Arpit Rai

@arpitrai

How to Build a Product Roadmap

In my previous post, I discussed the various ways in which one can get ideas for new product features. You are likely to use Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel or a project management tool like Asana, JIRA etc. or a product management tool like Aha or RoadMunk or ProductPlan, to maintain a repository of all such ideas. Over time, this list keeps increasing and could run into hundreds. How then do you decide what to work on? Which feature should you work on now and which one later? Which feature will move the needle for you and which feature would be a distraction? And how does all this tie in to your overall product roadmap, and hence, business goals?

In this post, I will cover my strategy for building a product roadmap that is simple and effective. The product roadmap that comes out of this exercise will help you decide the order in which you should tackle the various ideas for new product features. You’ll also see how this product roadmap seamlessly ties in with your business goals so that you continue to add more value to your existing customers, add new customers to your business and maintain your market leadership through your product.

In my role at WebEngage, I maintain this repository of ideas in Google Sheets (the Excel version of Google). Although we use JIRA for project management, I find JIRA to be clunky to record a list of such items and build a product roadmap. Google Sheets is a rudimentary yet simple and effective solution to the problem of building product roadmaps.

Each idea for a new product feature occupies a single row within this Google Sheet. Therefore, this is how the Google Sheet looks like at first:

Step 1: Categorize Each Product Idea

On a weekly basis I categorize each idea in the list above into one of the four categories below:

  • Optimizations: These are ideally smaller tasks that involve solving some problem in a better way such as a UI, UX improvement or a minor functionality change. Working on these optimizations will likely help our existing customers solve something quickly or intuitively. But these optimizations will most likely not help in acquiring new customers.
  • New Features: These are brand new features we have to work on that will add value to our existing customers and also help us acquire new customers.
  • Disruptors: Disruptors are also new features with the difference that these features will leapfrog us ahead of the competition and create a lot of buzz around the product in a way that almost everyone wants to use our product. You are likely to have only a few such disruptive ideas in your list above.
  • Distractions: Distractions are ideas that should not be considered because they are likely to not benefit the existing customers in any meaningful manner, nor will they help acquire new customers.

The idea behind this categorization is to ensure that, once the prioritization is done, we should see that we’re working on a healthy mix of features across categories at any point in time. For example, in any quarter, we should be working on at least 1 Disruptor, 3 New Features and 20 to 30 Optimizations. If we were to work only on Disruptors and ignore Optimizations completely, it will likely lead to product debt and unhappy customers in a few months time.

The Google Sheets above with an added column for Category now looks like this:

Before we start with the next step, make sure you’ve ignored all the ideas you had categorized as Distractions.

Step 2: Specify a Theme for Each Product Idea

Although I’ve put this as Step 2, I tend to do this step in tandem with Step 1.

Each of your product ideas above fits into a theme. A theme can comprise multiple product ideas. Theme is a broad word that describes the problem it solves for your customer and moves a business metric for you. As an example, any of the items below could be a theme relevant to your product:

  • Build a great onboarding experience
  • Make the product faster
  • Add more integrations
  • Improve overall UX
  • Enterprise features
  • Improve analytics offering

Whenever we’re building a product roadmap, it’s easier to select themes than individual product ideas. It’s easier to discuss a theme and say We’ll build a great onboarding experience and we’ll also make the product faster, rather than discuss features and say We’ll move our technology from Adobe Flash to Web RTC or We’ll reduce the steps to integrate for a new user. Notice the difference in the language between themes and features. Theme addresses the problem it solves for your customers and is easily understood by anyone. Also notice how each of the themes above is tightly coupled with one or more of your business metrics.

Therefore, let’s now add a theme to each of our ideas in the list:

Step 3: Select Your Themes for the Quarter

Your business objectives differ from quarter to quarter. Therefore, what you work on in the product will also differ from quarter to quarter.

This then means that you have to choose a few themes to work on in a quarter based on your business objectives for that quarter. Remember that each of the themes is tightly knit with a business objective. If the business prerogative for a particular quarter is to acquire new customers with minimal marketing spend, perhaps the Product team should work on the theme Build a great onboarding experience in that quarter. This will ensure that the people who are already interested in your product (and therefore, have signed up) are also sold on the product because you’re delivering the Aha experience to them quickly where they understand the value of the product.

If you’re creating a quarterly roadmap, figure out the themes you want to work on in that quarter. Once you’ve done so, proceed with Steps 4 and 5 below for only those ideas that belong to your chosen themes.

Step 4: Score Product Ideas on Urgency, Impact, Effort

Pick only the themes that are relevant for you for that quarter and score each of the ideas in the chosen themes. This score will tell us the exact order in which we should tackle the various ideas.

I conduct this scoring exercise jointly with the founders and the engineering/success leads on a weekly basis where we score each of the ideas above on three parameters — Urgency, Impact and Effort.

Urgency

How urgent is the feature/idea for your customers (existing as well as potential)? Is the idea effective but not so urgent? Or is the idea effective and very urgent? Please don’t confuse urgency with the impact that the idea can possibly have. Perhaps an Optimization such as a small UX change that will take you less than two hours to implement is urgent as the current UX is broken that is leading to unhappy customers. Perhaps one Disruptor idea is more urgent than the other Disruptor ideas based on your view of the market and what customers want.

We score each of the ideas above on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being most urgent and 1 being least urgent.

Impact

What’s the expected impact of your idea on your customers (existing as well as potential) and on your competitive position in the market? Will the impact be so great that the new feature will help you acquire new customers? Will the impact be significant enough that your existing customers will use your product more and perhaps even upgrade their subscription? Will the impact help you move ahead of the competitors and achieve/maintain market leadership?

We score each of the ideas above on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being most impactful and 1 being least impactful.

Effort

How much development effort do you think the feature will require? Is it something that can be implemented within a day or will it require a few weeks or months of effort?

We score each of the ideas above on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 indicating a lot of effort (a month or more) and 1 being least effort (a few hours). Please note that this effort estimate is not based on any thorough technical research and is just an estimate based on the CTO’s and engineering lead’s past experience with the team.

At the end of this step, the list above looks like this:

Step 5: Calculate the Total Score for Each Product Idea

Based on the three parameters above — Urgency, Impact and Effort, we calculate the total score for each of the product ideas in the chosen themes as per the formula below:

Total Score = 100 x Urgency + 10 x Impact — 1 x Effort

We provide these exact weights to Urgency (100), Impact (10) and Effort (1) because we should always first work on ideas are the most urgent, the most impactful and that will take the least effort to implement. Or in simple terms, we should first work on ideas that are the lowest-hanging fruits. This will ensure that we create a strong impact through quick and easy wins.

As you can see in the chart above, we should always work on the High Impact, Low Effort items before we work on the rest of the items. Among all the High Impact, Low Effort items, we should work on the ones with High Urgency before we tackle the rest.

Needless to say, we ignore the Low Impact, High Effort items as they would be an unnecessary time sink with little to no impact.

Once we’ve calculated the score for each of the ideas, we then sort the list by the descending order of the Total Score. We will now see a prioritized list of items that we need to tackle in this exact order. Please remember that this prioritized list of ideas are only for those ideas that belong to the themes we had chosen for the quarter.

Also, please note that in this exercise, we have not discriminated amongst ideas based on their category — Optimizations, New Features and Disruptors. We have not prioritized New Features or Disruptors over Optimizations. In any quarter, you should ensure that you’re working on an optimal mix of ideas across various categories.

At the end of this step, our list above looks like this:

We now have a product roadmap for the quarter with our chosen themes and an exact prioritized order in which we should work on each of the ideas that belong to those themes!

By following this simple process, we’ve been able to easily build a quarterly product roadmap that’s tied very closely with our quarterly business objectives. You could extrapolate this same exercise to build a monthly product roadmap or even an annual product roadmap.

It is however important to note that the product roadmap that comes out of this process is not rigid. From time to time, you might find yourself adding ad hoc tasks to your roadmap that do not fit into any of the chosen themes. This is fine as long one doesn’t overdo it as overdoing it can lead to dilution in product focus.

Secondly, the roadmap created through this process is a living document that is always evolving based on the business priorities and objectives. You should visit this roadmap on a monthly basis or more to adjust the themes, and the urgency, impact and effort, if required.

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