A SaaS product roadmap can help companies visualize the direction, development, and progress of the product time. Roadmaps are a valuable tool for both internal and external stakeholders, providing a clear understanding of where the product is heading and what to expect from the product team.
The term “roadmap”, however, comes with its own expectations. How can you best communicate it so that there’s alignment throughout? How do you ensure it’s clear, concise, and representative of the set vision? Most importantly - do you even really need one?
Let’s answer these and more questions!
I see a lot of hate out there for roadmaps - and I completely understand why. Traditionally, roadmaps have been used to communicate the progress and timelines of projects, mostly executed in the form of a gantt chart. This made sense - iterations were slow, and software required a final product before being shipped, which meant a lot of coordination was needed.
But with the birth of SaaS products came a huge change in how teams also developed those products. We no longer have long product development cycles, and we are able to pivot and change quickly when we see a potential bump on the road. That doesn’t mean, however, that there weren’t strategic documents at hand that helped guide that development.
That strategic document is now known as a product roadmap. It is crucial for any development process, as it provides a clear vision of the product's future and aligns the entire team's efforts toward achieving a common goal.
For the product team, a product roadmap serves as a transparent and clear communication tool that keeps customers, investors, and partners informed of the product's direction. That is - what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it’s meant to benefit its users (and of course, the business). This helps to build trust and confidence, acting as a relationship-building tool for those inside and outside product.
Many product managers still work with timelines - often whether they like to or not. While this approach can be useful for tracking progress, it can also be limiting and may not be the best way to convey a product's overall direction and vision.
The reality is, timelines create unrealistic expectations. If you’re communicating specific dates and milestones you may be giving stakeholders the impression product development is a linear process, with each step being completed on schedule. As we all know, building products is an unpredictable process, with unforeseen challenges and changes that can delay progress. A timeline-based roadmap can also put pressure on your product and development teams to meet specific deadlines, even if it means compromising the quality or functionality of the product.
Timelines also make it difficult to adapt to changes in the market. Having this lack of flexibility may put you in a position where you aren’t able to take into account new opportunities or potential risks that arise, making it even harder for the product team to pivot or make changes to stay competitive.
Remember, timelines are great if you need to add focus on the details and tactics of a product, but they don’t communicate the big picture and long-term goals. If what you want to do is communicate value - a timeline is the wrong tool. If you want to communicate tactical progress, only then is it appropriate.
If you’re asking yourself - well, can’t I do both? Of course, you can! And this is why having a strategic document and a tactical document is important. Your product roadmap is for direction and value; your release plan is for execution and progress. They both tell your product’s story but from different points of view.
The thought of creating a roadmap can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. This is where you put your storyteller hat on and communicate value above everything!
Regardless of the format your roadmap takes, there are a few steps to follow to ensure it’s successful. Personally, I like to work with the Now/Next/Later format, as it provides easy readability of outcomes and goals.
Here’s how to do it:
Define your product vision: No product roadmap can be successful without a solid product vision. What problem does your product solve? What value does it provide to customers? What are your long-term goals? Who are your main competitors, and who is your intended audience? These questions will help to guide what your roadmap looks like.
Identify key initiatives: Once the product vision and goals have been defined, the next step is to identify the initiatives that may enable you to reach those goals. This is not about features, but rather high-level outcomes. These initiatives can be grouped into short-term, medium-term, and long-term time horizons (known as now, next, later.) Remember, none of these are set in stone!
Ideate on problems to solve: Now that you have your key initiatives, it’s time to focus on problems. Let’s say one of your initiatives focuses on improving the adoption of a feature - what might you be able to do in order to drive adoption? Have you already identified customer feedback to support that? This is where you work with your business-facing teams to understand the kind of problems people are having, and ideate around how you might be able to approach them given your current focus.
Organize into categories: Organize your initiatives into logical categories so that your roadmap is easy to filter and scan later. These could be themes, product areas, or high-level goals.
Add context: Make sure you include context as to why you’ve chosen those initiatives, based on the current evidence you have at hand. You don’t need to write an essay - just a one-liner that explains the potential value you see in each initiative. Make use of images, gifs, or links to provide more information where possible.
Never drop discovery: It is often easy to fall into the trap of self-confirmation bias, especially when you’ve heard about certain problems over and over again. But have you collected any evidence to prove there is an actual problem, and do you really understand what the problem is? I usually caution against writing initiatives in the form of features to avoid that. Instead, perhaps form your initiatives as questions to make sure you’re running discovery and collecting evidence to support your decisions, eg: How might we be able to approach this problem?
Creating a is not a one-time thing - it is an ongoing process that requires communication and collaboration between cross-functional teams. It's important to keep everyone informed of the product's direction (as well as progress with the use of your release plan!)
Here is how to ensure you’re keeping your team, stakeholders, and customers up to date:
Keep it simple: A roadmap should be easy to understand. Avoid using complex jargon and technical terms, instead use language that is simple and easy for everyone to understand.
Be flexible: Remember, product roadmaps are not set in stone. They should remain dynamic and adaptable to changes in the market, customer feedback, and other external factors.
Communicate regularly: Keep stakeholders up to date on progress, both on the strategic and tactical levels. Use your roadmap and release plans together, and be prepared to take in feedback and answer questions.
Make it accessible: No roadmap can exist in a silo! Make sure it is always accessible - whether through a portal, URL, or internal resource so that your team is able to reference it when having conversations with customers and leads.
Adapt for different audiences: It is absolutely acceptable to have multiple versions of your roadmap depending on who it is you’re presenting it to. You can choose to include or remove certain initiatives, levels of information, and even segment by product area if need be. Don’t be afraid to do this, particularly if it makes communicating and reading through easier. The important thing is that you have an internal version that acts as a source of truth for your company, ensuring everyone is aligned and not taken by surprise.