other day one posed a deceitfully simple question: how do you build a good roadmap?

At first blush, it seems like an easy question to answer. Consider what your current customer base wants, what unmet needs they still have, what your product vision is, how it aligns with company strategy, what new capabilities exist (or will exist) that you can take advantage of, what your engineering team wants to build, your sales team, your UX team, and so on.

You could answer those questions and build a roadmap. In fact, you could just stack rank a list of features you have on your to-do list, team idea wall, hack-a-thon whiteboard, or brainstorming area. That would make a roadmap. But it’s liable to be an ineffective one, and at worst, a train wreck. A roadmap should be a cohesive plan – grounded in data and beliefs – that will take the product forward in building the customer base and delivering more value.

You need a framework to get there.

One way to think about this is in terms of trends and beliefs. Beliefs come in two forms: what you fundamentally believe (read: I believe we need to deliver X) and what your customers believe (read: I need this product to do X). Trends also come in two forms. There are internal trends, which you can tease out from your usage data, statistics, and historical performance. And then there are external trends, like the fact that the usage of tablet computers is growing at X rate YoY (Brad Feld has a good post on identifying external trends here).

If you map this out, it looks like this:


The framework does not provide the answer. Rather, it serves as a forcing function to get yourself thinking about the right issues. For example, do you (your team, your company) want to put all the proverbial eggs in one quadrant (see Instagram example below)? Or are you under-representing a quadrant that you do believe to be important? If so, the framework acts as a catalyst for highlighting the trade-offs implicit in any roadmap (eg, Are we too focused on quadrant X to the detriment of quadrant Y?).

The purpose of the framework is not to advocate for a standardized pattern across the quadrants (eg, A balanced 4-quad approach is better/worse than an imbalanced 1-quad approach). Rather, the goal is to enforce clarity and alignment around the strategic bets you’re making.

The framework is also helpful for what it doesn’t specifically emphasize: what your manager wants, what your competition is doing, what other internal teams are doing, other startups, etc. Certainly all of these other sources can provide roadmap inspiration but they should only do so if they are congruent with your trends and beliefs. If your manager (board, investors, etc) are advocating a feature or project, but you don’t believe in it and your customers don’t need it, why build it?

Here are a few examples and where they fit in the framework (some are bigger than just a feature but help illustrate the concept):

Instagram: Founded as Burbn, an HTML 5 based Foursquare-esque local, social network, Instagram found success when it listened to internal data from customers which suggested all they wanted to do was share photos. (Customers beliefs + Internal trends)

Evernote for Food: Based off Evernote’s mission of being your brain’s external hard drive, Evernote for Food melded this core concept with the growing external trend of sharing food photos, moments, etc. (Your beliefs + External trends)

The iPad: Jobs held a strong belief in the importance of tablet computing despite no positive external trends (Microsoft’s tablets had failed earlier) and no customers banging down the door. (Your beliefs + Internal trends*)

Twitter’s Hashtag: Started by Twitter power user Chris Messina, the hashtag took off and was eventually “productized” and built into Twitter (Messina’s post on the evolution of the Twitter hashtag). (Customer beliefs + External trends)


*NOTE: The iPad example likely belongs in the very, very upper left quadrant where a visionary like Steve strongly believed in the opportunity and that was the sole driving force (eg, He believed in it and served as his own internal data). The x-axis of trends can be thought of as a continuum from the extremely internal (only 1 person knows it) to the external (everyone knows it).


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